Robert Gosnelll Sr.'s castle-like Green Gables restaurant set the stage for unforgettable dining with mounted knights, fair maidens and insolent puppets.

Camelot in the Desert

Written by Douglas Towne Category: History Issue: January 2017
Group Free
Pin It

Once upon a time, a restaurant magically transported a generation of Phoenicians through time to King Arthur’s court in medieval England. Beckoned by flaming torches along stone walls, motorists entered the compound through a gate and were led to the castle door by a knight in shining armor atop a white horse. Trumpeters announced guests, Robin Hood parked cars and Lady Guinevere escorted them to their table in a room decorated with crossbows and pikes.

“It was like having dinner in a room out of a fairy tale,” columnist Dorothy Kilgallen wrote in Good Housekeeping magazine.

Green Gables restaurant at the southwest corner of 24th Street and Thomas Road transformed special occasions into regal events and became synonymous with milestone celebrations to many Phoenicians. “On my 21st birthday, I had my first drink with my mother at lunch at Green Gables in 1970,” Phoenix historian John Jacquemart recalls, as if still savoring the Harvey Wallbanger. “After this mild initiation, I returned to Green Gables for happy hour.”

Hollywood celebrities such as Henry Fonda, Bob Hope, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Mario Lanza and Clark Gable, who held his wedding reception there, gravitated to the upscale restaurant, which employed future country star Waylon Jennings as a busboy. Before remodeling itself as a theme restaurant, however, Green Gables had been a nondescript eatery that struggled to attract customers. But overnight it became the talk of Phoenix, thanks to a publicity stunt conceived by its owner, Robert Gosnell Sr.

A bank teller for Downtown’s Phoenix National Bank in the 1930s, Gosnell was disappointed with nearby eating options and decided he could do better. With a $22,000 bank loan, he purchased an 11-acre triangle formed by Thomas Road, 24th Street and the Grand Canal.

Using construction skills acquired from working on Horse Mesa and Coolidge dams in the 1920s, he built the original Green Gables. Sleeping on-site in a dirt-floor shack, he completed the modest wooden restaurant, which featured 35-cent martinis and sinful porterhouse steaks, in 1939.

“You could hardly get there for the cows,” Gosnell told The Arizona Republic in 1984. “There were dairy herds on all sides.” Perhaps because of the manure aroma, hungry diners failed to materialize. Business was so sparse that Gosnell coaxed his aunt and her sewing-circle friends to sit in the restaurant so it would look busy, according to a 1958 Popular Mechanics article.

To publicize his business, Gosnell sponsored the first live radio broadcast from an airplane over Phoenix in 1940. He removed the plane’s seats and squeezed a piano into the cabin, according to the book Sky Pioneering: Arizona in Aviation History by Ruth Reinhold. Jazz tunes played aloft by pianist Francis Beck were transmitted to KTAR studios, where future Arizona Governor John Howard Pyle provided commentary.

Unbeknownst to Gosnell, also in the airplane, halfway through the flight circling the city, a glitch abruptly ended the musical transmission. Valley residents listening to the broadcast feared the worst. Distraught listeners jammed the phone lines to the police, airport and KTAR’s offices. Gosnell learned of the technical snafu when he landed and thought his marketing idea had failed. To his relief, the opposite occurred: The attention generated ushered in crowds to Green Gables.

The restaurant thrived through World War II, but Gosnell had bigger plans for Green Gables. “Ever since I was a youngster, I treasured tales of Robin Hood and his merry men, all woven in with the pageantry of Olde England,” Gosnell told the Republic in 1969. Gosnell had the old restaurant building hauled away to become the jockey club at the Arizona Downs horse track at Thomas Road and 62nd Street and built a new, larger restaurant on the same lot. He hauled 500 tons of sandstone from Ash Fork to create a medieval fortress. Green Gables reopened to incredible fanfare in 1949, one of the first medieval-theater restaurants in the U.S.

“It was the place to be!” Green Gables neighborhood historian Tim Anderson exclaims. “They had knights on horses walk along serving cocktails to people idling in their cars.”

