NOTHING FINER THAN A DINER
By DAVID DALEY
The Hartford Courant
May 30, 2000
Sometimes the best way to get to know someone is to talk to them about their obsessions. And even the most casual reader of Bill Griffith's delightfully mondo bizarre comic "Zippy" knows, Griffith loves diners. If Zippy and Griffy aren't in a laundromat, they're probably in a diner. They're seated along a gleaming silver counter, with steaming cups of coffee, plates of pastries and short-order specials. Now that Griffith has moved back to the East Coast after almost 30 years in San Francisco - where there aren't enough people willing to forgo lettuce and avocados to keep diners alive - his obsession has been reborn with a vengeance. The Long Island native and longtime aficionado of diner culture finally feels back at home.

When Griffith isn't home drawing in East Haddam, he's apt to be found at O'Rourke's in Middletown, or the Old Saybrook Diner, listening for scraps of conversation and taking pictures that he can draw off for ideas later.

One popular Hartford locale featured in "Zippy" of late is the old Oasis diner on Farmington Avenue. Griffith never got to eat there or even go inside, as the Oasis closed last summer, just before he arrived. He was only able to photograph the outside. But when the Oasis reopened recently as the Hog River Grille, it seemed the perfect opportunity to talk both about diner culture and the upcoming TV version of Zippy. "I grew up in Long Island, and visiting friends in New Jersey and Massachusetts, and all these states just have beautiful diners, one after the other. I just took it for granted," Griffith said between bites of an avocado-free health salad. "But California is not diner country. San Francisco has one actual diner and one fake nostalgia diner. Even modern diners I kind of like. "Diners are where I had my first dates. They're where we went after school dances. Diner culture is ingrained deep in my Long Island suburban blood. Just like I missed the changing of the seasons living in California for 28 years, I didn't realize how much I missed diners and the whole feeling of diners. California is the new world and this is the old world. In the old world, they have diners.

"I like the whole idea of a diner. It's the opposite of fast food. It's a place where real people come and sit down, take it easy, have conversations. If you're a stranger, you can go into a diner in any town, eavesdrop on conversations. The waitress will be nice. She's always named Shirley. She has an ankle bracelet. You go to the Taco Bell and you get a corporate experience."

The physical beauty of diners is part of the diner experience he appreciates. And sitting in the Hog River Grille, though it's his first time inside, Griffith is immediately drawn to the little details that date back decades. "This is such a beauty. It's also very rare," he said. "It's a double-wide." "I can't tell the brand for sure, but I think it's a Pullman. Most people who bought diners in the '40s or '50s couldn't afford this. It's too big. That's why most big diners are modern '80s vintage. They must have been very popular with the insurance companies down the street to be this big. "Notice how the stainless steel backing in front of the kitchen has that funnel-fan shape that you see in every diner. My theory on that is when the grease hits the wall, it's funneled down to the point at the bottom so it can be more easily cleaned. You see it a lot behind hotplates and behind the grill, just kind of a functional thing that became very decorative.

"Now the booths, these fixtures, that pink and gray paint - that's all been redone many times. It's rare to see original booths. O'Rourke's has original wooden booths. They're uncommon. They're aesthetically pleasing but not derriere pleasing."

O'Rourke's has become a regular breakfast stop. And an '80s modern diner in Saybrook is a frequent Wednesday afternoon haunt for Griffith and friends.

"Brian, the guy who runs O'Rourke's, is a cook specializing in Irish cuisine, so breakfast is unbelievable. You never saw so many different kinds of oatmeal and Irish bread. The Saybrook character doesn't have the strong character of O'Rourke's, but it's a diner. Then there's the Olympia Diner on the Berlin Turnpike. That must be the world's largest diner sign. Those letters have to be 6 or 7 feet high!"

Griffith drives across Westchester County parkways, through Worcester, and around Providence searching out diners to photograph. There's a story for each one. There's the Salvadoran diner in White Plains, N.Y., where he accidentally ruined the Sunday lunch crowd with his camera, because patrons thought he might be an immigration agent. There are the diners that always seemed to close in early afternoon when he'd arrive, so Griffith printed up business cards claiming to be a location scout that he'd use to bluff his way inside.

Those background shots never did make it into a Spielberg movie. But they can be seen in the brand new collection of Zippy strips in stores now ("Zippy Annual," Fantagraphics Books). There's an entire section of the book devoted to strips that take place in diners, complete with an index in the back describing the diners' names and locations. All this location scouting has helped Griffith create his own diner for the Zippy TV show that's scheduled to run next year. He's heading back to California for the summer to begin the arduous eight-month task of animating three shows that will make up a pilot. The show's set in Los Angeles - Griffith couldn't imagine anyplace Zippy would rather live than the seedier parts of Hollywood Boulevard, except next to Mann's Chinese Theater and the Frederick's of Hollywood - is going to be a combination diner/laundromat called the Nosh-and-Wash.

Actually, Griffith is thrilled that Zippy will now have his own show (he can't name the network yet, but cable's a fair guess), after a run of false starts spanning parts of four decades, and countless "animation renaissances" that made millionaires out of friends like Matt Groening and Mike Judge. Judge, who created "Beavis and Butt-head" and "King of the Hill," is an unofficial adviser to the Zippy show and will do one of the voices. His stories about the big names and big studios that flirted with the idea of doing a Zippy show, either live action or animated, are surreal and hysterical. There was the call from New York at 4 a.m. one day, from a producer who said he had the money to make the movie and a star all lined up. All Griffith had to do was say yes. Who might the star be? Abbie Hoffman. One problem: "Well, Hoffman was in hiding at the time. He was going to make his comeback with this movie." Griffith politely passed.

Then the call came from Michael Nesmith's production company. The former Monkee wanted to make Zippy. "He had a big sign over the wall behind his desk, a big circle with a slash through it that said `No Monkees jokes.' He was a very surreal character. He would speak only in metaphors: sports and military metaphors. His final parting words of advice to me were: `Time to submerge, but never lose sight of the doughnut.' I knew what he meant. Sort of.

After the Monkee came the former Beatle. "We had a meeting with George Harrison's production company. The head of it was an accountant, literally, and he flew up to San Francisco to meet us. We get into the meeting and he says, `So this Zippy. I'm a little worried about the muumuu.' The dress, he called it. `Does he have to wear that? Because I'm thinking jeans and a tank top. Same personality, but jeans and a T-shirt.' I just sort of stuttered."

And learned his lesson. When Disney asked Griffith to pitch a movie, he knew enough to send his business staff instead. "The suits behind the desk had the script in front of them. We asked what they thought of it, and they said, `No problem. Let's put that aside. We're thinking about the theme park. We're thinking about the Zippy ride. We're thinking about Zippy greeting visitors at Disney World.'"

There was, of course, a catch.

"The stubble. Can we lose the stubble? The stubble might frighten children and families," the Disney execs explained. That the very idea of a Zippy theme-park ride was subversive enough didn't seem to strike them. "That was not a problem. It was just the stubble. They didn't get that the whole concept would frighten children and families."

Now that something's actually happening, Griffith is keeping close control over the final project. Even if that means sacrificing his rekindled diner obsession for a summer in Los Angeles. He already wishes the Nosh-and-Wash really existed.

"If only that were true," he said. "If I could live in the L.A. of the drawings I made, I could be very happy." And with that he's off, off to his car for his camera, then a few more photographs of the Oasis, this time on the inside.


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