The Rise and Fall of Roadside Magazine

Chapter 8

I first met Daniel Zilka back in 1991 while on a road trip with Marjorie. At the time, he based himself in Burlington, Vermont, and agreed to meet with us at the Parkway Diner. Over breakfast, he explained his plans to establish a museum about diners, though in the meantime, he apparently made his living as a restorationist while spreading the gospel on something called the American Diner Project. In his very reserved, businesslike demeanor, Mr. Zilka told us about his latest restoration projects, which included an abandoned 1940 O’Mahony he had “rescued” in Armonk, New York.

Marjorie and I drove off wondering how he would ever get this museum off the ground and why he barely touched his pancake breakfast.

When people in the “diner world” saw copies of Roadside, they invariably asked if we had contacted the other personalities in this world. Mr. Zilka’s name, however, often touched off notes of concern. Adhering to our policy of fence straddling, we tried to keep everyone at arms length. I believed the idea for this museum certainly had merit, but like a number of other diner-related projects introduced to us, it needed one thing: Funding. Ultimately, we became skeptical of any idea not already backed by real cash.

Two years later, I saw Mr. Zilka for only the second time at the Society for Commercial Archeology’s diner conference in Fraser, Pennsylvania. When I saw the guy, I did the double-take. In Burlington, he sported a pony tail, and looked like he could have just returned from a Grateful Dead concert. At the conference, his grooming came straight from GQ.

When he announced to us in 1994 that the Rhode Island Historical Society invited Zilka to join them and their plans to establish what would become Heritage Harbor, I accepted his invitation to serve on the project’s steering committee. Also volunteering his time was Richard Gutman, a most generous gesture, because up to that time, a rift had formed between the two historians. To my relief, it seemed a détente settled in.

The détente, however, didn’t last long. Though he attended several initial meetings of the steering committee, Gutman eventually resigned from the board publicly citing outside obligations. Privately, he expressed to me his reservations over the museum’s lack of direction and Zilka’s lax attitude towards returning loaned items.

Roadside, on the other hand, got very involved. I saw this museum both as a good idea for diners and for Roadside itself. I put some measure of faith in Zilka that once incorporated and legal, the organization would pull together and get serious. Incorporated in 1996 and naming Zilka as its president and executive director, the museum, backed by Roadside’s mailing list and publicity, sought to recruit members and volunteers.

Fund raising, a primary task of any non-profit, always rose to the top of every meeting’s agenda. In 1995, I proposed that we pick up where the SCA had left off with its diner conference two years before. The Delaware Valley diner symposium had attracted the SCA’s highest attendance of any of their annual conferences. With Roadside having a table in the reception area, I also saw the germination of a commercial side to this conference. Some people came to talk business, not just history, and some sought a good used diner to buy. What if we added this aspect to our own event?

Amazingly, the first Diner-Rama in Seekonk proved a great success for a rookie effort. I wrote about it in a Countertop piece in Roadside and gave lavish credit to the museum’s crew of dedicated, enthusiastic volunteers. Though we had bitten our nails down to the stubs fretting over the event’s progress, in the end, everyone, including the volunteers, had a great time, and the museum raised a modest amount of money. We assumed that we had the proper formula to go forward and grow.

At the time, I had envisioned two requirements for Diner-Rama’s success: The eager and expanding involvement of diner operators and a continual growth in attendance. Though fun, the event required huge amounts of time and resources from the museum and its volunteers. It weighed in with costs of $10,000 or more and took a good nine-to-ten months to plan. In the midst of planning the second Diner-Rama in Albany, I saw how preparations and a lack of volunteers effectively shut down planning for the museum.

It also shut down production of Roadside.

Though attendees enjoyed themselves, Albany and the subsequent event in Parsippany, New Jersey were both fund-raising failures. Attendance had slipped and diner operator participation proved much more difficult than I had expected.

After Parsippany, I mulled over my involvement in the museum. Every year, the museum reported having about $2,000 in the bank, while it needed a half-million dollars before moving into the Heritage Harbor facility. Zilka, in my opinion, spent an inordinate amount of time expanding the collection, which by then included a half-dozen actual diners, many scattered throughout the Northeast that we could not afford to move and secure.

As I saw it, a museum without an actual facility must complete two extremely important tasks: Raising capital and accounting for its collection. Though it had finally consolidated most of the artifacts in a storage facility in Fall River, the Museum had yet to catalog any of it by 1999. Three years before, both Susan Germain and volunteer Steve Bessette offered to begin the process. However, because Zilka had retrieved most of the items, only he could identify each artifact, requiring his very active participation.

Then at a later board meeting, Zilka suddenly announced that he had found someone to catalog the collection, effectively pulling Susan and Steve off the project without any explanation. Steve Bessette resigned from the board soon after, while Susan and I turned our attentions to Diner-Rama. This new person, incidentally, never materialized.

At the end of 1999, I resigned from the board, but not without citing Zilka in private for the failure to mend the rift between him and Gutman as well as with Steve Harwin and John Baeder. I told him privately, that eventually Gutman would donate his extensive collection to someone. If he snubbed the American Diner Museum, it would be seen as a serious blow to the Museum’s credibility.

Finally, I warned Zilka and the board that, in my opinion, his proclivity for collecting often violated the Museum’s own bylaws, which state that the President shall not obligate the museum without the consent of the board. The board had not voted on and therefore had not approved any of these diner acquisitions.

My other reason for resigning had also to do with Roadside’s changing status. In 1998, Roadside reached a cross-roads and it looked like I had chosen the right path.

Next time: The seed man cometh


Click Here!