Cafe Puts Out the Bienvenue Mat

Times Staff Writer

The "Mad Hatter," a regular at the Bagdad Cafe, is hanging out at the worn Formica counter talking about his latest creation -- a hand-knitted Easter bonnet. River Bottom Dan, the cook at this funky desert diner off Route 66, is taking orders for Jack Palance burgers and T-bone steaks. General Bob, the resident eccentric, is slumped in a vinyl chair, his face red with rage as he yells at a visitor who has questioned Bob's claim that he designed the Pentagon.

After a couple of tough years, things are getting back to normal at this weather-beaten greasy spoon.

And the French are back. The Germans too. They mostly drive in two or three at a time. Occasionally they pour out of tour buses, wide-eyed and excited to be stepping onto the site of the 1988 movie "Bagdad Cafe," a film with the kind of following in Europe that "Easy Rider" and "American Graffiti" have in the U.S.

"I've had people come in and cry and say, 'Oh, I can't believe I'm in the Bagdad Cafe,' " said Andree Pruett, who bought the wood-shingled joint on a whim eight years ago.

Just a couple of years back, the 60-seat cafe was as desolate as the wind-whipped Mojave Desert that surrounds it in Newberry Springs, a speck of a town east of Barstow. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001, Europeans had been staying away, depriving Pruett of more than half her clientele and nearly forcing her to close the place. But as the foreign tourists return, apparently feeling more secure about traveling to the U.S., the cafe is coming back to life like a spring wildflower.

On a recent weekday, at the faux wood table in the corner next to the front window, a Long Beach family en route to Albuquerque pored over one of 12 guest books crammed with messages, mostly in French: "Vive Le USA." "Bagdad Cafe, c'est inoubliable" (Bagdad Cafe is unforgettable).

At the next table, J. Louis and Simone Lichtenauer, a middle-age couple from northern France who were driving the length of the old Route 66 -- Chicago to Los Angeles -- ordered cold cuts and talked about countless viewings of "Bagdad Cafe" on videotape. "We remember every scene," Louis said proudly.

Since the movie was filmed, he said, the cafe hasn't changed much.

Behind the counter, below the antiquated milkshake machine, are two faded Betty Crocker cookbooks. On the wall behind the cash register is a painting of John Wayne and a small sign that reads: "If you're running a little behind, perhaps you're not getting your little behind running soon enough."

A few posters and photos are the only mementos from the offbeat movie, which starred Marianne Saegebrecht, CCH Pounder and Jack Palance. The art film won good reviews in the U.S., though without a huge box-office splash. But the story of the diner turned upside down by a feisty German woman was huge in Europe, and won awards in France and Germany.

When writer-director Percy Adlon chose the spot for his film, the diner was called the Sidewinder Cafe. It had struggled, closed a few years, reopened and changed hands several times.

Adlon took its cinematic name from a tiny, mostly abandoned railroad town called Bagdad, about 35 miles east. California historians say railroad officials in 1883 named the town for what is now the Iraqi capital, which has similar terrain and climate, but left off the H.

The town's hub of entertainment was the original Bagdad Cafe, a boisterous watering hole with a dance floor and a jukebox. But the place faded when Interstate 40 opened in 1972 several miles to the north, taking most of the traffic -- and tourists -- away from Route 66, now known as the National Trails Highway. Today, all that is left of Bagdad are a few half-buried foundations, some unmarked gravesites and a railroad sign.

In 1995, Pruett and her husband, Harold, a developer, stopped at the Sidewinder after scouting a 640-acre desert location where they planned an ostrich ranch. The diner's owner said she was looking for a buyer.

Harold's eyes brightened. "My husband looked at me and I said, 'Don't even think about it,' " Andree recalled. But the couple's son, actor Harold P. Pruett II, pronounced the idea "cool," and the decision was made.

The Pruetts renamed the diner and its offerings. The Jack Palance burger comes with bacon. The Mariana is a double burger named for the hefty Saegebrecht. The Bagdad Omelet has chopped ham, cheese, peppers and mushrooms.

According to Andree, the diner was never meant to be a moneymaker. It was more like a hobby. "It's a fun place," she said.

The ostrich farm didn't work out; the Pruetts became so attached to the long-necked, bug-eyed birds that Andree still keeps nine as pets. But the cafe is listed in several European guidebooks and included on a few tour companies' itineraries. A busload of generous tourists can bring the place as much as $700 in a single afternoon, Pruett said.

On its slowest days, right after the 2001 terrorist strikes, the take was as little as $40 a day. Pruett's fortunes went from bad to worse when her son died of an accidental drug overdose in 2002, followed by the death of her husband.

The cafe has not completely recovered from its slump, but Pruett sees signs that it will survive. In the last two weeks or so, she said, four crammed tour buses have pulled into the gravel parking lot.

Yvonnig Gauauv, a French native who lives in Newport Beach, and two countrymen, Goulven Guinel and Charles Le Moigno, were taking photos there earlier this week during a road trip from Los Angeles to the Grand Canyon.

The three young men also joined a Bagdad Cafe tradition: They signed a scrawl-covered map of France that hangs on the wall near the front door.

Meanwhile, "River Bottom" Dan Neihaus, who lives in a trailer on a riverbed, was jotting orders on a pad, scurrying back into the kitchen and popping out again, balancing plates of hamburgers, tuna melts and grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wandering from table to table, checking in with the other regulars and greeting the tourists was Bob "The General" Gray, a pear-shaped man with suspenders and a shock of white hair. He says he's 104. When a visitor asked what branch of the military made him a general, he shouted, "All the branches!"

Gray's decibel level drew a reprimand from Neihaus: "Settle down, Bob!"

Winking at a visitor who had met "The General" for the first time, Neihaus said: "Don't believe half of what these old-timers tell you."

Don "The Mad Hatter" Keniston, 74, a retired inventor and designer, had rumbled to the cafe in a beat-up white pickup covered with bumper stickers advertising the place. The tall, bearded regular likes to hang out at the diner, chatting with customers and showing off the hats he knits.

"It is the only place in town that has anything special," Keniston said, leaning against the counter.

He conceded that there are few other places to go in Newberry Springs, population 4,000. "You've got a bar, a senior center, the American Legion hall and this place, and that's it," he said with a shrug. "Still, I like it."

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