By Jana Hawes Robertson
Jana offers vintage, antique, retro photography, postcards, ads or other nostalgic finds from Puget Sound, King County, and Seattle history & genealogy on her blog, as well as on several Facebook history pages, like Vintage King County.
Above, Jana stands with her grandfather, Howard Johnson, and her sister, in front of the Empress Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia. Photo courtesy of the Robertson Family Archives.
My Grandparents had life-long careers in the hospitality industry. My grandfather Howard Johnson, although no relation to the hotel chain, worked in hotels since he was 16 starting as a page boy at the Empress Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia. Dressed in a velveteen suit, he carried in the boar’s head for the Empress Hotel’s Christmas dinner. My Grandmother, Lucy (Andrew) Johnson was in hospitality as well. When she completed grade eight in Prince George, British Columbia, she took a job waitressing, and, as was typical for girls in her era and economic group, did not go to high school. She worked in Prince Rupert, British Columbia and remembered the heavy drinking bush pilots she served. Her best friend’s husband was a bush pilot, and in the mid-1940s, when flying back from a medical serum delivery to Inuit people in the Yukon, he died when his plane crashed in Northern British Columbia.
My mother doesn’t remember them ever talking about how they met but when they were dating, Howard had given Lucy a key to the flat he shared with a roommate. The boys made sure they arrived home from work after she did because Lucy would feed the coins she earned as tips from waitressing to operate the gas range so she could prepare dinner for them. Howard and Lucy were residents of Vancouver, BC but married in Bellingham, Washington in 1938. My mother, Beverley (their only child) was born in 1940 in Vancouver.
Howard worked at the Georgia Hotel in Vancouver, part of the Western Hotel chain, and Lucy worked at several restaurants in British Columbia before emigrating to Washington in 1951. Western transferred him to the New Washington Hotel, now known as the Josephinium, then later to the Mayflower Hotel, now known as the Seattle Mayflower Park Hotel, whose historian wrote me that my grandfather was General Manager there from 1955-1959. My mom met with the historian who dug out a letter someone had written about Howard. He had gone to a Western Hotels meeting (later Western International, then after the merger with United Air Lines, Westin) with a social afterwards in a 3rd or 4th floor room, with spouses, and he was very quiet. Then he walked over to the window, which was open, swung his legs over the sill saying “I can’t take any more,” and dropped out. One woman screamed and another fainted. The man writing said he was sitting with Lucille, who didn’t seem too concerned. Lucy calmly said, “Oh, he’s done this before.” The next building’s roof was just a half story down from the window, and he was playing a prank on the room, which was not out of character for him.
Howard was proud that he had hired Tom Hill as an assistant manager, who was in the first graduating class of Hotel & Hospitality Management at Washington State College, now WSU, in Pullman, Washington. This was the first such program in the country we were told. All the old guys learned from being in the business.
Lucy, in her early Seattle days, worked at the Turf Smoke Shop, at about 2nd and Union, mostly as a cocktail waitress, since they made good tips. Dinner fixings at the grocery store on the way home were often paid for with that tip money. The Turf actually had gambling or baseball type punch cards and card games in a rear room, sort of a gambling operation in a known Blue law city!
Beverley recalls that even though her mother had been a waitress all her life, when Bev started at the University of Washington, fall 1957, Lucy felt that her daughter should be able to say that her Mom had a more glamorous career, so she took a job at the downtown Seattle Frederick & Nelson in their hosiery department. Lucy was a bubbly, beautiful red-head but her hands had taken a toll after waitressing all those year and to properly sell hosiery, she needed to gracefully stretch her fingers inside the stockings for the ladies to admire the sheer loveliness. She had to get her hands into model shape quickly. She soon returned to waitressing, however.
By 1962, both Howard and Lucy were working hard welcoming Century 21 Seattle World’s Fairgoers. Lucy waitressed in the Space Needle’s revolving restaurant. Many of the waitresses suffered from motion sickness and/or had problems with ascending the elevator daily, but Lucy was unaffected so she stuck around and worked there even after The World’s Fair ended.
Howard worked at several different hotels in 1962. The Edgewater Inn hired him to work on the MS Dominion Monarch, which was docked in Seattle to host guests as a hotel since the Edgewater Inn wasn’t finished in time for the start of the World’s Fair. His uniform included white shorts and white knee-high stockings and a captain’s style hat. Mom was amazed, because just 10 years earlier, he had been appalled that bank tellers in the U.S. didn’t wear suit coats and were often just in shirtsleeves, unlike the more formal style that evidently was proper in Canada.
But right before that, he worked at Century House Motor Hotel, and he wrote me my all-time very favorite letter when I was four months old on stationery from there. I’m an army brat, and my Dad was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas; we lived in Killeen, Texas and he had not met me, his first grandchild, yet.
By the end of 1962, The Edgewater Inn was completed, and Howard worked there for several more years. He was employed there when the Beatles came to town and fished from the window in 1964.
The Historic Preservation Program tells me that The Edgewater is a Category 4 building, which means: “These buildings have been identified as ones that have been so altered that they would not qualify as Seattle landmarks.”
I can’t really blame The Edgewater for altering the hotel to stay competitive in the industry but I’ll always consider it a Seattle landmark.
Howard died of cancer in 1970 when I was eight years old. He was only 58. My grandparents would winter (and work) in Southern California – I think it prevented him from staying in upper management. However, since he died before retirement age, I’m thankful he made the opportunity to enjoy vacation living despite what it did for his career. I don’t have many memories of Grandpa but two of them include hotels – I remember sharing a bowl of ice cream, just him and me, at The Edgewater and I remember watching a Seafair parade from a window of the Mayflower Hotel; he no longer worked there but got us a room with a view. I will always treasure the letter he wrote me when I was an infant.
Lucy continued waitressing at Seattle restaurants like The Sherwood Inn and The Hungry Turtle. John Wayne was a patron several times when he was up cruising the San Juan Islands in his luxury yacht, The Wild Goose, a converted Navy Yard Mine Sweeper built in Ballard that served during WW2. Wayne and boat would come into Lake Union, tie up at the Hungry Turtle, and dine in the Deck room which had the lake view. Lucy had one of the two “stations” there and when she left for California during the winter season was promised the station when she returned. The waitress who had it in the three month interim was so miffed that the boss had actually meant it, that she quit when Lucy returned. When Lucy moved to California permanently in 1977, the staff and her “regulars” gave her a going away shower at the Hungry Turtle.
When I called Grandma at age 16 to tell her I got my first job waitressing, she advised me to always bring a second pair of shoes to switch into during the middle of long shifts because the different feel of the sole would make aching feet feel better. She also told me not to waitress my whole life. Lucy waitressed well in to her late 60s even when she had “retired” to Southern California. She died in 2005.
Careers in the hospitality industry may not seem glamorous but my grandparents made a really decent living of it. They met countless interesting people and were always able to find work wherever they decided to live. It was hard work, but they were both very good at it, and I’m glad for the opportunities it provided for them.