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Route 66 town saved on road to oblivion

Fast-food baron gets his kicks preserving icon

AMBOY, Calif. -- Before Interstate 40 bypassed them, this town on old Route 66 and its modernist landmark, Roy's Motel and Cafe, thumped with life day and night.

Roy's atomic-age neon sign was a beacon of civilization to weary travelers rocketing along America's Mother Road, a sign of hope to motorists whose cars had croaked in the desert heat.

Amboy was the domain of Buster Burris, a rough-hewn entrepreneur with strong opinions about bikers and men with long hair. Burris and his father-in-law opened Roy's in the 1930s and for decades did brisk business selling tires, malts, and gas.

Today, Amboy and Roy's are the only tourist stops for about 100 miles that didn't disappear after the interstate shut off customers in the 1970s. The town's population is approximately 4, the school closed years ago, birds have turned the church into a feces-caked aviary, and the post office barely survived.

Roy's, shuttered for about two years, is a mess of peeling paint, rotting floors, and broken glass. Each windstorm takes another piece of the sign with it. Burris, who sold Amboy before he died at 92 in 2000, would have been heartbroken.

But for fast-food chicken baron Albert Okura, Amboy was love at first sight.

"I believe in destiny, and I believe my destiny involves that town," said Okura, 55, who got rich by founding the Juan Pollo restaurant chain in the Inland Empire, a region encompassing eastern Washington, northern Idaho, northwestern Montana, and northeastern Oregon . "It's hard to explain. How many people can say they own a whole town?"

In 2005, Okura bought Amboy from Burris's second wife, Bessie, 90, who regained ownership of the property after the previous buyers lost it to foreclosure. Okura persuaded her to sell him the town because he pledged to restore and reopen Roy's -- and because he had $425,000 in cash.

For that, Okura got the motel and cafe, the church and post office, four gas pumps, two dirt airstrips, and a variety of scattered buildings.

Okura also got several hundred acres of adjacent desert that he believes could skyrocket in value if development in the Inland Empire continues its push .

"There were better offers, but they didn't want to run a hotel and diner. They were going to tear them down. I didn't think that was a good idea," said Bessie, a onetime city girl who embraced Burris's love for the remote outpost he rarely left.

Amboy had long been a railroad town when Route 66 put the place on the map during the Great Depression.

Roy Crowl saw gold in the migrants escaping the Dust Bowl. He began buying land and opened a service station in Amboy in 1938. The Texas-born Burris, whose first marriage was to Crowl's daughter, joined him a year later.

Their place hummed 24 hours a day, seven days a week with broken-down cars -- so many that customers often had a long wait. Crowl and Burris opened a diner to feed them double cheeseburgers and homemade chili. The boom in tourism after World War II brought even more motorists. Crowl and Burris built the motel and in 1959 erected the Roy's sign.

Through the years, the hotel's modernist flourishes and stainless-steel diner have been a magnet for fans of kitschy Americana as well as an artists' muse.

Filmmakers see Roy's as a dark, forbidding hangout for psychopathic killers -- see "Kalifornia" and the 1986 "The Hitcher."

When Larry Stevens read that Okura had bought Amboy and planned to restore Roy's, he knew he had to be a part of it. A construction superintendent in Las Vegas, he was sick of crowds, traffic, and smog. Amboy has none .

He drove to San Bernardino and all but begged Okura to hire him as the town's caretaker.

"The first few weeks were tough. There was no power, and it was as dark as a tomb out here at night," said Stevens, 52.

But Stevens discovered that Amboy is a busy place for a ghost town. Even on a slow day, scores of motorists still stop at Roy's. A few free spirits have wandered in on foot. "You never know who's going to show up," he said.