MOTEL hopping: Des Moines, Iowa

It was 1966 and we were on a cross-country trip to visit my grandparents in Pennsylvania. I can vividly remember the night in Des Moines when we stayed at this Holiday Inn. One of the funniest family memories occurred while trying to find the place. I imagine to this day there's someone telling the story from their perspective and still laughing.

It was rare that we stayed in a Holiday Inn because they were the expensive fancy motel chain of their time, but my dad was so exhausted that he saw it and said that that was it for the night.

That same night was the first time I ever had a McDonald's burger and fries. I can also say you wouldn't get me eating any of it now.

Click on images to see them larger.

How about that Mickey Mouse shaped pool? I'm guessing it wasn't intentional.

Ever wonder how Holiday Inn got their name? If you think it has something to do with the old Bing Crosby movie you'd be correct.
Kemmons Wilson initially came up with the idea after a family road trip to Washington, D.C., during which he was disappointed by the lack of quality and consistency provided by the roadside motels of the time. The name Holiday Inn was given to the original hotel by his architect Eddie Bluestein as a joke, in reference to the musical film Holiday Inn (1942), starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. The first Holiday Inn opened at 1941 Summer Avenue in Memphis, the main highway to Nashville, in August 1952 as Holiday Inn Hotel Courts. In the early 1990s the first Holiday Inn was demolished, but there is a plaque commemorating the site.

Wilson partnered with Wallace E. Johnson (1901-1988)[4] to build additional motels on the roads entering Memphis. Holiday Inn's corporate headquarters was in a converted plumbing shed owned by Johnson. In 1953 the company built its next three hotels which, along with their first hotel built in 1952, covered each approach to Memphis. The second motel was built on Highway 51 South in Memphis. It was followed by two more in 1953, one on Highway 51 North and another on U.S. 61. On the occasion of Johnson's death, Wilson was quoted as saying, "The greatest man I ever knew died today. He was the greatest partner a man could ever have." Together they started what Wilson would shepherd into Holiday Corp., one of the world's largest hotel groups.

By 1956 there were 21 Holiday Inns open with more either planned or under construction. In 1957, Wilson franchised the chain as Holiday Inn of America and it grew dramatically, following Wilson's original tenet that the properties should be standardized, clean, predictable, family-friendly and readily accessible to road travellers. By 1958, there were 50 locations across the country, 100 by 1959, 500 by 1964, and the 1,000th Holiday Inn opened in San Antonio, Texas, in 1968. The chain then became known as "The Nation's Innkeeper". The chain dominated the motel market, leveraged its innovative Holidex reservation system, put considerable financial pressure on traditional motels and hotels, and set the standard for its competitors, like Ramada Inns, Quality Inn, Howard Johnson's, and Best Western. By June 1972, when Wilson was featured on the cover of Time magazine, there were over 1,400 Holiday Inn hotels worldwide. The motto then changed to "The World's Innkeeper". Innovations like the company's Holidome indoor pools turned many hotels into roadside resorts.

The Great Sign
The "Great Sign" is the roadside sign used by Holiday Inn during their original era of expansion in the 1950s-1970s. It consisted of a marquee box; a tower with either red, orange, or blue neon lighting, a large chasing arrow that always pointed towards the motel/hotel, and a four-stage flashing animated neon star at the top. It had 1,500 feet (460 m) of neon tubing and over 500 incandescent light bulbs. It was introduced by Kemmons Wilson when he opened his first motel on August 1, 1952. The signs were extremely large and eye-catching, but were expensive to construct and operate. The manufacturer of the sign was Balton & Sons Sign Company (now Balton Sign Company}, whose ancestor D.F. Balton founded Balton & Sons in Memphis in 1875. In shop sketch artists Gene Barber and Rowland Alexander did the orginial design of the sign. Original engineering drawings were also done by Rowland Alexander of Balton & Sons Sign Company. The story goes that the sign’s colors were selected because they were favorites of Wilson’s mother. The popularity of the sign led to many clones being produced, some of which remain to this day. In 1982, following Wilson's departure, the Holiday Inn board of directors made the decision to phase out the "Great Sign" in favor of a cheaper and less catchy backlit sign that still maintained the original backscript logo (this changed after the second remodel). The decision was not without controversy as it essentially signaled the end of the Wilson era and removed a widely recognized company icon. Wilson was angered about this, saying, "It was the worst mistake they ever made". Wilson so loved the sign that it was engraved on his tombstone. The majority of the signs were sold as scrap metal and recycled.

Several intact fragments of the famous sign have been restored and relit, mostly the Holiday Inn top section of the sign, and the marquee box. However, in 2006 a complete sign was finally found. The disassembled sign, complete with star, marquee box, and the sign base, was discovered in a backlot in Minnesota. On June 3, 2007 it was purchased by a neon sign restoration expert, in order to restore it to its 1950s glory. It is currently being restored and reassembled, and after completion, it will be displayed at the National Save the Neon Signs Museum in Minot, North Dakota. Also, a nearly intact sign (sans the star section) that came from a Las Vegas location sits at the new American Sign Museum in Cincinnati Ohio. (SOURCE: Wikipedia)

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