I will be the first to admit that I sometimes have a bit of a sentimental streak. I think it has been pretty obvious with some of the things I write. But I sometimes forget that not everyone wants to take that trip down memory lane with me. In particular, I am speaking about Maureen and the kids.
After not feeling well Friday night and Saturday, I decided that I needed to get out of the house. The weather was a little overcast, but not too cold for a Sunday morning near the end of February. My walk down to the end of the driveway to retrieve the Sunday paper made the desire to go for a walk even stronger. Once I got back to the kitchen, and after Maureen scolded me for going outside in just my shorts while sick, I announced to the gang that I felt like taking a trip to downtown Wheaton to pick up some popcorn. I was pretty much met by three blank stares.
When I was 14 years old, I got my very first inside job at a little tiny store called The Popcorn Store. I already had a pretty good resume for a freshman, I had two different paper routes, the local paper, The Daily Journal, was delivered after school, and in the morning there was the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times. But this was to be my first “real” job, and I am not exaggerating when I say it was small store. It was basically an alley that someone put a roof over, adding a front and back door. Located ironically at 111 1/4 Front Street in downtown Wheaton, the only thing the store sold was the popcorn and various penny candies. The store was so small that there was only room for one person to move through it at a time, and my job was to make the popcorn, keep the candy shelf stocked and count up and collect money for the items being sold.
The popcorn was made in an old iron kettle that had to be cranked by hand, and this combined with the bin that held the popped corn took up enough space that even my small frame at the time had to turn sideways to get by. The candy shelves were against the wall just in front of the popcorn station, and they included the basic Tootsie Roll, Jolly Rancher, and my favorite, the jelly fruit slices. As you walked in the store, small white bags are available to fill with your desired candy, and the popcorn is served in similar white bags of various sized.
As I gathered up Alex and Molly to get ready for our journey, it was somewhat evident they were less than thrilled that I chose today for this trip. Alex was mostly concerned that we might not make it back on time for the gold metal hockey game between the American team and the Canadians. But the promise of some candy and popcorn seemed to be enough to get them out the door. Our trip north up Naperville Road took us right past the empty shell that was Wheaton Central High School, and had I remembered to recharge my camera, I would have stopped to take a picture of the kids out in front of it.
Downtown Wheaton was surprisingly busy for a Sunday afternoon, so we ended up circling around and parking on Wesley Street over near the old Cock Robin restaurant. That sight is now a deli, but the old sign with the bird in the top hat still overlooks that corner. At one time in my youth, the Cock Robin franchise was almost as well-known as Dairy Queen, and their signature square shaped ice cream cones were a tasty treat on a warm summer day. As of a few years ago, there was still one remaining Cock Robin in Brookfield, but I am not sure if it is still in operation. If it is still open, I may just have to drag the kids out there for a greasy double cheeseburger and strawberry ice cream soda. That was my favorite treat whenever I stopped by. Alex wanted to know if we could stop there after we got the popcorn. When I reminded him that we wanted to get back home before the hockey game, he decided that ice cream would be a good reason to miss the start of the game.
Our walk down to Front Street brought us right past The Wheaton Theater. I had read a number of articles about how there were attempts to restore the theater back to its original condition. I have to admit it looked quite run down. Many years ago, as the big mega theaters were being built, the theater had been divided into several screening rooms. This was the fate of many of these suburban downtown movie houses, as single screen theaters just couldn’t keep up with the more advanced movie venues like the Ogden 6.
As we walked I quickly became aware that there were a lot more restaurants in the downtown area than I had ever remembered, and this seemed to be the cause of the increased number of cars trying to find parking. Many of the old stores have now been converted to various types of eating establishments, and it seems that Downtown Wheaton is now a popular after church brunch spot. If I had known that, I might have started our journey earlier, and included a stop at one of them. But maybe another time. Won’t the kids be thrilled.
So when we finally arrived at The Popcorn Store it looked exactly the same, and the smell of the fresh popcorn was evident even outside. As we entered the shop, it also looked exactly as I remembered. I showed the kids the little white bags and told them to pick out a few treats. There was another dad with three little girls also picking out candy items, so we had to wait our turn. My treat of choice was some Bit-O-Honey, Sixlets, and those jelly fruit slices. The candies were no longer a penny or two each, but most were still five or ten cents, with a few larger candy items on the top shelf. The old kettle was popping fresh corn as we were there, and the young man standing next to it looked to be about 15 or 16 years old. We handed him our bags, and he quickly counted them up writing a total on a sheet of paper next to him. And since there is no cash register, he needed to check a tax chart taped to the wall. This was also noted down on the paper. Nothing had changed. This was also the way I kept track of the daily sales over thirty years ago.
We finished our walk, and on the way home I pointed out a few other old spots. The store front that used to be our local record store, The Flip Side, my old Jr. High school which is now Edison Middle School, and a quick run through my old neighborhood on Casa Solana Drive. I didn’t bore them with all the details, but when Alex mentioned to Maureen that this was not our first trip of this sort, she just laughed and told them next week we are going to her old stomping grounds. This seemed like a much better deal to him, because he knows there is an Al’s Beef Stand near where Maureen grew up.
I guess italian beef trumps popcorn, but this will not be my last trip to The Popcorn Store. I’m hoping in the warmer weather we can then add that ice cream into our trip. The Plush Horse was right down on the next block, and although it has a new name, I am pretty sure I can con my kids back down my memory lane in exchange for a couple scoops of chocolate or New York Cherry.