Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The Pan Am Experience

One of the things that is gone forever is the golden age of air travel. Flying used to be part of the fun and anticipation of a trip. Now it’s a fucking ordeal. People would dress up to fly. Even if you flew coach you were treated royally.

My first coast-to-coast flight was on TWA in 1969. I was served a hot breakfast and for lunch they set up a huge buffet and we all lined up and filled our plates. It wasn’t a flight; it was a Long Island bar mitzvah reception.

Airline carriers back then all had to charge the same fares so the way to attract passengers was to offer better service. The very best at is was Pan Am. And Pan Am First Class was second to none. For dinner they carved Chateaubriand at your seat.

Hey, just the fact that you had actual metal silverware – you’ll never see that again ever.

They called it the Pan Am Experience and now it’s been faithfully and lovingly recreated down to a T in Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley.

Anthony Toth is the creator of this experience. A lifelong collector of aviation memorabilia (Pan Am in particular), he somehow put this together.

An actual 747 that had been rusting for ten years in the desert was rescued. The first class section, business class section (Clipper Class) and upstairs lounge were restored to its Pan Am greatness down to the most minute detail. The seats, the fabric, décor, even scent through the ventilators is the exact same as the plane that flew the world in 1970.

It is now housed on a soundstage (nice name for a warehouse) in an industrial area of the Valley. In nearby stages are airplane interiors and airport interiors. TSA is not going to let you actually film at LAX anymore. Needless to say these stages are rented out constantly.

But every Saturday night they hold the Pam Am Experience. It’s a journey back into the early ‘70s. Unlike THE DEUCE, this is something you’d want to relive from that period.

So longing for the days when Carroll O’Conner played Archie Bunker and not Woody Harrelson, I took my wife, daughter and son-in-law on a trip in the Wayback Machine.

Tomorrow I will share a bunch of photos.

You arrive at 6:00, all dressed up. There were some guys with afro’s. I wore a jacket and paisley tie. You check in at an actual Pan Am ticket booth. There’s a rotary phone on the desk. I’m reminded of that YouTube video where two Millennial idiots couldn’t figure out how to dial a rotary phone. I weep. There’s also a TWA and Northwest Orient counter for people who bought counterfeit tickets (because they go nowhere).

Then we entered a replica First Class Lounge complete with open bar, Pan Am displays, and posters from the era.

At 6:30 you are invited to board. The stewardesses (and yes, they were called stewardesses, not flight attendants or empowered service providers) were all in authentic wardrobe. You were ushered to your seat. We sat in the First Class cabin. There was enough leg room to stage one of my plays. More drinks (in Pam Am glasses… that were made of glass, believe it or not) and oversized packets of snacks.

In the Clipper Section there was a full-bar you could belly up to at any time. Up the spiral staircase there was a lounge section – very exclusive.

The crew showed reverence to the experience, but there were enough funny quips to let you know this was a fun recreation, not some creepy fever dream.

We were offered vintage magazines, complete with all the cigarette ads and even a few for this new thing called FM stereo. Considering the world today, reading TIME magazine my nostalgia extended to Nixon.

Speaking of cigarettes, the one concession to now was that there was no smoking allowed. But back then everyone smoked of course. So they had these fake cigarettes. You would blow through them and bogus smoke would disperse. At first it was fun to be Don Draper. After two minutes I felt like an idiot and stopped.

The piped in music was a blend of pop hits from the '60s and '70s.  Lots of Beatles and Burt Bacharach. Can't go wrong with that.   Also a few Pan Am jingles.   These were the days you'd hear an airlines commercial and not yell "Fuck you!" to the speaker.

As unbelievable as it might sound, fifty years ago people actually LIKED certain airlines.  No, I'm serious.  Really.  Truly. 

Dinner service began. Fresh warm rolls, more drinks (I had to watch myself. It’s not like there are many great motels in Pacoima.), appetizers that included shrimp cocktails or fresh mozzarella salad, and then the main course.

Not only did they carve Chateaubriand right at your seat, they gave you a decent portion. An airline “steak” today (pre packaged and swimming in God knows what sauce) is generally the size of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Other entrees were chicken and pasta. Since gluten wasn’t invented in 1970 there was nothing that was gluten free.

A fruit and cheese cart followed, and then a cart with lovely cakes. After dinner drinks were offered as well as coffee.

For entertainment, there were fashion shows – first of all the Pan Am stewardess uniforms and then uniforms from other airlines. They were fun, but I was powering down the beef.

Final touches like a Duty-Free cart came around and we all took a Pan Am trivia game, which no one knew any of the answers.

No one tried to hijack the sound stage to Cuba.  Only ten people tried that joke. 

To be fair, it’s crazy expensive, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Or so I thought. There were repeat passengers. One was going on his fourth journey. The steaks at Maestro’s are good and way cheaper than this. And you can buy candy cigarettes. That said, if somebody invites me I’d be happy to go again. I could use the additional miles.

It’s gourmet nostalgia porn and just a reminder that yeah, we have iPhones and Waze, but some things were better back then.

Come back tomorrow for photos.  And for more info on the Pan Am Experience you can just go here.  Tell them Ken Levine sent you.   Maybe they'll send me a Pan Am swizzle stick. 


Lemuel said...

I remember Pan Am, and it wasn't just the service, it was the LEGS.

Anonymous said...

It sounds and looks like a lot of fun. Congratulations.


Mike Bloodworth said...

Were you seated next to a crying baby?

Anonymous said...

My Mother was a Pan Am flight attendant before the USA entered WWII.
She said, at that time, all those hired for that position had to be a registered nurse (RN).
The celebrity passenger she remembered was J. Carrol Naish

Glenn said...

Sounds like a good job for out of work actors.

J Lee said...

