Prime Location
Besides repairing cars, Ronnie's Automotive Service makes a classy movie backdrop

By Garrett Soden

From Pasadena magazine
"IT HASN'T BEEN RESTORED. It's been maintained."

Ronnie Martin corrected my common misconception about his vintage service station the minute I met him. Looking around at the canopy, classic globe-topped pumps, and service bays with roll-up doors, it's easy to assume it's all the hobby of a wealthy history buff. But it isn't. It's the result of how Ronnie does things.

Ronnie is a trim, square-jawed man in a neat gray uniform with an oval patch that says "Ronnie." The inside of his office is notable for what isn't there as well as for what is. There are no stacks of paper on the desk. There are no maps taped to the window. There aren't any greasy tools, advertisements for mufflers, or racks of potato chips. Instead, a plain metal desk and an office chair sit on a freshly swept cement floor.

Ronnie opens one of the drawers and produces a stenographers spiral pad with a neatly handwritten list. Going back to 1982, it is a list of the more than 70 movies, TV commercials, magazine layouts and advertising photos that have been shot at his station.

A recent job resulted in a new color scheme for the station. "Twentieth Century Fox come in to do a shot and they decided they didn't like the brown I had, and they wanted to do some teal green. They painted everything that their shot was going to show from the south. And the agreement is that they have to paint it back the way it was. Well they did such a nice job - they primed everything, used Sinclair paint. They did the lettering on the other side of the office, the guy come up, did a beautiful job. I liked it so well, I said, why come back and put that back the way it was, come on this side and put it the way you did that side."

The film company was shooting the movie "Bye, Bye, Love," now in general release. Playboy had recently used the station for a photo layout. "There's no nudity in it," Ronnie is quick to inform me. He pulls out the issue and flips past the well-known pictorials to a shot of a two-hundred thousand dollar red sports car parked in his driveway, a setting sun casting a golden glow over the scene.

Natilie Cole and Brian Setzer have shot music videos here, and movie directors also use the location, but most of the station's appearances are in TV commercials. Toyota, New England Telephone, a Dutch cigarette manufacturer and a Japanese credit card company have all used Ronnie's as a backdrop. "Very few of them are related to the service station or auto repair business," Ronnie notes, with some amusement. "Most of them are everything but that."

The irony is that the advertising folks come to capture an image of what they believe is a bygone era of personal service - yet for Ronnie, the good old days never ended.

RONNIE NEVER MEANT FOR HIS STATION to be a movie set, and its preservation isn't due to the gentrification trend that has revived neighborhoods like Bungalow Heaven, a mile to the south. Ronnie simply likes to do things correctly, and to keep things neat. Talking to him, you get the idea that to let something slide or to throw out something useful would never occur to him.

Ronnie has had only one job - working on cars. Raised in a row house in Philadelphia, he was wiping windshields in his father's service station when he was thirteen. He quit school at sixteen and joined the Army at seventeen, working as a mechanic in the motor pool. When he left the service in 1952, he came to Pasadena to visit his brother, and decided to stay. When he looked for a job, Mr. Odel, the first owner of the station, hired him. Ronnie says it plainly: "I got a job here. And here I am."

Mr. Odel made him manager after two years, and two years later Ronnie bought the station, and eventually the land it sits on. Through the years, Ronnie sold gas, repaired and maintained cars, and repaired and maintained his station as well.

But in 1982, after fixing the forty-year-old pumps time and again (including changing the mechanisms so they could register more than 49.9 cents a gallon) Ronnie got the word from the authorities that he'd have to outfit his pumps with the new hoses that recovered gas fumes. The hoses wouldn't fit his old pumps. Since selling gas wasn't too profitable anyway, he shut the pumps down.

It was only a year earlier that the station had made it's debut. "A fellow come in and said we'd like to do a commercial for Toyota, can we use your place. We thought it was just an isolated thing." If Ronnie had replaced the pumps, it would have been. Instead, the number of shots grew each year, and Ronnie found his station moonlighting in the movie business. He's now listed with more than a dozen scouts.

He seems to have enjoyed it. Once in a while, when they need a fellow to play a mechanic, Ronnie steps in. He is, of course, entirely believable. "They put me in some coveralls and dirty me up," he smiles. In a credit card commercial, he was surprised to find that he was featured, upstaging the real actors. "I come in front of them rolling this tire."

The station's second career has changed things a bit at Ronnie's. The pumps are now painted with the colors of a long-defunct California oil company called Gilmore, and topped with reproductions of Gilmore globes featuring a lion and the slogan "Roar with Gilmore." Although the station had never sold Gilmore gas, it is of that era, and now Ronnie's become a collector of Gilmore memorabilia. The pumps sometimes attract people who remember the company and bring Ronnie items he displays on his office shelves: a Gilmore uniform patch ("Monarch of All"); a Gilmore giveaway lion statuette, and three Gilmore pencils. Ronnie shows me one, then replaces it, making sure it's straightened with the others on the shelf.

THE MOVIE BUSINESS, though, is not Ronnie's real business. My time with him is interrupted several times by phone calls from customers who describe their car's ailment in detail. Ronnie listens, and offers advice the way only someone who knows his craft through a lifetime of working at it can. When a customer brings his car in for service, Ronnie will make a record of the work on the index card he keeps on each of his customers. Although he has taken the precaution of having his information backed up on a computer managed by someone else, Ronnie doesn't need one in his office, because his system is better. "I've been organized to begin with," he declares. "Computers are for the guy that wasn't organized." Instead of forcing the customer to stand while he taps on a keyboard to pull up the file, Ronnie "pops a card" from his file and greets the customer in his driveway.

His policy has served his business well. Pointing across the street, he says, "They built a gas station there, and the guys come in from New Jersey, and word got back to me they were going to have me shut down in six months. They lasted nine months."

I ask Ronnie how he will feel when he eventually sells the station, although I think I know the answer. He shrugs and sighs. "I don't know. When push comes to shove, I'm just going to have to walk away from it," he says. "I almost feel that I would rather have somebody come in here and tear down and put something else here, and end the era, than have somebody come in and just let it go to hell."

Ronnie looks out at the pumps. "My hope is really to find somebody that will take over and follow through the way I have. The likelihood of that - very slim. But I guess it could happen."

"It could happen," I repeat, hoping it will.

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Copyright © 2006 Garrett Soden