For a while we were in talks with MTV’s show Cribs to do an episode here in the Grand Midway Hotel. It was looking like it was going to happen because they loved the hotel, but they wanted a younger person to center the show around. It’s a teenage audience. Go figure. I was too creepy old. So without telling him, we offered up hotel resident and manservant Kyle Stankan. Kyle was still a UPJ student at this time. He kept asking us, “Why do you keep taking photographs of me?!”
For about a month we sent all these pictures of him back and forth to the MTV offices in Los Angeles as they conducted an entire casting session over Kyle without him ever knowing. That MTV Cribs‘ season filled up so they told us they’d like to post-pone the hotel’s episode into a future season.
We finally spilled the beans to Kyle what we’d been setting him up for. Hee heee.
This room was set up to be very cozy. Included is a story from American Beat artist David Amram who stayed here and enjoyed a great adventure.
(This is a photo of David Amram with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg)
Upbeat: Nine Lives of a Musical Cat
-by David Amram (Coney Island Hot Dogs chapter)
I wanted Nikoletta to see the fabled Nathan’s Coney Island in Johnstown. So I took off the only two hours free that I had in the two day marathon event in Windber, we went a few miles to eat a celebratory meal with John Cassady, at the one place I wanted to take everyone to that I felt would be a transcendental experience.
In the 1960s when my symphonic music was played in Pittsburgh, the more adventurous members of the Pittsburgh Symphony, joined by local jazz players and poets, took me on a ride to eat at Nathan’s Coney Island in Johnstown, for a 2.a.m. chow-down.
After all those years ago, I still remember feeling like I had visited Johnstown Pennsylvania’s equivalent of Mecca, the Taj Mahal or the
Vatican….one of the world’s Seven Culinary Wonders…Nathan’s Coney Island hot-dog emporium in downtown Johnstown, and I never forgot it. I could taste that grease in my sleep to this very day.
I hadn’t been there to eat in almost 40 years, but remembered the waitresses bringing 12 hot-dogs laid out on their outstretched arm, like some great late-night ballet, with hordes of hungry workers from the nearby mattress factory storming in for their night shift 2 a.m. lunch break, and some of the wild-eyed old timers who sat in a near catatonic state sipping coffee whom I was told were still suffering post-traumatic shock, from the great flood that took place many years before in Johnstown, from which they had survived but from which they never had recovered.
And like an intoxicating perfume, all the subtle variety of various burning grease aromas, intertwining with the smell of spilled beers and used coffee cups with cigarette butts ground out in the bottom of them, and old piecrusts and syrup stains caking the Formica tables, along with the pickle juice, mustard and relish scattered on the tables, chairs and floor, all combined to build up your late night/early morning appetite. No master chef or interior designer could ever construct such a temple of late-night/early-morning chow-downing.
As we drove to Johnstown for our only sightseeing moment of the festival, I told John Cassady and Jerry Cimino, the heroic owner and instigator of the Beatmobile, which he had driven all the way from California, that it was worth the 3000 mile trip just to eat a meal at Nathan’s Coney Island. I described to them how the fluorescent lights cut through a perpetual light cloud of smoke inside the cafeteria, like a drifting fog…. a haze of onions, peppers, gristle, pork, beef and chicken fats, combined with cigar, cigarette and pipe smoke, all slowly rising the ceiling, which after many decades was encased in various greases, looking like some giant Abstract-Expressionist Renaissance Sistine Chapel mural of various greases, caked there over the years, and excluding its own subtle smells, adding to the total ambiance.
When we pulled up to the landmark cafeteria, even though the place was packed, and the doorway and sidewalk outside was jammed with a crazy
assortment of Saturday-night Johnstown bon vivants in various states of intoxication, eating hot dogs, fries, hamburgers, fried onions, stale pastries and drinking beer, whiskey, soda and coffee, shouting, arguing, laughing and releasing various exploding sounds of heavy digestion, I could sense that this was a different place from the one I remembered.
I sensed that before entering to eat, that like the family farmers for whom Willy Nelson and all of us play benefits for each year at Farm Aid, and like so much of what Kerouac chronicled, Nathan’s Coney Island in Johnstown Pa. in October of 2004 is now another part of a vanishing America.
The ceiling mural of grease was still there, but the waitresses no longer delivered either the hot dogs or the Sundowners, (as you both know, the
terrifying heart-clogger cheeseburger with a greasy fried egg on top of it) on their outstretched arms to the tables.
I found out that Nathan’s Coney Island is now a regular 24 hour day/night cafeteria, although what looked and smelled like black crankcase-oil where the fries were cooked appeared to be unchanged from the 35 years ago when I last dined there, and for which I later wrote a song called “Greasy Spoon.”
I asked the oldest looking person behind the counter what happened to the waitresses serving meals with the hot dogs on their arms. “The Health Department don’t allow it no more. That’s what made them hot dogs taste so good for all them years. The bigger the waitress arm, was, the better them dogs tasted. That’s all history now. Like the coal miners in Windber. They ain’t here no more either.”
“Well, I guess that’s progress” I said.
“Tell your friends how it used to be, ’cause it ain’t that way no more, and never gonna be” said the man behind the counter. “But we still got the world’s best hot-dogs!”
After our sojourn of chomping down the quadruple bypass specials, we returned to nearby Windber, and I was asked to read the final pages of “On the Road,” to end the festival, to be filmed and then intercut with the old video of Jack reading the same passages with Steve Allen playing the piano from the 1958 telecast. There were people of all ages who attended this event, and it was a heartwarming two days, seeing how much young people love this great book, and the spirit it conveys.
(Photo of David Amram reuniting with cinematographer and old friend Baird Bryant after fifty years outside the Grand Midway Hotel. Bryant shot the LSD graveyard footage sequence in the 1969 movie Easy Rider. Later, David wrote about his adventure to the Grand Midway, Windber, and Coney Island as an entire chapter in his new book, Upbeat: Nine Lives of a Musical Cat. Johnstown Magazine did an article about this as well.)
(David Amram performing with Percy Heath and Dizzy Gillespie at the Thelonious Monk Tribute, Constitution Hall, Washington, DC)
David Amram, composer, jazz artist, conductor, and world music pioneer, performed here at the Midway for one legendary night! Amram was described by the Boston Globe as “the Renaissance man of American music.” It was a fantastic Friday night show, and continued into a part two for Saturday night. People came out of the woodwork to travel to Windber to see Amram play. He’d written a song about Johnstown’s Coney Island Hot Dogs back in 1950s, called Greasy Spoon. So after his show he had us take him there for a post-midnight hot dog adventure down beatnik memory lane. He wrote a story about it.
The Grand Midway has a long history in the tradition of jazz. The Timko family, the previous owners, boasted band leader Laddie Timko. There are stories of jazz giants coming out here to jam with him. Continuing with the tradition, we have had several Jazz Nights here in the hotel bar. Musicians like Ian Gordon, Christiane Leach, Ken Foley, Larry McGibonay, Howie Alexander, Phat Man Dee, Jim Donovan of Rusted Root, among others, have come in to the Grand Midway to offer wonderful shows.