Finding the Fifties in midland

Our state's rich history makes time-traveling in Texas a simple task. Want to see where it all began? Visit Washington-on-the-Brazos. Looking for ghosts of the Texas Revolution? Return to the Alamo. Want to celebrate our independence? Make your way to the San Jacinto Battleground. But you don't need to wind the clock back that far to enjoy Texas' past. If you're looking for history and authenticity, but with a side order of flicks and rock-and-roll, consider a weekend in the sister cities of Midland and Odessa. The 1950s are alive and well here, peppering the Permian Basin with boss burgers and barbecue joints, a passion pit (drive-in theater), and other ginchy (cool) attractions, all evoking the era of mid-century modern like crazy. In fact, after putting a few miles on your tank and spending just a little bit of bread, you and yours will be on Cloud 9.

Time-travel requires imagination and a certain suspension of disbelief, qualities that should be applied with enthusiasm at your first stop in the Atomic Age. While the Odessa Meteor Crater and Museum spotlights scientific fact, it also offers a worthy destination for fans of vintage science fiction. Some 63,000 years ago, a shower of nickel-iron meteorites thought to have originated from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter fell across a two-mile-wide area here. Upon collision, a large chunk-weighing about 300 tons-blew a hole in the ground approximately 500 feet wide and 100 feet deep, resulting in what is now one of the few visible impact craters in the country. A large sign outside the museum shows a geological cross-section of the crater; inside, visitors find displays of meteorites, tektites, and other crater-related materials. Over the centuries, wind-blown sediments have filled in much of the crater, but for the imaginative, the site conjures up the meteor madness in the 1953 movie It Came from Outer Space.

Imaginations need feeding, so wail your tank over to Johnny's Bar-B-Q on Kermit Highway (Texas 302) in Odessa, once the western arm of the well-known Johnny's Bar-B-Q in Midland. The Odessa Johnny's offers classic barbecue meals beneath the original neon sign-a renovated, porcelain-faced animation kept in tip-top shape by proud owner John Herriage.

Neon embodies the light of the 1950s, making Odessa's Ector Theatre and Johnny's Bar-B-Q Beacons of the era (literally).

Neon, in fact, embodies the light of the 1950s, which makes downtown Odessa's Ector Theatre, with its brilliant neon gridwork, a beacon of the era (literally). The Ector opened four years before the release of the 1955 James Dean classic Rebel Without a Cause and served movie lovers continuous Hollywood fare until closing its doors in 1985. What followed was a series of fits and starts, with the City of Odessa eventually purchasing the theater in 1997, refurbishing it, and restoring much of the neon spanning the movie-palace façade. Odessa residents Don and Toni Stice spearheaded the formation of a nonprofit called Friends of the Ector Theatre and took over management of the building in 2001. The Stices schedule theatrical events on the Ector's stage throughout the year, including performances by Elvis impersonator Vince King and other tribute artists who recall the musical talents of such legends as Buddy Holly and Johnny Cash.

The post-World War II optimism and economic growth of the 1950s created "larger-than-life" aspirations, manifested in the era's architecture, movies, automobiles, and personalities. In Odessa, this mindset spawned the concept of an eight-foot-tall, fiberglass sculpture of a happy, cartoon-like version of a Texas jackrabbit that still stands near the center of town. Completed in 1962, Jack Ben Rabbit serves as the city's icon and commemorates the long-eared critter's star-ring role in the now-defunct Jackrabbit Rodeo. Ironically, the back of Jack Ben Rabbit's commemorative plaque also features a recipe for rabbit stew.

Odessa's inspiration for constructing some of the state's Mid-century Modern icons may have been due, in part, to the rise of its big sister-Midland. The oil boom in the 1950s helped the entire region prosper, transforming cowtowns into modern cities, and Midland was at its epicenter. By 1950, 250 oil companies had offices in Midland, kick starting a decade that would raise a Midland skyline visible for miles.

The Wilco Building, a 22-story, L-shaped, brick-and-Kasota stone office building constructed by Midland rancher-turned-developer Jack B. Wilkinson Sr., remains one of the classic works of the period. Located at 415 W. Wall Street, the Wilco was the tallest building between Fort Worth and Phoenix upon its completion in 1958.

Modest in size, but buffeted by its historical significance, the most famous 1950s building in Midland is the George W. Bush Childhood Home. A must-see for fans of Mid-century Modern architecture, this restored, 1,400-square-foot residence does an outstanding job of recalling the atmosphere of early '50s domestic life.  Home to George H.W. and Barbara Bush and their family between 1951 and 1955, the house features knotty-pine paneling (a favorite of the period), wooden floors, and a hallway niche for a black, rotary-dial telephone (typical for most homes of the time). Rooms are furnished in '50s decor, including "little George's" bedroom, where toys and books of the era are neatly arranged. The living room is simple but authentically appointed, making it easy to imagine a young George H.W. relaxing on the couch with the newspaper. The kitchen, green with red and stainless-steel accents, features baby bottles and a bottle warmer on the countertop. Filled cupboards, with their doors slightly ajar, conjure the image of a young mother having just left the room, which, as a matter of fact, the former First Lady did, only it was more than 50 years ago, meaning there's no chance for you squares to mooch a home-cooked meal.

Make your way instead to Bob's Better Burger, on the west side of town, for a meal you thought had gone the way of the vinyl 45. Bob's has been around since the 1950s, and, fortunately, not much about it has changed. Bob's offers nothing more than some of the best burgers, shakes, and fries in the state.

Or, you might want to wait on dinner and sample the fare at the Big Sky Drive-In Theatre. This 2005 reproduction of a '50s drive-in movie mecca includes dazzling snack-bar decor, a dense menu of tasty treats, and an outdoor-cinema experience worthy of the 1958 masterpiece The Blob. The Big Sky, located west of Midland proper, features three screens, a full grill and concession, FM-frequency broadcast sound, a digital projection system, and unobstructed viewing. The triple-screener plays double features of first-run movies every night of the year. The management offers a free battery-charging service in case your clunker conks during the movie, and, if it's your birthday, be sure to mention it at the concession stand. The staff will arrange a round of "honks" between features to commemorate the occasion.

Despite these remnants of yesteryear, much of Midland and Odessa reflects the contemporary design found in most of today's American cityscapes-design guided by the desire for goods and services in an era where growing populations drive the urban engine. But scratch the surface, and you can still find the relative past and the satisfaction of embracing the fabulous Fifties.

See the full article in the July 2011 issue.

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Museum Hours

Tues–Sat 10 AM – 5 PM, Sun 2–5 PM

Tours given until 4:30 PM

Closed Mondays, Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day

1412 West Ohio Avenue
Midland, Texas 79701

Phone: (432) 685-1112