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LESSONS IN AMERICAN HISTORY

Title: McDonald's _ The original golden arches

Theme: Travel back to 1955 when Ray Kroc opened his first McDonald's restaurant in Des Plaines, Ill., selling burgers for 15 cents.

Author: Michael Schuman

With four classic '50s cars in the parking lot and golden arches piercing its slanted roof, the McDonald's restaurant at 400 Lee Street in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines stands out on this busy thoroughfare like a giant redwood on the Illinois prairie.

At this address is the McDonald's Museum No. 1 Store, the first McDonald's opened by Ray Kroc, restored to look just as it did when the debut hamburger was served on April 15, 1955. Enter and you are frozen in a time when the American body politic liked Ike, a new music called rock 'n' roll was starting to catch on and the term "fast food" meant a swift waiter in a downtown diner. But don't expect to purchase a meal here; this McDonald's is for your eyes and ears only.

Root beer barrels sit like bookends behind the counter, glossy red and white tiles deck the walls and a taped commentary by Dick Biondi, a popular '50s disc jockey, introduces songs that graced Billboard magazine's hit list in 1955: Pledging My Love, Sincerely, The Ballad of Davy Crockett and Maybelline, to name a few. He also introduces a "new rising star, Elvis Presley."

There is a funny-looking neon mascot named Speedee with a hamburger bun for a head who holds a roadside sign boasting 15-cent hamburgers. Speedee is a rather ubiquitous fellow and appears on milkshake containers, food bags and the white hats worn by the male mannequins hard at work. Speedee was used along with the golden arches as corporate logos until he was dumped in 1962.

Speedee's 15-cent hamburger was one of only three solid food items on the sparse 1955 menu. Cheeseburgers sold for 19 cents and a bag of french fries was a dime. The most expensive item was a milkshake, all of 20 cents, and Orangeaide joined root beer as beverages for sale, although both have long since been removed from the menu. The fat, round glass globe containing simulated Orangeaide, a hallmark of '50s diners, will grab the attention of anyone over 30.

Nowhere is there any mention of Big Macs, Filet of Fish sandwiches or Egg McMuffins. Those would be introduced in the far-off future.

Attention was paid to every detail during the restoration. Manually operated appliances, like a cheese slicer and potato peeler, were found in dusty basements and storage areas of existing McDonald's restaurants. The tabs, No. 3 bags and white and yellow burger wrappers are all reprinted copies of 1955 originals. Even the storage room has been reproduced, with gallon-sized Coca Cola jugs, 100-pound potato sacks and stacks of hamburger wrappers.

And you will be hard-pressed to find a women's restroom in this McDonald's. Women weren't hired until 1968; for 13 years, working behind a McDonald's counter was a man's job.

This McMuseum is more than a showcase of 1950s decor, however. It's an emblem of the fast-food industry, a business spawned by post-war consumerism, suburban mobility and American entrepreneurial pluck that changed the way hundreds of millions of the world's citizens eat. If you think that statement leans toward hyperbole, listen to some statistics the guide will rattle off when you visit.

A quarter of all breakfasts eaten out in the United States are at McDonald's restaurants. Nearly a third of all hamburgers sold in the United States are from McDonald's. A total of 17 percent of all U.S. restaurant visits are at McDonald's. The chain is the world's largest food provider. And McDonald's will feed 15,000 athletes, coaches and officials at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta with six restaurants open 24 hours a day.

Indeed, Kroc's legacy covers the planet. Residents of more than 50 countries can take a break today at McDonald's, now the world's largest real estate owner. And that's to say nothing of Burger King, Wendy's and the many other fast-food copycats who exist thanks to the example set by McDonald's.

But in 1955, as you will hear on the tour, fast food's Big Mac himself, Ray Kroc, could have been voted least likely to become a multimillionaire. He was an anonymous 52-year-old salesman and a high school dropout making an unspectacular living selling milkshake-making machines called Multimixers. Kroc's sales were suffering as the downtown soda fountain was going the way of the dodo.

Intrigued by an order for eight Multimixers from brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald in San Bernardino, Calif., Kroc flew West _ as he later said _ "to meet my future." The brothers owned eight self-serve restaurants with no seating. Customers ate at home or in their cars.

In the burgeoning age of two-car families and people on the go, Kroc envisioned this kind of fast service as a new trend in dining, and he soon purchased the rights to franchise the brothers' restaurants. The Des Plaines eatery became his first. In 1961, he bought out the McDonalds' business for $2.7-million and the rest is hamburger history.

The Des Plaines location of Chicagoan Kroc's first McDonald's was no accident. Kroc knew that post-war Americans were restless, with more leisure time than ever before. In 1955, four-lane freeways were just a vision and Route 45 (Lee Street) was one of the most direct routes to the recreation and sightseeing of Wisconsin's lakes. By opening his franchise on this suburban street, Kroc bowed to the new phenomenon of the two-car family's mobility while helping create another: eating on the run.

In the basement by the storeroom is a small exhibit on the Neanderthal days of Kroc's fast-food empire. In his ledger, he wrote on opening day that the weather was cold and cloudy. Weather was always a factor since on inclement days people were not as willing to stand in rain waiting to order. Still, the first day's receipts were $366.12 and in July 1955, Kroc's first McDonald's grossed about $20,000.

And for a middle-aged high school dropout, this was the start of something big.

Michael Schuman is a freelance writer living in Keene, N.H.

IF YOU GO

McDonald's Museum No. 1 Store keeps the following hours: April 15 through May and September through Oct. 15 _ Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; June through August, Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., and Sunday, 1-4 p.m. Admission is free.

For information, contact McDonald's Museum No. 1 Store, 400 Lee St., Des Plaines, IL 60016; (708) 297-5022.

Other attractions in Chicago's northern suburbs include: the Chicago Botanic Garden, Lake Cook Road, Glencoe, open daily, (708) 835-5440; Kohl Children's Museum, 165 Green Bay Road, Wilmette, closed Monday, (708) 256-6056; and Six Flags Great America theme park, Grand Avenue, Gurnee, open daily in summer, weekends spring and fall, (708) 249-1776.

If your foray into the history of fast food makes you hungry, take note that a working McDonald's is across the street from the museum.

Lodging: Holiday Inn, 1450 East Touhy Ave., Des Plaines, (708) 296-8866 ($110 double weekdays, $100 double Friday and Saturday nights); La Quinta Motor Inn, 1900 Oakton St., Elk Grove Village, (708) 439-6767, ($72 to $82 double); Hampton Inn, 100 North Busse Road, Elk Grove Village, (708) 593-8600, ($63 double weekdays, $52 double Friday and Saturday nights).

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