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Postcards from McDonald’s

2005.03.11 — Culture | Postcards | Travel | Satire | by Derek Jensen

Cincinnati Airport McDonald's mural

You deserved a break 50 years ago. (hi res) [Tysto photo]

This mural graces the wall of the 50s-style McDonald's in the C Concourse of the Cincinnati airport.

Technically it's Northwest Kentucky International Airport, but it could be called Dan'l Boone Kilt a Bar Airport and it would still be the Cincinnati airport as far as the travelers are concerned.

I've become fascinated by it, mostly because of the hours I've had to wile away waiting to order a Filet-o-Fish, hold the cheese.

Who decided cheese goes with fish? It is my considered opinion that putting rubbery, yellow, processed American cheese food on every possible edible item will be the primary legacy of American culture—not democracy, not nuclear weapons, not rock and roll. In the future—when America is no longer a superpower and the Chinese have pretty much total hegemony—people will ask for an "American burger" instead of a cheeseburger and a baked potato "American style" when they want it covered in a disgusting cheese-like topping.

What follows here is a point-by-point analysis of this seminal work of Americana. Click the pics to open a new window with a large version.


McDonald's mural

Chillin', old school.

The piece is about four feet high and ten feet wide, apparently airbrushed, altho it's some sort of print and not the original painting. The original is surely in a vault somewhere with the original Ronald McDonald costume.

At the far left, we have this vignette of chaste young love: the schoolgirl and the greaser. Will he take her for a ride? Yes. Will he feel her up? You bet. Will he get beyond second base? Not a chance. She's saving herself for Sal Mineo.

Also, she's wearing saddle shoes. God, I love saddle shoes. Come back, saddle shoes!

The arrow sign says "Drive In," which I thought only applied to open-air movie theaters. Also, 15 cents seems damn cheap for a hamburger, but that's inflation for you. I recently paid 15 dollars for a hamburger. Of course, it actually tasted good and was delivered by room service.


McDonald's mural

Oh, roller girl, won't you skate my way?

Next is a double vignette: the roller girl and the Negro family. Roller girl wears a poodle skirt and carries a car-window tray, which is odd because McDonald's never had servers, let alone servers on roller skates (the sign in the previous scene even says "SELF SERVICE SYSTEM." That's what separated McDonald's from, say, A&W Root Beer.

I remember getting served carside at A&W when I was a kid in the 70s. They didn't wear poodle skirts, tho, of course; they wore uniforms like the servers at Arnold's on Happy Days. It's sad to think I pretty much missed the era of chicks on skates delivering dogs and suds to my window.

Also, there's a bitchin' chopped and flame-jobbed 32 Ford Coupe hotrod behind her that I think would have been considered scandalous in its day.

The Negro family in the background suggests that black people have enjoyed McDonald's for generations, even in the era when they were regularly refused service there. The little kid in the yellow T-shirt has a lot to look forward to... if he doesn't die in Vietnam.


McDonald's mural

A young Lance Armstrong.

Next is a kid on a bicycle. I'm not sure what the kid is doing here. He seems to be fiddling with a backpack, altho a backpack would not be appropriate for the period. Closer inspection reveals that he's actually got a baseball mitt.

There's a bitchin' Ford hotrod behind him too. There must some kind of juvenile delinquent gear-head convention at McDonald's that day.

In the background is the retro McDonald's itself, with its one single arch. What do you think made them choose one arch at first and then change to the two-arch, giant-M design? I always imagined that the giant-M golden arches were chosen just because of the McDonald's name, but the arch itself was chosen first and then adapted to reflect the name.

That's weird.

I guess it would make some sense if McDonald's had gotten started in St. Louis, home of the Gateway Arch. But the chain actually got started, and is still headquartered, in the suburbs of Chicago.


McDonald's mural

Junior, you sit in the trunk.

Next is the vignette that got my attention to begin with. I can't figure it out. Another Negro family demonstrates the diversity embraced by McDonald's for the last, oh, at least fifteen years or so.

The black family apparently owns the white Corvette that the lady is leaning against. That's some powerful symbolism there, dear reader. A black man at the wheel of an expensive, lily-white sports car, controlling its power, steering it where he wants to go... Take that, whitey.

Of course, he's not actually behind the wheel. He appears to be talking to his son. Where does the son sit, I wonder? He's a little big for his mother's lap. And apparently all black children in the 50s dressed in yellow T-shirts.

Also, they seem to have double parked for some reason. That's going to cause trouble.


McDonald's mural

Cruisin' with cocktail waitresses.

The centerpiece of the work is a vignette I'll call: the double date, in what appears to be a Chevy Bel-Air Coupe convertible, altho it doesn't sport the Chevy badge on the front.

The girls seem a little overdressed for a trip to McDonald's. They appear to be wearing pearls and cocktail dresses, slutty sleeveless numbers that say, "Why yes, the owner does allow tipping of the dime-a-dance girls."

Also, one of the chicks is driving, which suggests that it's her car, which suggests that these are older women toying with the affections of teenage boys.

Lucky, lucky teenage boys.

Also, the blue car behind them appears to be of an early-60s vintage, several years later than the rest of the painting suggests for the period, and is also oddly parked. Is this the car of the artist's own childhood? Or a comment on the fleeting nature of fashion and design trends? Or a big fat mistake?


McDonald's mural

Maybe it's the timing chain, boys.

Last, we have a group of car guys looking over the engine of another car (including another black guy; couldn't this have been a Hispanic dude?). Maybe something is wrong with it, and they're trying to fix the problem. Or maybe the owner is showing off the new blower he's mounted under the deck. Hard to say. I think the artist is asking us to supply the rest of the story. That's what truly great artists do. Think of the open hood as Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile.

Actually, it looks like they might be in front of a service station. For you youngsters, a service station was like a gas station where you could get your car fixed as well as fill up on gasoline. Cars used to break down a lot and needed constant attention, usually in the form of motor oil and something called "fan belts."

Service stations had attendants who would actually come out to your car and pump the gas, clean your windshield, and check your fluids. Inside the station were lots of fan belts and cigarettes but no Slurpee machine.


Over all, the painting gives the impression of an idyllic time in which cars were gaining major importance in American life and black people were beginning to be treated somewhat better than dogs.

The ladies are not wearing big bouffant hair-dos, which is odd. Maybe this is the early 50s, before such things really took off. No one is wearing glasses, either, which is a surprise. A pair of cateye prescription glasses or Wayfarer sunglasses would really ground the painting in the period.

You know what else? No one is actually eating. What do you think the artist was saying by that?


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