Fuck Ronald McDonald. With anti-clown sentiment at a high not seen since It last appeared on our screens in 1990, I feel now is an appropriate time to come out and say it. But unlike Pennywise the clown, who resurfaces once every 27 years, his blithesome but equally creepy cousin Ronald hasn't ever left us since his debut in 1962. (And of all the McDonaldland creatures, Grimace and the Hamburglar are clearly superior.)
While we're on the subject of superior characters, Ronald McDonald was introduced as the McDonald's mascot in 1962, unjustly ousting the fast-food chain's original mascot, Speedee. The earnest, endearing hamburger-headed man in a chef's uniform was introduced in 1948, alongside the restaurant's "Speedee Service System," a customer-service model that revolutionized the American restaurant archetype and (for better or worse) eventually went worldwide, putting the "fast" in fast food.
But after 14 years of dogged service, the corporation left Speedee in the dust. With the exception of McDonald's diehards and Americana enthusiasts, the mascot is largely forgotten. (Though he's fared better in the pop-culture lexicon over the years than another corporate icon of the time, Alka Seltzer's shrill child ginger headed mascot, Speedy, who was partially attributed to the burger Speedee's demise, so as to avoid confusing consumers. "Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, what a relief it is" THAT little shit isn't on TV anymore.)
If people recognize him at all, it's rare they know his name or that he has one at all. "The Golden Arches—even if you don't see them [used at McDonald's locations] now, that's an iconography you can instantly recognize," explains Paul Greenstein, a neon-sign expert who has created and restored signs in the Los Angeles area for 40 years. "With Speedee, he may as well be a Kewpie doll—or a Brownie. Remember Brownies?" No.
Orange County has its own Speedee sign at the Fullerton location near Brookhurst and Orangethorpe avenues. It stands separately from the building, an obviously newly built retro-designed location made with those famed Golden Arches. Speedee is perched on the top corner of a single arch, winking and pointing to the parking lot.
I've heard from fellow Americana and history nerds that this was one of the last original Speedees standing at a McDonald's location. There's almost no confirmation of this on the Interwebs—fake news or little-known OC secret? With a big help from our new neon-sign-expert friend and no help from McDonald's (whose corporate PR did not respond to our inquiries as of press time), I took a trip to the Mickey D's in question to find answers.
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To my untrained eye, the sign appeared pretty new. Strikingly absent of patina, the arch looked too fresh. Speedee, on the other hand, is perched quite a bit higher, thus it was harder for this four-eyes to see, but he could have been an amalgam of a restored icon placed on a newer base.
Using his trained eye on photographs I took, Greenstein offered his professional opinion. "There's nothing old here," he said. "[What] I could see is all really late-model construction. The arches are all plastic—not neon."
Oof. A blow to Orange County pop-culture history. He explained that about 15 to 20 years ago, Alert-Lite Neon in Sun Valley was hired by McDonald's to remake Speedees and place them at a select few franchise locations. This could be one of those, he postulated, but not much older, and "if not impossible, [it's] nearly impossible" to make such a thing with mid-century technology.
While this sign is more "now" than "yester," it's still a cool throwback. If it's authenticity you seek, there is a bona-fide Speedee and Golden Arches building (which looks very similar to our Fullerton location) just 15 miles north in Downey. It is the oldest operating Mickey D's and was the second built. Though Downey has the real deal and we're stuck with a copy, at least a hamburger stand isn't our biggest claim to fame. Suck on that milkshake, Downey!