Red's Giant Hamburg
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The red-haired Sheldon "Red" Chaney (May 20, 1916 – June 2, 1997) arrived in Springfield after World War II with a bride and a new college business degree. He purchased a small gas station with several wooden, motor court cabins tucked among trees on the back of the property. Eventually, a café was added in 1947. Growing weary of pumping gas and operating the motor court, the couple decided a better money-maker would be a restaurant. Since they owned a small herd of beef cattle (and would continue to raise their own beef until the close of the business), they decided to concentrate on hamburgers.
The business's name was supposed to be 'Red's Giant Hamburger', but Chaney mis-measured the special-ordered "T"-shaped sign. Springfield, Missouri's electric utility lines were already draped across the portion of their real estate that faced the roadway. The costly and dangerous lines had been installed very low and the city refused to raise them. So, with his newly purchased sign too tall to fit in front of his place, (as Cheney himself explained it), he simply "had the bottom of the metal sign cut off!" Thus he removed the 'er' in the word 'hamburger' and accidentally created 'a business legend'.[attribution needed]
The menu included all kinds of trimmings available on burgers with titles to match the meat patty sizes: Sooper; Senior; Medium; and Junior. The hamburgs were offered along with the choice of a bowl filled with brown beans or an order of shoestring crinkle cut french fries or a bag of chips. He also made his own root beer, which was kept in a barrel and deemed the favorite drink of the majority of the customers. The commercial soda pop dispenser had 'a magnet' added to the side as he believed this magically enhanced the flavor of the mass-produced drinks.
A 1955, a faded purple and white two-tone Buick sedan was parked directly in front of the entry. A hole through the auto's roof contained a long pipe which had another bar welded perpendicular at the crest. Affixed to each end of the bar was about a two foot long wire with a suspended bleach bottle encased in a wad of tinfoil. Within the old car was a washing machine motor which, when activated, made the long pipe twist back and forth causing the shiny, foil balls to whip around like a Space Age themed, homemade mobile. Red believed this odd creation caught the eyes of passersby and got them to stop and dine. It did and they did.
After several years of observing and analyzing customers, Red Chaney concluded travelers would enjoy the convenience of making purchases without leaving their vehicles. A small window would be the easy service area. He cut out the opening on the west side of the building and the genesis of all future 'drive-through restaurants' was created. Occasionally cars would back up in a long line so Red added a mike and speaker on a pole at the side driveway; when more vehicles would arrive, the fleet-footed man would go running out the restaurant's screen door with a pencil over his ear and scratch pad, racing from car-to-car collecting orders. (Red did not want anyone to believe they were slow and he did not want to lose the business.) He would scurry back inside and deliver the orders, then quickly serve the other awaiting food orders to the tables. Behind saloon-like swinging doors, his wife - Miss Julia - was the cook in the back kitchen. The entire business was a two-person operation. Red rarely put his funds inside the cash register. Business was brisk and the orderly placement of bills was too time-consuming. The paper money would simply pile up and he would rifle through the several-inch-thick heap to get the correct change. Safety was not a worry as the place was simply too full of customers for anyone to cause trouble.
His interior decor ideas were all original. The walls were painted in out-of-doors hues or as the delightful, childlike man described it, 'picnic colors.' The ceiling was white like clouds – the walls were a sky-blue, a band of green, representing grass, graced the wainscot area of the walls and the floor was painted chocolate brown to imitate the soil from a picnic setting. Red Chaney believed people would find this a happy, inviting atmosphere and compare it to the joy of picnic dining. Occasionally 'extra decorative touches' would appear like gaudy, tissue-paper flowers from Mexico sprouting in corners. One special enhancement included a huge paper bee hanging from the ceiling's corner, while diagonal across the restaurant, a plastic squeeze-bottle of 'Sue Bee Honey' was suspended from the other corner. Red explained (since he had developed this decorative 'outdoor atmosphere,') the bee was flying across to get the honey!
He designed, created and used (for a period of time) old-fashioned, red, push-button Coleman coolers on each table. He cleverly added short, welded-on-legs to each water-filled container. A convenient stack of tiny, paper Lily cups (a locally manufactured product) was on each tabletop. The wee cups could easily be tucked beneath the cooler's faucet. This provided the customers a self-service of cold water at each table as they awaited their order being taken and delivered. It was innovative and time efficient and purely a 'Red Chaney idea.'
Countless other features drew attention to the restaurant but mostly, it was the owner himself that became the greatest attraction. Dancing while taking the orders, Red Cheney would often Jitterbug with a pretty girl, do a delightful one-man performance of the Twist or twirl Miss Julia around the crowded cafe until she would throw up her hands, rushing to flip the sizzling burgers. Loud laughter and fast-paced music were the prominent, alluring sounds echoing through the screendoor. There was no question why the Chaneys were successful, admired and beloved in the community. The apron-wearing Miss Julia rarely strayed from her area, appearing framed in the kitchen's doorway with folded arms at the swinging-doors and smiling across to familiar faces or taking part in a sudden, whimsical floor-show. One memorable endearment was saved just for special people. Red would 'personalize your order' in his own unique way. He would show his affection for his favorite customers by writing their name in a thin line of squeezed-out mustard across the beef patty of their open-faced hamburger.
When Mr and Mrs Chaney retired in 1984, customers stood for hours in a long line weaving down the old Route 66 roadway. The restaurant's food supply was empty by mid-afternoon and the doors were locked with the final crowd inside to share their last fun meal / visit with the twosome and try to memorize the historic ending. Long-time customers were given a crockery plate from the business with Red's autograph scribbled in felt-tip pen across the rim. Eventually, the city of Springfield demanded the removal of the old, boarded-up building. The motor court had long ago been demolished (that area had been used as a park 'n eat location for customers who wished to munch lunch in their vehicles). The main building was bulldozed shortly before Chaney's own death on June 2, 1997. His widow and business partner, Julia Chaney, died on May 19, 2006.
In 2013, a fundraising campaign was established to recreate the Red's Giant Hamburg sign. It will become a focal point in a larger Springfield, Mo. project to establish a Route 66-themed roadside park. The site is located within the city limits in a section of town called the West Meadows area (on College Street east of Fort Avenue).
A film about Red's Giant Hamburg was made by Missouri State art students in the early 1970s but its whereabouts are unknown. Springfield rock and roll band The Morells filmed their tribute song "Red's" at the restaurant location in 1982. It was produced by Kevin Hudnell (see links below). Another film, envisioned in April 2010, to be called Two Missing Letters: The Red Chaney Story, is in pre-production.
- Obituary, (Springfield, Mo.) News-Leader, May 23, 2006
- http://ozarksfirst.com/fulltext/?nxd_id=803722 downloaded 2013-05-08
Multiple interviews with Red Cheney by Audrey Burtrum-Stanley
- Red's Giant Hamburg in Curtis, C.H. Skip, Birthplace of Route 66 - Springfield, Mo
- "Red's Giant Hamburg sizzled with food, fun, heart", Overstreet, Sarah, in (Springfield, MO) News-Leader, May 27, 2006
- The Morells video filmed at Reds circa 1982
- Red's, the First Drive-thru
- Recreating the Red's Sign on Springfield's Route 66
- Join the campaign to save the Red's sign