Wil Wright was one of the many Midwestern dreamers who traveled to California between the World Wars to seek his fortune around Los Angeles. He was raised Catholic in Cincinnati, graduating from Purcell High School in East Walnut Hills in the late 1920s. Wright followed one of his high school buddies, Tyrone Power Jr., to Los Angeles. Power had come from an acting family that returned to Cincinnati, after his parents divorced. In high school Power worked as a soda jerk at the Graeter’s soda fountain near Peebles Corner, but dreamed of the silver screen. Power followed in his father’s footsteps landing star roles as either a swashbuckler or romantic lead in movies from the 1930s to the 1950s like Zorro, Jesse James, and the Razor’s Edge.
But Wil’s dream was different than that of his dashing thespian buddy. In the 1940s Wright started what would become a chain of ice cream parlors in Southern California – the earliest parlors in Hollywood and the Sunset Strip. One would pop up in Beverly Hills, another in Westwood Village, and more in Pacific Palisades, Newport Beach, Tarzana, and other places in SoCal.
The ice cream was super rich – almost 22% butterfat – referred later by many as the original Haagen-Dazs. For several generations of Southern Californians, and long before its health food craze took off, Wil Wright’s created fond memories. Many would go to the Santa Monica Boulevard parlor after a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. With each delicious scoop of ice cream came a small, vanilla wafer-sized chewy, almond macaroon. Each macaroon came in a small rice paper bag with an angel and the slogan, “It’s heavenly!” According to workers, a French lady baked these for Wright’s and they were shipped from her kitchen to all the locations.
Many talked about the delicious Peppermint Stick Ice Cream, or the Coffee flavored. But when the last parlor closed, most talked about was the Nesselrode Bula, the most expensive flavor. It was like Mullane’s Nesselrode Sundae in Cincinnati, with candied fruits, candied chestnuts, and brandy and rum. The flavor was described as a boozy fruitcake. This became the fave flavor of the Hollywood studio set like Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, Hopalong Cassidy, Gary Cooper, and Cincinnati area natives Rosemary Clooney and Doris Day. Many times chauffeurs would drive up to the Sunset Boulevard store and come in for a few quarts for their famous clients.
Even Marilyn Monroe was a fan of Wil Wright’s ice cream, but not the Nesselrode Bula. Marilyn fed her voluptuous figure with their hot fudge sundae. Marilyn is quoted saying, “ It’s a good thing, I suppose, that I eat simply during the day, for in recent months I have developed the habit of stopping off at Wil Wright’s ice cream parlor for a hot fudge sundae on my way home from my evening drama classes. I’m sure I couldn’t allow myself this indulgence were it not that my normal diet is comprised almost totally of protein foods.” It looks like Marilyn was an early advocate of the Atkins Diet.
Marilyn enjoying a Wil Wright’s hot fudge sundae.
Wright’s was immortalized in Pop Culture in several movies and album covers. One movie it appeared in was the 1967 teen film, It’s A Bikini World. The cover of Collections by the Rascals and Brubeck a la Mode by jazz great Dave Brubeck were shot at Wil Wright’s. A 1966 Playboy centerfold even had some of her personal pictures shot at a Wil Wright’s.
Entrepreneurial vision was not the only thing Wil brought with him from Cincinnati. In 1963, thirty year Graeter’s employee, Kathy Drake, then the manager of the Walnut Street Graeter’s store, told the Cincinnati Enquirer she knew Wil Wright when he was in Cincinnati. She said a former Graeter’s employee taught Wright their French-pot method ice cream recipes and the secret formula for their Nectar Soda (which Graeter’s had modeled after the Mullane’s original nectar soda, created by John Mullane after his 1870s training in Acadian Quebec.) These were the recipes he used to start his California ice cream empire. He called it the New Orleans Nectar Soda, maybe to defer suspicion that he actually got the recipe in Cincinnati.
Maybe it was the health food scene that caused the demise of Wil Wright’s Ice cream parlors in the 1970s. The Los Angeles Times ran a piece that Wright’s ice cream was much fattier and higher in calories than most of the other ice cream chains in Southern California. But it was probably the entrée of other competitors with full menus – like Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor, which also invaded Cincinnati at that time, and where I had my 8th birthday party over an ice cream cone clown sundae. The last Wil Wright’s parlor closed in the late 1970s, but Graeter’s (and Aglamesis) is still serving their Cincinnati Nectar Soda.