Ever since MCA bought Universal Studios in 1958, the owners wanted Universal City to become a gathering place for the San Fernando Valley the same way Disneyland served Orange County. Albert Dorskind was the man put in charge of coming up with ideas to increase revenues through development of the property. In addition to the studio tour (his idea), he brought signature-dining experiences to Universal. The first of these was Victoria Station.
Victoria Station was a very popular chain of theme restaurants that allowed diners to sit in an old boxcar or a caboose. In early 1977, a much more elaborate version was opened adjacent to the tour entrance. Designed by Richard J. Mutter, the $3 million dollar restaurant was enormous. It measured 21,000-square-feet and could host 600 diners at a time. Guests were seated in one of four railcars from the Flying Scotsman, a high-speed train operated by British Railways between London and Edinburgh. The site plan allowed for spectacular views of the San Fernando Valley. At the center of the facility was a fifty-foot high glass dome with a ten-foot clock from the real Victoria Station in London. Access to the restaurant was an attraction in itself. Diners parked below the restaurant and boarded an electrically powered cable railway that carried fifteen people per trip up a 150-foot incline to a platform.
The next destination dining location was going to be strictly a Universal creation. Jay Stein was in charge of the studio tour and other outdoor recreational businesses owned by MCA. He was also the father of Universal Studios Florida but that is another story for another time.
Stein wanted to create a fully immersive, themed restaurant. It would be more than a dining experience. It would be participatory theater. Capitalizing on the country-western craze created by the film Urban Cowboy (1980), he asked Terry Winnick to come up with a concept. Winnick was his right hand man at the time who came up with all sorts of enhancements to the tour such as the Collapsing Bridge and Jaws. One day, while watching television, Winnick saw a commercial by Cal Worthington, the legendary Southern Californian car salesman. The light went off.
Like a theme park attraction, the restaurant had an elaborate backstory. Linked to the history of the local area, C.L. Womphopper began to sell new and used wagons on the site in 1851. That is why the restaurant became known as the Wagon Works. The 13,000 square foot facility had five different decors and nine distinct rooms. Each room was themed to reflect a different aspect of the wagon business. Schneider described one room as an “elegant private booth for our Hollywood clientele and a gilded VIP cage, representing Womphopper’s former accounting department.”
Albert Dorskind suggested that Winnick hire Lynn Paxton, an architect who specialized in themed restaurants. Gary Meyer was hired to do the concept drawings. The team worked for six-months on a design for a restaurant called Whomps. Stein changed the name to C.L. Whomphopper because he wanted it to be longer. Stein was able to get authentic time worn timbers from Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. Winnick searched the back lot for every old wagon he could find.
To bring the C.L. Whomphopper character to life, Stein hired Actor Ron Schneider (also known as the original Dreamfinder at Epcot). Stein saw him at Magic Mountain in Valencia playing a similar character to Whomphopper. Schneider described the interior as real, full-sized wagons are suspended from the ceiling in the foyer and a mammoth fan turns slowly above the main seating area.” There was an exhibition cooking area and nightly western entertainment. Disney’s Imagineers were so impressed that many of them became weekly lunch customers. It opened in 1981 and took only six months to complete. The project cost approximately $3 million. A few years later, Tony Roma’s took over the location. Now it is the Saddle Ranch.
The next restaurant to arrive on the hill was Fung Lum. The 900-seat Chinese restaurant opened in 1982. Owned by the Pang family, their Hong Kong restaurant went back four generations. The $5 million restaurant, bar, and banquet hall was designed to resemble the Imperial Palace by the architectural firm of Tracy Price Associates. At 23,000-square feet, the two-story structure would also become was one of the largest Chinese restaurants in the United States. Hardly a square inch of the restaurant was without decoration. Over $1 million was spent on interior furnishings including tiles, teak, carved paneling, carpeting, original artwork, and antiques from Hong Kong and Taipei. The restaurant was removed just this year and will become the site for a new hotel.
It was not long before themed restaurants like the Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood become all the rage. It seemed anybody with a marketable intellectual property was looking to make a buck by selling food. Marvel Entertainment was in deep financial trouble and figured what could be more appealing than a chance for diners to hang out with the likes of Spider-Man, Captain America, and the Fantastic Four? Sensing an opportunity, Marvel Entertainment, Universal Studios, and Planet Hollywood formed a partnership with the hopes of creating a chain of restaurants. The first Marvel Mania opened at Universal Studios Hollywood on February 18, 1998. A second location was under construction in Florida.
The new restaurant was retrofitted into Victoria Station. The decor was over the top Marvel with comic book panel carpets, chairs with backs cut out like word balloons, and a two-story video wall with snippets from the cartoons and character profiles. Scattered throughout the restaurant were dozens of smaller monitors. At times, the audio system would blast an “annoying crash-boom sort of sound signifying the start of a new video piece.” The colorful menu was filled with comic book artwork and cleverly named food such as Archangel Hair Pasta, Doc Ock’s Wok stir fry, and a variety of “Stanwiches,” a tribute to Stan Lee, Marvel’s founder and most famous artist.
More than just a restaurant, Marvel Mania was designed to be a complete experience. At the gift store, visitors could buy exclusive Marvel merchandise, the mini-museum showed off rare drawings and other artifacts, the game room featured machines themed to the characters plus the latest games, and a bar decorated with Marvel’s most famous villains. For many younger visitors, a visit with a Marvel super hero was a highlight.
It was not to last. The lack of quality and value of the food was frequently cited by critics. Marvel’s long-time financial struggles finally caught up with them and they went bankrupt. Planet Hollywood was also feeling the pain after a too rapid expansion and started to scale back. The restaurant was closed on September 10, 1999 and the Florida facility never opened.
Do you remember the early themed restaurants on the Universal Hollywood hill?
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