Minnie Ortner, who with her husband, Harvey, founded Harvey’s Broiler, the landmark 1950s Downey drive-in restaurant and coffee shop that became a Southern California car-culture magnet and later was renamed Johnie’s Broiler, has died. She was 97.
Ortner died of complications of pneumonia Sept. 25 at her home in Hacienda Heights, said her nephew, Tom Carter.
When Harvey and Minnie Ortner purchased a poultry farm at the corner of Firestone Boulevard and Old River School Road in Downey in the 1950s, they had no intention of raising chickens.
“They bought the chicken farm because Harvey foresaw that it would be the best location for a restaurant you can imagine,” Carter said. “Firestone Boulevard takes a very significant, sharp turn there at that location.
“Harvey envisioned ‘Harvey’s Broiler’ in red script that would be visible for a mile in either direction at night, and it was. It looked as though the road dead-ended right at the restaurant because it was such a sharp turn there: It looked like the only thing you could do is drive in.”
And drive in they did, reportedly as many as 5,000 cars each weekend night during the early 1960s heyday of the restaurant, which opened in 1958.
“They were backed up a block long trying to get into the Broiler,” Carter said. “There was every kind of roadster, classic and exotic car. It was the most amazing sight you ever saw; it was a parade of the best of the best.”
Writer Tom Wolfe immortalized the Ortners’ popular drive-in restaurant in a mid-'60s Sunday magazine piece for the New York World Journal Tribune:
“They cruise around in their cars in Harvey’s huge parking lot, boys and girls, showing each other the latest in fashions, in cars, hairdos (male and female) and clothes in the Los Angeles Teenage . . . and Second-Generation Teenage . . . modes, Teenage Paris! Harvey’s Drive-in!”
The rolling car show created such a traffic problem, Carter said, that the city of Downey persuaded the Ortners to reduce the hours of the drive-in portion of Harvey’s Broiler from a 4 a.m. closing time to 2 a.m.
Harvey and Minnie were partners in running the brightly lighted restaurant, designed in the space-age Googie architectural style and featuring a glass-and-stone facade.
“They were like a tag team,” Carter said. “The restaurant ran 24/7, and often one would take one shift and one would take the other. They had two other managers, but whenever they were needed or something happened, one was at the restaurant all the time. I mean, that was their life.”
Minnie managed the front end of the operation, which included training the waitresses, working the cash register and serving as hostess.
“She was like everyone’s aunt and grandmother,” Carter said. “She had lots of regulars that came there almost every day to eat, and Minnie would greet them.
“She had a crackly voice, kind of like Mae West. She’d say, ‘So happy to see ya. Your Aunt Minnie’s been missin’ ya.’ Another one of her favorite sayings was ‘I been thinkin’ about ya, honey. I’m so glad you came to see me.’ And people just loved Minnie.
“Harvey might have been the brains, but Minnie was the soul of the business.”
Born in Oklahoma City on Nov. 30, 1909, Ortner attended Southwestern Junior College (it later became Southwestern Adventist University) in Keene, Texas.
She and Harvey were married shortly thereafter, and they settled in Oklahoma City before moving to Kansas City, Mo., where Harvey worked as a manager at a Ford Motor Co. plant.
In 1934, the Ortners moved to Lynwood. Harvey was working as a manager at a General Motors plant, where Minnie was a checker in the cafeteria, when he and some partners began operating a Clock restaurant around 1950.
They were operating three of the restaurants by the mid-'50s when Harvey, feeling they were expanding too fast, asked his partners to buy him out, Carter said.
With that money, Harvey and Minnie bought the chicken farm and built Harvey’s Broiler.
Because of Harvey’s health problems in the mid-'60s, the Ortners sold Harvey’s Broiler to Christos Smyrniotis.
But after the sale, both Harvey and Minnie continued to show up and voluntarily offer their services at the restaurant, which was renamed Johnie’s Broiler.
“That was their life,” Carter said. “They couldn’t walk away from that business.”
After Harvey died in 1991, Minnie became even more of a part-time fixture at Johnie’s Broiler and was there until the restaurant closed in late 2001.
“We all treated her with love and respect,” Smyrniotis said. “She was a wonderful lady. The same thing with Harvey.”
After Johnie’s Broiler closed, a used-car dealership moved onto the property the following year.
A grass-roots campaign by preservationists and Broiler fans to have the property included in the state Register of Historic Places was unanimously approved by the state Historic Resources Board in late 2002. But, according to a Times story, Smyrniotis objected to the property’s being included on the list, on what he told the commission were economic grounds.
Last January, preservationists were shocked to learn that much of the iconic restaurant structure had been illegally demolished by bulldozers before police halted the demolition.
The Downey city prosecutor filed a criminal case against the site’s tenant, who has been charged with conducting a demolition without a permit, among other things.
A jury trial is scheduled to begin Tuesday.
In addition to her nephew, Ortner is survived by three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.