Why Randy’s Donuts Matters So Much to Los Angeles
There is a pigeon-topped, 32-and-a-half meter doughnut in Inglewood, California, which casts an unflinching gaze on the intersection of La Cienega and Manchester. The doughnut is three miles from LAX so 747s fly low overhead. The doughnut is across the street from the 405; the freeway’s whirr-whoosh waxes and wanes, depending on traffic. Directly below the doughnut is a white mid-century modern drive-thru. On the tan, dappled doughnut are black letters: Randy’s Donuts.
Now, a bit of history.
In 1971, English architecture critic Reyner Banham published Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, which proposed that the county was, rather than a unified whole, the combination of four “ecologies”: Surfburbia (beachside towns), The Plains of Id (flatlands), Autopia (freeways), and Foothills (he was apparently at a loss for a clever fourth moniker). Enthusiastic as he was, Banham was somewhat unfamiliar with the county’s socio-economic complexities, and the book vacillates between being inventive and utterly wrongheaded. Still, his central conceit that 1970s Los Angeles is a de-centered expanse was spot-on, and the idea of concurrent ecologies still resonates. The Los Angeles that Banham fell in love with is gone, but places with historicity remain. Like Randy’s Donuts.
Randy’s participates in a number of Los Angeles ecologies: Inglewood, our affinity for novelty programmatic architecture, the entertainment industry, and independently owned doughnut shops.
In 1953, when Russell C. Wendell opened the second iteration of his Big Donut Drive-In on the corner of La Cienega and Manchester, Inglewood was a different city. The 405, which turned Sepulveda Canyon into a car-clogged artery, had yet to be built; Los Angeles International Airport, once bean and barley fields, still teemed with rabbits; and the Lakers, who’d make the Forum a celebrity destination, were still in Minneapolis. Inglewood was a suburb. An exclusively white suburb.
Inglewood’s forced integration in the 1960s didn’t engender racial harmony, but white flight, which accelerated after the Watts Riots and the court-ordered 1970 desegregation of Inglewood High School. As whites moved to Beverly Hills, Palos Verdes Estates, and the San Fernando Valley, middle-class black families took their place. These days, Randy’s could soon bear witness to a painful reversal of these trends. Inglewood, with its moderate, almost Mediterranean weather, forthcoming Metro Rail station, and promises of investment tied to the Los Angeles Rams’ move to the former Hollywood Park Racetrack, is primed for gentrification. The services and civic validation which generations of black and Latino residents (who now constitute a majority in the city) worked for may finally be delivered—only to others.
To accompany Four Ecologies, Banham filmed Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles for the BBC, a 50-minute tour of the city. At Tiny Naylor’s drive-in, between bites of pineapple sundae, Banham lamented the coming decline of “hot dog stands that look like hot dogs.” (He referred to Tail o’ the Pup, which was evicted in 2005 and briefly re-opened as a pop-up in 2016.) Los Angeles was rich with programmatic architecture, whose mimetic, whimsical qualities mirrored the city’s creation myth that it’s a sun-kissed place where magic is real.
There is some debate as to whether Randy’s is programmatic or not. Technically, the building doesn’t resemble the item it’s advertising—certainly not in comparison to The Donut Hole in La Puente—but the giant fried confection on its roof leaves little to mystery. Built by structural engineer Richard Bradshaw out of rolled steel bars covered in a mixture of water, cement, and sand called gunite, the doughnut epitomizes the playful literality of programmatic architecture: The doughnut is where you buy doughnuts.
The Entertainment Industry
Understandably, the entertainment industry has taken a shine to Randy’s. It’s visually striking, very LA (County), and built with a warm timelessness. It’s unlikely that another restaurant in the Southland’s bright orange expanse has been featured as much in film and television.
Randy’s flashes across the screen in the video for Randy Newman’s sarcastic song “I Love LA.” A grainy shot of Randy’s appears in the opening credits for the David Duchovny show Californication. Because of apocalyptic earthquakes, the sign loses its moorings in 2012, the Red Chili Peppers’ “Californication” video, and the Academy Award-winning animated short Logorama. In Iron Man 2, Robert Downey Jr. sits in the crook of the supersized doughnut, munching away the golden hour. A woodie station wagon gets lodged in the sign in Earth Girls Are Easy, and in a freshly stolen car, Richard Gere peels out of the parking lot in Breathless. Shameik Moore delivers the closing monologue for Dope in the shadow of Randy’s, and The Prodigy, apparently vacationing in LA, featured it in “Wind It Up.” The opening credits of Into The Night frame the store in a blue-white fluorescence, and a mustachioed fellow named Galen shimmies and gyrates on the sidewalk for Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop The Feeling.” It also appears in Entourage, Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles, Get Shorty, The Golden Child, and Volcano. And those are only the shows and films which situate Randy’s in Los Angeles.
In Mars Attacks!, a similar, fictional doughnut shop, Donut World, is located in the fictional Perkinsville, Kansas. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas parodied Randy’s with “Jim’s Sticky Ring.” Little Rodentia, the town for small mammals in Zootopia, has its own novelty doughnut shop called The Big Donut, topped by a chocolate frosted. (To celebrate their Oscar for Best Animated Feature, Disney partnered with Randy’s to temporarily create a real-life Big Donut.) The doughnut shop in The Simpsons, Lard Lad Donuts, has a statue which combines the Bob’s Big Boy mascot and Randy’s’ donut. Another Matt Groening show, Futurama, placed Randy’s at “Monument Beach,” created when the State of New York elected a supervillain governor in the 2600s, who then stole some of the world’s most recognizable monuments. In Groening’s (joking, I think) estimation, the shop belonged alongside the Great Sphinx of Giza and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Independently Owned Donut Shops
A real Southern California doughnut shop does not employ a pastry chef, does not serve vegan donuts, and did not relocate from bosky locales like Portland and Northern California. It serves watery, mediocre-at-best coffee, has oppressively uncomfortable seating (if it has seating at all), and is located in a strip mall, or on a nondescript corner, or in an old Winchell’s. It is not a Dunkin’ Donuts, whose repeated incursions into Los Angeles have been met with little fanfare. My nearest doughnut shop, J&J Donuts, fulfills two of those requirements. Its regulars include a clique of age-unknown men who hold court on the parking lot’s dirty cinder block retaining wall until the early afternoon. It’s owned by a delightful 50- or 60-something couple who deserve your business.
Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge are responsible for Los Angeles’ proliferation of little doughnut shops. After purchasing his first doughnut shop in La Habra, Ted Ngoy, a refugee from the genocidal regime, built an empire by extending loans and guidance to fellow Chinese-Cambodians arriving in America. According to a 2005 Los Angeles Times article, there were 2,400 Cambodian-owned doughnut shops in LA in the early 1990s. Though some of this ad-hoc infrastructure is gone, the spirit remains: The Southern California doughnut shop is a humble place, not a monolith.
On a recent sunny Saturday morning, I drove my hatchback across town to Randy’s. A guy in a flimsy top hat with chunky sideburns and a doughnut-patterned button-up mugged for a friend carrying a video camera. Co-owner Ron Weintraub has quipped that, depending on its accumulation, pigeons’ droppings determine the doughnut sign’s “flavor”—plain cake or glazed. It looked plain cake. I grabbed my doughnuts and hit the road, anxious for the eye-dilating rush of a maple bar.