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From Movies to Hamburgers

Vintage Movie Theater Projector and Seats

Vintage movie theater projector and seats. Image by Djidjiabla [CC by-SA 4.0].

In the late 1920s, brothers Richard “Dick” and Maurice McDonald moved from their family home in New Hampshire to Hollywood. After seeing their father laid-off by the shoe-manufacturer for which he worked for more than four decades, they saw how easily a lifetime of hard work could so easily leave them with nothing. Determined not to let that happen to them, the brothers decided to follow their dreams and head west to make their fortune in directing and producing motion pictures.

The McDonald brothers arrived in Hollywood with nothing but their high school diplomas, but landed work in a movie studio doing set moving and handyman work. A few years of that, though, made it clear that they were not likely going to win the opportunity to make movies for the studios. This did not discourage them, however, from trying to make money in some part of the movie business. In 1930, with whatever money they had scraped together, they purchased a 750-seat movie theater 20 miles outside Los Angeles in Glendora on Foothill Boulevard (south side of Foothill Boulevard, just west of Glendora Avenue). They optimistically renamed the theater “Beacon Theatre”* and added a snack bar.

The timing for the McDonald brothers was terrible. When they had opened the theater, the Great Depression was in full swing and not kind to the brothers’ movie theater venture. Newsreels, double features and snack bar sales fell short of paying the bills. The only business that seemed to thrive was a Glendora orange juice and food stand named Wiley’s (opened in 1937 at Grand Avenue and Route 66). The brothers noticed that kids seemed to always have enough money for hamburgers and soda. This inspired them to enter the food business, so, in 1937, they sold the theater and first opened an orange juice stand named “the Wigwam” on Foothill Boulevard in Arcadia and then, soon thereafter, opened a hot dog and orange juice stand (later adding hamburgers) in Monrovia on Route 66 (Huntington Drive) near the Monrovia Airport. This stand, named “The Airdrome,” capitalized on the streams of spectators visiting the airfield to watch the fast emerging world of aviation and the occasional movie shoot there. The Monrovia stand proved successful but the brothers saw the future in appealing to people in the increasing number of motor vehicles. This led them to physically move their stand in 1940 from Monrovia about 40 miles east to San Bernardino, a growing transportation hub. There they reopened and renamed their stand “McDonald’s.” The rest is history.

Vintage McDonald's Sign in Downey, California

Vintage sign at the oldest operating McDonald's restaurant in Downey, California. Los Angeles Almanac Photo.

* After being sold by the McDonald brothers in 1937, the theater was renamed "Mission Theatre." It then exchanged hands a number of times before being demolished in 1968.