Only did Pan Am once, on a domestic flight around 1970-71 from JFK to SFO, because we were flying out on vacation and I bugged dad about taking a 747. Definitely had a more formal and polished feeling than what I was used to on American Airlines, which was the usual one we'd fly (we did American the following year from NY-SF, also on a wide body, and had an interesting take-off, because they overfilled the upstairs lavatory tanks, and as the 747 left the ground a beautiful blue waterfall came pouring down out of the ceiling and onto the center seats below. They're just lucky cellphone cameras weren't around 48 years ago).

VP81955 said...

Flew Pan Am twice in 1973, from Dulles to Helsinki as my high school senior class spent 10 days in the Soviet Union. (There then were no direct U.S.-USSR flights, so we went to Finland, bused to what was then known as Leningrad and boarded trains to and from Moscow.) I vividly recall ascending that spiral staircase to the upper lounge -- pure luxury. To paraphrase the airline's old slogan, Pan Am indeed made the going great.

Dhruv said...

"empowered service providers" 😂

Nice one sir.

Waiting for the pics.

P.S.: The website link is not opening.

Jahn Ghalt said...

All this makes one wonder - if one or another airline were to refit a 747 (or even a non-jumbo-jet) with legroom between the rows and all the niceties of your 1969 transcontinental flight, what would they have to charge to make a margin similar to today cattle-cars?

One might think that business passengers would pay a slight premium. Would enough others pony up to sustain a 1969 747 travel experience?

brian t said...

About the silverware - believe it or not, it seems to be making a comeback of sorts. I flew Lufthansa from Houston to Frankfurt last year, cattle class in an A380, and we had the metal cutlery. It might have also been on a flight I had a few months ago - Aer Lingus, JFK to Dublin, but I'm not sure.

PS: I really enjoyed the series Pan Am a few years ago: that was where Margot Robbie landed in the USA, then soon took off in a different way.

Charlie said...

I recall being on a fancy Continental flight between Chicago and Los Angeles that had a piano lounge with Frank Sinatra Jr. entertaining. Quite a gig.

Buttermilk Sky said...

What, no in-flight movie? So many good ones around that time -- FRENCH CONNECTION, LAST PICTURE SHOW, CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, PATTON. For people who are "flying" alone and have no one to talk to.

Charlie said...

You still get metal silverware (including a serrated knife) and drinks in a glass in first class on Delta. The food is pretty bad, though.

TimWarp said...

We flew 1st class on Pan Am from San Francisco to Honolulu to Tokyo to Hong Kong to Bangkok in 1961. I had just turned 5, so I don't remember a whole lot about it, but I know we wore our Sunday best clothes for travelling. I loved walking on the airfield and climbing the stairs to get into the plane, and everyone got fresh flower leis when we got off the plane in Honolulu. Not too long ago I found the in-flight blue-and-white PanAm slippers they gave us for the trip, and my "co-pilot wings" are in a jewelry box somewhere.

thirteen said...

I remember being able to just walk into and through an airport, go to the gate and walk onto an airplane, all without hindrance. Sigh.

MikeN said...

How much was a first class ticket back then?

Mike Doran said...

During WWII, my father served in the Army Air Corps, stationed in England.
(Twelve O'Clock High was his war.)
Post-war, my father became a pipe-fitter, working with large companies that sometimes sent him all over the country, and ultimately all over the world; he was thus very experienced with air travel.
As he got older, Dad became quite disillusioned with commercial air travel; he ceased going overseas, and any domestic travel he did was by automobile.
It got to the point that my mother (who didn't enjoy travel anyway) wouldn't go anywhere long-distance with him; late in his life Dad wanted to move to South Carolina (he called it "down to home"), but Mom didn't want to do a long drive, and Dad said that commercial airlines were like "a CTA bus with wings".
As for me, I take after Mom; I don't enjoy any form of travel at all - I've never learned to drive a car, never taken a long train trip, never flown, don't even like the daily bus-and-el-train commute.
I'm not afraid or anything; I just can't think of anywhere I want to go to that badly …
… especially if it's going to take a lot of time and/or cost a lot of money - but hey, that's me …
Just thought I'd pass this along, FWIW.

kpj said...

Very interesting. Looking forward to seeing the pictures. Too bad it's something else gluten free people can't enjoy.

Janet said...

And people call what we have today progress....

I still remember being assigned to first class as a college student 30 years ago (by lucky error of a person called a travel agent) and yes, I still remember the cloth napkins, metal silverware and all the champagne you could drink even before takeoff.

NOT RACHEL said...

Pan Am was great but I was partial to TWA, mostly because I lived in New York and the Eero Saarinen terminal was thrilling every time you walked through it. I was an advertising copywriter in those days, the last gasp of the Mad Men era, and everything was pretty lavish. Travel to LA for shoots was frequent and frequently excessive. American had a piano in the upstairs lounge on some of its flights and if you could play or sing it was a great icebreaker. A lot of advertising guys would spread out storyboards and a lot of “stews” wanted to be in commercials, so many short term relationships (and a couple of short term marriages) ensued.

Mike Barer said...

Pan Am makes the going great!

YEKIMI said...

I thought prune juice made the going great. Anyways, after looking at their prices, I can safely say that I won't be able to book any "flights". Maybe they have a cheaper rate if I fly in the cargo hold or out on a wing?

McTom said...

If you liked that and the whole ring-a-ding-ding early '60s vibe, check out the brand new TWA Hotel next time you're passing through JFK. The iconic Eero Sarinen terminal building is open for business once again, but as a hotel lobby. Old airplane turned into a bar on the tarmac, runway view infinity edge pool on the roof, and runway view rooms (with VERY thick plate glass). Just stayed there a week ago and it was awesome.