Friday, November 16, 2007
Uncle Bob's Diner
Once you start talking about mistakes Flint has made related to historic preservation, especially downtown, it can turn into a very long conversation. But I can’t help myself. I have to talk about Uncle Bob’s Diner.
Generations of Flint residents ate at Uncle Bob’s, located near the Capitol Theater. Built in 1947 by the Jerry O'Mahony Dining Car Company, it was a destination for everyone from downtown business people at lunchtime to college kids looking for excitement after GMI formals. It even had a short run as a weird little new wave hangout in the ‘80s. But that was near the end. While the Flint braintrust was building AutoWorld, Uncle Bob’s was closed and decaying.
The good news is that Jerry Berta, a sculptor who specialized in ceramic art related to diners, bought the diner in 1986 for $2,000. The bad news — for Flint, anyway — is that he moved it to Rockford, Michigan.
''People all over knew about Uncle Bob's,'' Mr. Berta told The New York Times in 1988. ''I had a guy from Madison, Wis., write to me, saying he'd spent every night for four years in the ‘50's at this place.''
Berta and his wife, Madeline Kaczmarczyk, an artist, spent $50,000 restoring the place, right down to the original pink Formica ceilings, porcelain enamel exterior and stainless-steel sunburst patterns.
They envisioned an art studio — a diner filled with diner art called The Diner Store — but visitors kept showing up for food. So Berta bought a few more old diners from various places, and started serving food at Rosie’s Diner. In 1993 Berta decided to add a putt-putt course. It was not your average mini-golf setup; almost every hole has a cement sculpture of big food or art. He called the whole place Dinerland.
In 1996, Berta was able to put another neon sign in the window that stated, "Over One Million Served Right!" It went up as Jack Tietsama enjoyed the one millionth meal served at Rosie's in Rockford. The artists sold the diners in 2006 to Randy and Jonelle Roest, who continue to manage the popular attraction.
Flint ain’t Rockford, so I’m not claiming that this could have happened in the Vehicle City. But you never know.