clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Penn Jillette’s Big Dumb American Crush on Howard Johnson’s

Welcome to Life in Chains, Eater's regular series where writers share the essential roles played in their lives by chain restaurants—great and grim, wonderful and terrible. Here, the magician, comedian, taller half of Penn & Teller, and general polymath Penn Jillette on the turquoise and orange paradise of Howard Johnson's.


hen I was thirteen years old I called a radio station with the knowledge that John Glenn was the first American to orbit Earth, and I won tickets to see the premiere of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I called back to beg the radio station to let me buy an extra ticket to be able to bring both my Mom and Dad to the show. I thought at the time that I had won tickets to a world film premiere in Springfield, Massachusetts, but I just now realized I'd only won tickets to the Springfield, Massachusetts local radio-station promotional premiere. Stanley Kubrick wasn't there.

But Howard Johnson was there. That movie pioneered product placement, and featured the goofy blue building with the orange roof, reassuring us that even in the future Howard Johnson's would be everywhere we would travel in time and space. Howard Johnson's wasn't just regional Massachusetts. It wasn't just Earth. It was part of the ultimate trip.

Howard Johnson's wasn't just regional Massachusetts. It wasn't just Earth. It was part of the ultimate trip.

My family were New Englanders, so it took us a while to forgive Howard Johnson for having clam strips instead of whole belly clams. The Jillettes like dirt and stomachs in our bivalve mollusks, and we weren't thrilled with the deep fried rubber bands, but hey, one night of the week we got all we could eat!

The best rock-and-roll band in the world, NRBQ — the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet — had a song called "Howard Johnson's Got his HoJo Working." A great boogie song that included prices on a grilled cheese and a order of fries at Howard Johnson. Frank Zappa and the Mothers, on Just Another Band From L.A., sang the musical question, "There's a Howard Johnson's, wanna eat some clams?" When our little family drove across the country, we didn't stop at local places, no mom-and-pops for us, we stopped at Howard Johnson's.  We knew what we'd be getting and we felt secure the restrooms would be clean. Around the Summer of Love, a family could drive across the country, eat in nothing but Howard Johnson's, and never go hungry. Howard Johnson's was America, from Hollywood to hippie music and everywhere in between.

My junior year of high school, I had hair down my back and it was time to get a job. Not many places in Greenfield, Massachusetts (an hour north of Springfield, where the world radio Springfield promo premiere of 2001 was), would hire a dirty hippie. Mr. Borofsky owned the Greenfield Howard Johnson's, and he let hippies work there as long as they would endure what he considered to be the humiliation of the hairnet. I wore jeans that were ripped so my ass hung out — a hairnet didn't embarrass me. I wasn't allowed to be a server or even a bus person, because the boss didn't want the customers to see me waving my freak flag high, but I could be a dishwasher, and I loved that job a lot. I might have enjoyed that HoJo's job as much as I like the job I have now, and I have the best job now.

Mr. Borofsky's daughter was my age and in my high school and she wore skirts that were so short that I didn't have to wait for dropped pencils. I thought about her a lot while I unloaded her dad's industrial dishwasher. I was the best dishwasher that Mr. Borofsky had. I was already a juggler at that time, and I considered loading and unloading the conveyer belt full of dishes by myself — what was supposed to be a two-person job — to be a juggling trick that I would master. I nailed it. If anyone had ever watched me, they would have been impressed. It was more complicated, faster, and more precise than any trick I do in the Penn & Teller Show. I had the longest hair of all the dishwashers, but I did no drugs, so the other dishwashers would fight to share a shift with me. If Penn was on the machine, they could drop acid, go into the produce locker, and trip their brains out while I showed off to no one with my groovy dishwasher skills.

The servers weren't going to have sex with any dishwasher, even the tallest one with the longest hair, so I didn't even try.

I realized that the female servers at Mr. Borfsky's HoJo's at the intersection of Route 91 and the Mohawk Trail weren't going to have sex with any dishwasher, even the tallest one with the longest hair who could do all by himself any two-man job called for, so I didn't even try. While the tripping dishwashers were trying to get laid above their stations, I put my high school pretension, Camus, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Sartre aside, pulled my hairnet down like Ruth Buzzy on Laugh In, and played it really dumb. When you're as big as I am, dumb comes way way easy. It's hard to say "big" without following it with "dumb."

