Split-T faced final down in 2000

BY DAVE CATHEY
Published: September 13, 2010
Modified: September 13, 2010 at 1:28 pm



The success of Molly Murphy's House of Fine Repute between 1976 and 1996 was predicated on theft. Owners Bob and Jeffiee Tayar pilfered the idea for their wildly successful novelty restaurant from The Magic Time Machine in Austin, Texas.

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But before they started marching out costumed waitstaff and serving up as much shtick as steak, the Tayars longed to open a drive-in. At the time, the Split-T and Charcoal Oven were the two most successful concepts on Oklahoma City's north side. To gain the knowledge and personnel they needed for the new concept, Jeffiee Tayar resorted to espionage.

"I took a job with the Split-T to find out how they did things and lure away any kitchen staff I could," Jeffiee Tayar said in a recent phone interview. "It was 1965, and the owner was gone to California quite a bit at the time. Johnnie Haynes was the manager at the time, and we wanted to steal him away. We wanted to compete with the best, so we targeted the Split-T."

Jeffiee Tayar couldn't lure Haynes, but did come away with one of the cooks for what would become Bonaparte's.

The Split-T and T-Bar survived the Tayars' poaching and Haynes' eventual defection to start Johnnie's Charcoal Broiler, but time and scandal would eventually take the shine off the spot at 5701 N Western that once drew teenagers the way light draws June bugs.

The Split-T and T-Bar closed and was demolished in 2000. The birthplace of the Theta Burger is no more, but a Sonic on a common corner where the property stood for so many years still bears its name.

1st down and the '50s

Vince Stephens couldn't have known he was creating an institution back in 1953, but he did recognize the success of Bud Wilkinson's football team in Norman and its mastery of an offensive formation that deployed three running backs lined up in a row behind the quarterback and a single receiver split away from the end of the line of scrimmage.

According to a 1993 story in The Oklahoman, a friend suggested splitting the front doors with a "T." When those doors swung open, teenagers streamed in to sample a menu that included Stephens' mother's recipes for Caesar, hickory and thousand island sauces between the buns of his flame-broiled patties, the story stated.

What began as the anchor on the south end of a strip of shops eventually gobbled up the entire space when the T-Bar opened. It became a second home to teens from Bishop McGuinness, John Marshall, Harding, Casady and other local high schools. It was to Oklahoma City what Arnold's Drive-In was to the "Happy Days" version of Milwaukee.

When the building was eventually razed, The Oklahoman was overwhelmed with letters, e-mails and calls.

Ann Foerster Ryan went to Casady School in the late '50s, and even after she went away for college, the "T" was her No. 1 destination when she came home.

"In high school, we went to the 'T' before and after football games, when kids from Casady, Harding, John Marshall, Northwest Classen and McGuinness would show up to cruise and hangout," Ryan wrote to The Oklahoman when it closed for good in 2000. "There were so many people packed in there, fire marshals today would faint!

"No weekend evening was complete without driving through the parking lot several times to see whose car was there before we decided to go in," she wrote. "During college, when I came home for vacations, I had to go straight to the 'T' from the airport. And even later in life, when I had lived away from Oklahoma City for several years, I'd always head in for a burger, and Johnnie would always remember my name. I've said for 40 years that if I ever have to choose a 'last meal,' it will be a No. 1, onion rings and a Dr Pepper."

2nd down, civil rights

The Split-T became a local lightning rod in the civil rights movement of the 1960s one Friday night when the Bishop McGuinness High School football team showed up there. The manager refused to serve the blacks among the team, so the team walked out. With the high school principal's blessing, according to Katie Tener Gordy, the entire school boycotted the Split-T until the restaurant agreed to serve all students.

"That was a real powerful lesson," Gordy said. "It really brought segregation home to us."

Civil-rights leader Clara Luper told The Oklahoman in a previous interview she staged a sit-in at the Split-T.

"That was kind of the aristocratic, upper-crust part of the city, and it wasn't touched by any part of the civil rights movement," Luper said.

Split-T diners shouted profanities and threw ice and rocks at the protest crowd, Luper said. The manager tried to throw the blacks out. As the protesters sang and chanted, the police came. Luper said she and others were arrested on complaints of disorderly conduct. The next night, they did the same thing. More arrests and a restraining order followed.

"When the walls of segregation fell, I didn't go back there," said Luper, who taught at then nearby John Marshall High School. "I just couldn't get an appetite."

The end of the 1960s also meant the end of David "Johnnie" Haynes' time at the place where he started as a dishwasher. In 1971, he opened his first Johnnie's Charcoal Broiler, and the long, slow descent of the Split-T began.

3rd down and politics

By the 1980s, the Split-T became a second home for state legislators. When the Democrats who dominated the Capitol became dissatisfied with their leadership and considered a change at the top, much of the plotting happened at the T-Bar.

A group that would become known as the T-Bar 12 orchestrated the ouster of Speaker of the House Jim Barker in 1989. Members of the group invited House members to lunch at the Split-T to gauge their satisfaction with leadership. If griping began, lunch moved through the double doors to the T-Bar. On May 19, 1989, the T-Bar rebellion hit the House floor with a motion to remove Barker. When the votes were in, Barker was out.

4th down and forever

The death knell was rung by former Oklahoma State University star quarterback Rusty Hilger, who leased the space and took it in a different direction, concentrating more on live music and bar business than Caesar Burgers. It all came crashing down when Hilger was arrested in 1993 and convicted of trying to buy cocaine inside the bar. Around that same time, some serious violations were reported by the Oklahoma County Health Department, and the end followed shortly.

Chad O'Neal and Brad Vincent revived the Split-T in spring 1994. But by 2000, time had caught up to the structure, and local diners had shifted to Johnnie's for their Caesar and Theta burgers. The big red doors with the white T-shaped handles closed for good in spring 2000, and the building came down shortly after.

"They were the best hamburgers in the world as far as we were concerned," recalled Larry Shaw, of Oklahoma City, who would drive from Stillwater for a Split-T burger with his girlfriend, Margaret, now his wife.

Contributing: The Oklahoman's George Lang and The Oklahoman archives.


 


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