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Route 66: The Road and the Romance

Original Airdate June 25, 2014

Val Zavala: No other highway in America means so much to our culture or our personal memories like Route 66. 2,400 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles and every one of them packed with history.

The legend and lore of Route 66 was captured by Jeffrey Richardson, curator at the Autry National Center of the American West.

Jeffrey Richardson: Everyone really has some kind of story connected to Route 66 because Route 66 really became a microcosm for life in 20th century America. So there’s so many different topics to examine why this particular road – more so than any other – is one that still resonates with us today.

Val Zavala: You couldn't get very far especially back then with the mileage without stopping at gas station. Is this what they looked like?

Jeffrey Richardson: This is 1927 Texaco gas pump. It’s referred to as a twin visible gas pump. As it was pumped out, it would decrease in size…but the thing most people notice about this are the prices. So you can look here. If you wanted premium in 1927, you would pay approximately 16 cents a gallon including tax.

Jeffrey Richardson: All this from the late 1920's…this is when Route 66 was established.

Val Zavala: So entire new businesses emerged around Route 66 including motels that never used to exist before.

Jeffrey Richardson: Certainly, this particular section looks at the post-war period. So post 1945. One of those types of businesses that emerged were motels and they would use a variety of things to attract tourists along the road including large neon signs which were immediately designed to draw your attention and stop. And this sign actually from Venice off of Route 66. Again, gets at how the American West was a very popular topic along Route 66.

Jeffrey Richardson: We also have a 1960 Chevrolet Corvette right underneath it. Certainly the Corvette is one of the beautiful cars of the period.

Val Zavala: This is a side of Route 66 that many of us don't think about. It's segregated.

Jeffrey Richardson: One scholar estimates there was approximately 40 sundown towns.

Val Zavala: What does sundown mean?

Jeffrey Richardson: A sundown town or community was one where they would indirectly or indirectly tell to African Americans and minorities you better not be caught in town when the sun goes down. I think the implications there are quite obvious. So the idea was there were several places on Route 66 that were not safe for African Americans and other minorities to stop.

This was so bad that this time in American society that they actually produced booklets that listed where African American travelers could stop. Where places were safe, where they would be accommodating. Because again, making the wrong decision at the wrong time could be deadly.

Jeffrey Richardson: Another important topic is Bloody 66. Frequent travelers and locals often refer to Route 66 as Blood 66 because there were so many accidents that would take place along the highway.

Val Zavala: Nothing captures life on the road like Jack Kerouac's famous novel. But did he actually drive along Route 66?

Jeffrey Richardson: No. He only references Route 66 two or three times in the actual text.

Val Zavala: But "On the Road" captured the freedom that Route 66 made possible.

Jeffrey Richardson: Basically what Kerouac did…he sat down at typewriter…took 10 pieces of tracing paper, and taped them together, and wrote the entire first draft of the novel, “On the Road.” On this long 120-foot. I mean you can just just continues to go, and go.

Val Zavala: Until you get to the final chapter. What happened here? A friend's dog literally ate the last five feet. So they reconstructed the story based on Jack Kerouac's notes.

So the dog did the final edit.

Val Zavala: So here literally the end of the road. Route 66 did not last?

Jeffrey Richardson: In 1956 with the establishment of the interstate highway system, basically Route 66 bypassed. Entire communities were basically taken off the map.

Val Zavala: Then a turn around. In the early 90's Congress passed legislation designating Route 66 as an important part of America's legacy. Preservation and documentation efforts began. And average citizens picked up the Route 66 banner as well. Businessman Dan Rice was one of them. He opened this kiosk on the Santa Monica pier where he realized there was nothing marking the end of this fabled highway. Now he has a permanent store.

Jeffrey Richardson: We hope in our exhibition to tell a small part of the story which will encourage more people to actually take to the road and experience this unique American journey which is Route 66.

Val Zavala: Well Jeffrey, thank you for being our tour guide along this abbreviated section of Route 66. Fantastic exhibition.

Jeffrey Richardson: Thanks for coming out we really appreciate it.

The Autry National Center in Griffith Park explores the history and romance behind Route 66, the famous 2,400-mile stretch of highway from Chicago to Los Angeles, in its latest exhibit.

Whether depicted in pop culture, classic movies, or a Jack Kerouac novel, Route 66 has captivated the attention of dozens of travelers, writers, and history buffs since its founding in 1926.

The exhibit examines the history of the physical highway including artifacts that came out of the era: A 1927 Texaco gas pump, motel signage, and a handwritten page from "The Grapes of Wrath" manuscript.

Host Val Zavala speaks to curators and historians for more information about the historic highway in this episode of "SoCal Connected."

Route 66: The Road and the Romance runs through January 4, 2015 at the Autry in Griffith Park.


“Western Motel” neon sign, circa 1950
Museum of Neon Art

National “66” Convention & Will Rogers Memorial Celebration
Collection of Steve Rider

Road sign, “East 66 / West 66”
Collection of Steve Rider

"Travel Guide of Negro Hotels and Guest Houses"
Collection of Steve Rider

“The Negro Travelers’ Green Book”
Photograph: Peter Rugh
Courtesy Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture
New York Public Library
Astor, Lenox & Tilden Foundations

Jack Kerouac photo: “Kerouac by Palumbo”
Used under Creative Commons License CC By-SA 2.0

Manuscript for "On the Road"
Collection of James S. Irsay
Estate of Anthony G. Sampatacacus
And the estate of Jan Kerouac

"End of the Trail" is a registered trademark of Dan Rice
and 66-to-Cali, Inc.

Route 66
Composer Bobby Troup
Performed by Beegie Adair, Martini Lounge album

Theme from Route 66
Composer Nelson Smock Riddle
Performed by Nelson Riddle and his Orchestra

Featuring Interviews With:

  • Jeffrey Richardson, curator, The Autry


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