We got a meal break and we got limited food, and our portion of ice cream was dished out by the servers. Because they liked and pitied the big dumb guy who didn't even try to have sex with them, they gave me more ice cream than they gave to the acid heads angling for action. I'm that big, but I'm not that dumb. Ice cream in the hand is better than unattainable 70's push in the bush! The ice cream was great. Howard Johnson's genius idea was 28 flavors. He figured, "I'll have one flavor for every day of the month, and that month will be a non-leap year February!" If you're thinking of treating me, I like the pistachio, the butter pecan, and the chocolate. Be generous: I'm big and dumb.


he week after I got out of high school on a plea bargain, I gave my couple hours' notice to Mr. Borofsky, stuck out my thumb, and started hitchhiking across America. On my own, like a complete unknown, with no direction home, like a rolling stone. I didn't eat at Howard Johnson's much. I just didn't eat much. When I moved up a baby step from hobo to carny trash and drove around doing outdoor shows with Teller, we got fascinated by road food, and didn't care about chains at all. We loved seeing the orange roofs of Howard Johnson's, but with no more free ice cream for the big dumb guy we mostly drove by them and ate at mom-and-pops.

It was like the Algonquin round table, but headed up by a big dumb guy instead of a small genius woman.

When Penn & Teller hit Broadway in the 80's, I rekindled my love affair with the turquoise and orange. The best restaurants in the world are in NYC, so I thought it was funny to meet my dirt-ball friends in a Times Square Howard Johnson's after our show to eat some clams and ice cream, before seeing a midnight movie. This was MovieNight, every Friday in Times Square, and everyone was welcome to join us — but they had to guess which of the three Times Square Howard Johnson's we were always at. The service was slow and the food wasn't good, but we loved the staff and it fueled our midnight movies, where we would all clap when we heard the title of the movie in the movie — the only real rule of MovieNight.

They closed our MovieNight Howard Johnson's and we moved to the one across the street. MovieNight was now up to about 50 people. No one was really invited, and no one was told not to come. Articles were written in Rolling Stone and Wired about MovieNight — it was like the Algonquin round table, but headed up by a big dumb guy instead of a small genius woman. On Friday nights we owned that Howard Johnson's, and when that one closed, MovieNight moved across another street and ended up in the last of the three HoJo's in Times Square. I went to MovieNight every Friday until I moved to Vegas. I'd made it in New York, New York, so I could make it anywhere, and anywhere includes Vegas.

They tore it down, along with the sex club that was above it. It was like Times Square closed.

I would come back and visit for a MovieNight now and again at HoJo's in Times Square, and then that last one closed and they tore it down, along with the sex club that was above it. It was like Times Square closed. Disney moved in. Disney ain't a sex club and it ain't Howard Johnson's. Disney ain't American. Disney is only Disney. We tried moving MovieNight to a little diner, as close as you can get to mom-and-pop in Manhattan, but it just wasn't big dumb American enough for me. I could get a grilled cheese and an order of fries, and maybe some clams and ice cream, but it didn't swing right. I don't even know if my chronology is right. I might have moved to Vegas after HoJo's closed. I don't know. We have a MovieNight in Vegas, but it's not at Howard Johnson's.

That fake movie premiere promised me that Howard Johnson's would be around in the future. But that future only went up to 2001, and now it's 2015. There's no longer a Howard Johnson's in Greenfield, Massachusetts. There aren't three Howard Johnson's in Times Square. There are only two Howard Johnson's in the whole world, and I probably won't get to either of them before there are none. I lived beyond the future. It seems likely, now that my diet doesn't include ice cream and fried clams, that I will outlive Howard Johnson's. Now where is our monolith?

Penn Jillette is the taller, louder half of the magic and comedy act Penn & Teller, a bestselling author, and the host of the podcast Penn's Sunday School. Penn & Teller return to Broadway this summer at the Marquis Theatre, just across the street from where the old Howard Johnson's on 46th St. used to be.

Editor: Helen Rosner

Sign Up for Dining In, the New Eater at Home Newsletter

The Move

The Best Way to Eat Ice Cream When It’s Cold Out Is a Stout Float

Eater at Home

In ‘Joys of Jell-O,’ There’s Nothing You Can’t Do With Colored Gelatin