Giving permission for McDonald’s restaurants to appear in films had been part of my job description for a long time, but when producer Roger Weisberg, who I’d worked with before, approached me on this one, I had to pause. They not only wanted to film at the Museum McDonald’s in Des Plaines, IL, the recreation of Ray Kroc’s first quick service hamburgers and fries restaurant of 1955, but they wanted someone for the controversial host of the film to interview there. I knew this one would be trouble, but I was intrigued, as the host would be Andrei Codrescu, a colorful Transylvanian poet who was burning up the airwaves on National Public Radio  as a social critic of all things American. But I was a fan of his show, and his oblique sense of humor, and I knew that Roger, and hopefully Andrei, had a soft spot for McDonald’s.

The premise of his documentary film, which was being produced for commercial distribution in movie houses, at least on the arts circuit, was that Andrei, who had never before driven a car, would travel from the east coast to the west, driving a 1968 red Cadillac convertible, producing a sort of “On The Road of the 90s” film of his colorful encounters with icons of popular American culture. I volunteered to do the interview with Andrei at Ray Kroc’s 1955 McDonald’s, but told almost no one in management as I was pretty sure Andrei’s controversial take on American culture would not sit easily with the keepers of our conservative corporate culture..So I donned my paper crew hat of the era, straightened my tie and walked onto the set of my first commercial film. When the movie came out, I think in 1993 or so, Vicki and I took our young  niece and nephew with us to see it at a theatre in Evanston. We just told them it would have something to do with McDonald’s. When the McDonald’s segment came up, my niece Amanda exclaimed, “It’s uncle Chuck.” The film, Road Scholar, while winner of a prestigious Peabody Award, only attracted a limited audience, probably mostly hip college students and quirky NPR fans. Around the same time, Road Scholar was produced as a book, with the subtitle “Coast to Coast late in the century.”  Following is the McDonald’s segment from the book (click on title), in which I’m quoted from the film.

Road Scholar

The First McDonald’s ROOF of the power of dreams: Ray Kroc, one man with a single idea, a rounded idee fixe called a hamburger, began to dream an empire and, lo and behold, one day the entire planet is covered by the mighty waves of his single thought…If anybody’s going to get to heaven it’s Mr. Kroc on a ladder of billions of burgers, the number that most approached infinity. Next to rock ‘n’ roll, McDonald’s is the most enduring American creation of the second half of the twentieth century. They are chomping them down in Moscow, Beijing, Des Moines, wearing them in Poughkeepsie and Frankfort…(sing this) CHUCK, a company official, speaking of First McDonald’s (now a museum): This is the only early McDonald’s restaurant that’s been preserved exactly as it opened April 15, 1955. And these days the students who come through Hamburger University over at our McDonald’s campus nearby come over to get a little feeling for the culture. It’s really a cultural experience. It’s a chance to see, touch and feel what McDonald was like at the beginning. .Now we’ve got for you an official McDonald’s crew hat here just as was worn in the fifties. And we make you an honorary crew person. AC: (Pointing to life size replica of early McDonald’s employee) .I could look like him; he’s tall. A hamburger-deficient diet during my childhood in Transylvania must have stunted my growth. Eighty-five billion burgers sold vs. 250 million Americans equals 340 burgers per American…that works out to four extra inches per American versus your average Romanian.

CHUCK; We used to talk about hamburgers in terms of if we stack them all up it would be a stack that would reach the moon and back 16 times. But I think we have gone quite a way beyond that. So we haven’t related it to any more planets lately.

As Chuck and AC converse:, Ray Kroc’s voice is heard beyond the grave: Transfer your fears into faith. Any you will inherit the freedom of the future. And f you believe in it – and believe in it hard – it is impossible to fail.

And now there is the McLean Deluxe, a skinnier version of the Big Mac for the fat-conscious American of the end of the Millennium. McDonald’s has so penetrated out national consciousness we even have McPoems now, which are poems mass-produced  in writing workshops at universities. And McTests, McThoughts, McReactions, McFeelings, and so on.

No meat eater myself, I watch the vast fields of wheat that end up between Mr. Kroc’s buns and the immense lowing herds that lay down  their lives for Big Mac. I can see too the intense flows of these  commodities through the banks and the money markets — the rivers of commerce paralleling  the rivers of wheat and meat, like mind and body.

In the novel The Pit by Frank Norris, a madman tries to corner the wheat market. Like Napoleon he is filled with dreams of glory. Every leaf of bread on earth will be stamped with his name. Alas! The drought he prays for does not come. Instead, there is a plentiful harvest. The earth, which rarely sympathizes with the dreams of Napoleons, buries him in wheat. All his plans go awry. The peasants of Europe are starving, and the wheat he has been hoarding spills over the shores of America and feeds them. The Midwest harbors such dreams occasionally. It must be the immensity of her plains that allows imperial daydreams to roll unimpeded.

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