Myth of the Bagdad Cafe Lives On
Newberry Springs, California RT 66
“Bon jour! Comment allez-vous?”, Andree Pruett called out to the gaggle of tourists fresh off the bus parked in front of the Bagdad Cafe of which she is the proud owner. The odd cafe is a landmark location on Route 66 in Newberry Springs, California.
She whispered to me slyly, “That’s French for ‘Hello, how are you.’ ” She jumped up and started shaking hands, inviting smiling people to stand behind the scarred and battered green formica counter so she could take their picture with the cafe’s Route 66 sign. They were all very happy to be there.
The Bagdad Cafe attracts all kinds of folks — from hikers to honeymooners to busloads of foreign-speaking tourists who line up to sign the guestbook. The stack of ledgers in the corner features heartfelt comments from thousands of visitors who have shared their impressions since 1995.
Weekends can sound a little like the United Nations or a French bistro with the soundtrack from the film Bagdad Cafe murmuring in the background.
The 1987 German movie directed by Percy Adlon was filmed at the diner when it was called The Sidewinder Cafe. It did moderately well in the United States but it was a huge hit in Europe, and many people still remember it fondly.
“One of the tour drivers drops people off down the road a bit so they can see what it’s like walking through the Mojave Desert down the highway to the Bagdad Cafe,” Andree said. Just like in the movie.
Andree said 75 percent of her business is from France, 20 percent from other countries, like England and Brazil. Only five percent are American.
Europeans take their holidays in July and August, so that is when business is booming at the Bagdad, she said.
They don’t seem to mind the triple-digit heat, which feels like a punch to the gut when you get out of an air-conditioned car — or bus. It seems to suck the air right out of your lungs.
Andree loves the French. She says they are the loveliest people — and they seem to love her back. “People know when you care about them,” she said. “Basically I like people!”
She said a magazine wrote the Newberry Springs cafe is “the most visited cafe in the world”. I haven’t quite figured out which magazine made the claim yet. But there are guidebooks, like the Rough Guide to California, which feature the Bagdad and some intrepid travelers get off the freeway to find their way there. When they get inside, they look around in amazement at the flags on the ceiling, the hundreds of business cards and notes on the wall and John Wayne’s portrait hanging over the hall leading to the bathrooms.
Bus folks don’t always have time to buy food, but merchandise like bracelets, shot glasses and mugs fly off the shelves, perhaps to find their way to a knick-knack cabinet in Paris. One woman in shorts found a black T-shirt with the cafe on the front to be a perfect souvenir.
People loved the fringed Bagdad Cafe shirts that Andree wore, so she started altering T-shirts for sale.
“I can’t sew but I can use scissors,” she giggled. Now the manufacturer does the fringe and the shirts come in all colors and sizes.
Andree said every one is treated the same whether they buy something or not — graciously and with genuine affection.
The Pruetts bought the Route 66 eatery in November 1995. They renamed it the Bagdad Cafe to capitalize on the popularity of the film.
Originally they planned on running an ostrich farm in Newberry Springs. “We looked at 640 acres out here to raise ostriches — my husband wanted to have lots and lots of ostriches. And I was going to write screenplays,” Andree said.
But the cost of drilling to try and find enough water for a ranch that size was prohibitive, with no guarantee of success. So they gave up on that idea.
Then their real estate man said “There is this little cafe …”
Andree said “Where? I missed it.”
One thing led to another and Andree and her husband were sitting in an orangish-brown leatherette booth with the springs coming through the cushions eating the best hamburger she had ever eaten, she said. Harold was talking with the owner who was regaling him with stories of the cafe. And how the movie Bagdad Cafe had been made there.
“We were known as the people from Hollywood so she was getting to him with her movie tales,” Andree laughed.
“The lady said ‘You know I am selling the place?’ And he said ‘Really, what do you want for it?’ She told him and he turned to me and I said ‘Don’t even think about it. I’m not doing it. No.’
“We were on our way home and he said ‘You just have to come down there once a day and you can write all day long,’ and so and so forth trying to convince me how great it would be.”
Harold reminded Andree they had a family that wanted to get out of LA. “He knew how to get to me,” she said.
“He told our actor son, Harold P. Pruett II, ‘We went up there and had lunch at the Bagdad Cafe where they made the movie with Jack Palance.’ ”
Harold P. was impressed.
“ ‘… but your mama don’t want to buy it. The woman wants to sell it but your mom don’t want to buy it.’
“Finally my husband had me sold on the idea of me just coming by in the evening, but that’s not the way it worked out,” Andree remembered. “The people my son promised he would bring, never showed up and I am behind the counter the whole time.”
It was Harold P. who said “We have to change the name to the Bagdad Cafe.”
It was running the quirky wood-shingled cafe that kept Andree centered after the death of her beloved husband and son in 2002. She still mourns their passing.
The late “General” Bob Gray was already an institution at the Sidewinder when Andree bought the place. “I paid him attention because I liked him,” she said. “He was a nice man and I loved his stories. He was the best storyteller I ever heard. THE BEST — you can’t find another one like him. He’s the lead in my movie.” (She has written a screenplay called the Real Bagdad Cafe.)
“He was amazing, he would work on a typewriter in his little apartment six or eight hours a day writing about his life.”
I mentioned I had met the grizzled General Bob with his wraparound sunglasses and fly-away coarse grey hair in 1989 during my second visit to the Mojave. A few weeks later he sent me a long, typed letter detailing his career and experiences with the military, black helicopters and chemical brainwashing. Words were crossed out, corrections and additions were handwritten in the margins.
I was never sure how much of Bob’s stories were real or imaginary; but they were fascinating to be sure. He was convinced “they” were out to get him and hit men routinely hunted for him. For someone who was being hunted, he was seemingly, serenely unconcerned, watching passersby and eating a hamburger out in the open.
I think he was just telling stories, watching people’s reactions and laughing inside. A genuine desert character. I miss General Bob. He died in June 2005.
Andree is amazed at the continuing popularity of the Bagdad Cafe. “We did a live reality show for Chinese television about two weeks ago. A live feed all the way to China. Can you believe that?”
A note on the wall next to a forlorn piano says it best, “Just like we expected it to be,” from Phillipe and Kate.
By Lara Hartley
All text and photos are copyrighted.
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