Customers watched Robin Hood storm the place to duel with knights in chain mail. “Gosnell was a big supporter of ASU football, and most of the guys in costume played on the team,” Anderson says. “While it was customary to tip the knights, big-time football supporters gave them huge gratuities.”

Three knights were usually on duty along with horses Checkers or Cisco. “The knight on the horse wore a metal chest plate, a knight’s hood and carried a sword,” former knight Bob Kenneavy recalls.

The medieval fantasyland was fertile terrain for horseplay for one particular customer – a Springerville rancher celebrating the sale of his cattle at Tovrea Stockyards. Leaving the restaurant, the tipsy cowboy eyed the knight in armor sitting atop his horse directing traffic.

“He took off on the run, made a mighty leap and landed on the horse behind the knight,” Arizona State Historian Marshall Trimble says. “The horse bucked, unloading both riders. The knight landed on the asphalt with a resounded clatter that scattered his lance and armor. Not surprisingly, the rancher became persona non grata afterward.”

The knights could be their own worst enemies when trying to attract fair maidens. “One decided to show off by galloping his horse, but he hadn’t cinched the saddle tight enough,” Tempe resident Barbara Boettcher recalls of visiting the restaurant as a teenager. “The knight didn’t appear very regal when he tumbled off the horse.”

Entertainment continued inside, where the Green Gables band, led by Hayder Hendershott, performed popular tunes mixed with Old English ballads. KTAR broadcast from the restaurant during lunch.

The restaurant created indelible memories. “My best birthday as a child was at Green Gables,” Phoenix independent film promoter Steve Weiss says. “At the end of the meal they brought out a cake with a sparkler and my name on a small sign hanging above the cake. Best part? They gave me a sword to cut it. What could be better?”

A cheeky court jester puppet named Wamba enlivened the dining experience. He popped out of the tower wall to mess with the staff and customers. “One evening, he called me by name and reminded me to ‘Eat my vegetables,’” long-time Phoenix resident Stephanie Foster recalls. “I was so embarrassed!”

ASU journalism instructor Christia Gibbons, whose family used to make an annual pilgrimage from Tucson, says, “The place was magical. There was a puppet named Griselda who greeted you at the door by name, and gave the kids a miniature metal knight on a horse.”
Although Gosnell turned the day-to-day management of Green Gables over to the Fred Harvey Company in the mid-1950s, he didn’t sell it until 1969. The Phoenix landmark continued as John’s Green Gables for 15 years, but its charm ebbed. “It was sad watching it go downhill over time, first losing the knightly greeter, then the remodeling necessitated by the widening of  24th Street,” photo historian Jeremy Rowe says.

Investors purchased the property in 1984 and constructed a four-story office building, which preserved part of the original restaurant – and its name. “I think it’s a wonderful idea because nobody else could run it [the restaurant] as well as I did,” Gosnell boasted to the Republic.

As if to prove Gosnell’s claim, the new owners allowed him to throw a farewell party, which included all the Sherwood Forest fanfare and the original band. The furnishings were auctioned off to the guests.

“During the restaurant’s heyday, Gosnell was always there,” Anderson says. “It was his baby; he was the element that made it fantastic.”

When Gosnell died in 1994 at age 84, former Arizona Governor Jack Williams spoke reverently of the man who created an enchanted bit of Old England in the desert. “He introduced Phoenix to the fine art of dining,” Williams says. “It was quite an affair at the time as Phoenix had no great restaurants until the Green Gables.”

Nor any knights on horseback.

Barry-eD memories
Green Gables founder Robert Gosnell Sr.’s eldest son, Dan, would fill in as a knight on horseback in the parking lot during the restaurant’s heyday. One of his fondest memories: the time Barry Goldwater, then a U.S. Senator (pictured, left) emerged from the restaurant’s castle window in a jester’s outfit. “Barry grabbed a trumpet and played a few notes until someone, who I heard was his brother, Bob, poured some Scotch down the horn,” Gosnell recalls.
Wes Bloom dining with his mother, Jeri Bloom, and his grandfather, Al W. Bloom, in 1960.
 
Robert Gosnell Sr. inspecting knights.
 
Knights on horseback greeted Green Gables diners with cocktails.