Mel's is back

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Mel's Diner once was a star, appearing weekly on network television with its sign featuring a tipped coffee cup and an arrow of spilled coffee that pointed to sitcom hilarity.

Now, the property's owners have brought the Phoenix eatery to its "Alice" roots, trying to trade on any nostalgia left for the once-beloved CBS show. And for the first time, it'll really be Mel's Diner.

The diner's link was dormant even while the show was in its prime in the late-1970s and early 1980s. No one thought to turn the diner into a tourist attraction until it fell into the hands of Emmanouil Stivaktakis and his wife six years ago.

The two Greek immigrants hadn't even seen the show until recently.

"Alice" ran on TV from 1976 to 1985. Although it was filmed on a Hollywood soundstage, the show was set in Phoenix, at a greasy spoon called Mel's Diner.

For most of the show's run, its opening credits showed that memorable Mel's Diner sign. It was on-screen for only a second but long enough to sear the image into the pop-culture conscience.

Stivaktakis had never heard of Linda Lavin (who played the title role) or the catch phrase "Kiss my grits!" (which launched a thousand T-shirts) before he bought the diner.

But this summer, he had his waitresses start dressing in uniforms reminiscent of "Alice," although in black rather than pink. He already had decorated the walls with photos and newspaper clippings about the show. And he put cast photos on his menu, calling it the "world famous" Mel's Diner.

"Maybe the people will like it more," Stivaktakis said of the changeover.

Stivaktakis is planning a memorabilia case in which to display more of the artifacts, including an original script, that he has picked up through Internet auctions.

Stivaktakis said that after he took over the diner, he spotted people posing in front of the sign.

"I noticed too many cars from different states that pulled into here to take a picture," he told The Arizona Republic.

Customers would ask whether he was Mel. Or whether Flo, the sharp-tongued waitress famous for the "Kiss my grits!" line, was working today.

Having moved to the United States in 2000, the 34-year-old Stivaktakis had no idea what they meant.

Over time, some regulars told him about the show and the diner's place in TV history.

The opening credits of the show — starring Lavin, Polly Holliday (Flo) and Vic Tayback (Mel) — depicted Alice's car breaking down in Phoenix and her taking a job at Mel's Diner.

The sign on the Grand Avenue diner originally was created for Lester's Diner to tout the 14-ounce coffee cup available inside. Owner Lester Bammesberger sold the diner in 1970 to a couple who named it Glenn's Diner. Later that year, they sold it to Christine Harris, who called it Chris' Diner.

A producer for the TV show, who was driving around Phoenix looking for just the right sign, stopped in and asked Harris whether they could change the "Chris" to "Mel." She agreed.

Harris sold the diner in 1978. The new owner didn't want to keep the flashing lights that animated the signature spilling coffee. As they burned out, he didn't replace them, letting the sign go dark right at the time "Alice" was a Top 10 show in the ratings.

In 1992, the restaurant was sold again and became Pat's Family Restaurant. It passed to Stivaktakis' uncle, John, in 2003. He called it John's Diner.

That's how it was when Stivaktakis took it over. "Alice" didn't air in Greece, so Stivaktakis watched DVDs of the first two seasons.

Within the year, Stivaktakis had the sign repainted for about $400. He wanted to light the coffee cup again, but the wiring inside has decayed and been destroyed by birds. He also said regular customers who are zoning employees told him city code won't allow it.

So for now, Stivaktakis is content to give people the name, the TV Guide covers, the photos and the waitresses in uniforms. His wife, Stamatouli, told him that he soon will have to start wearing a white T-shirt and white cap in the kitchen, just as Mel did on TV.

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