Joshua Tehee

‘Fresno Growing Up’ captures nostalgic look at the city’s golden age

Al Radka, seen here in a historical photo, is one of the many Fresno personalities featured in Stephen Provost’s book “Fresno Growing Up.”
Al Radka, seen here in a historical photo, is one of the many Fresno personalities featured in Stephen Provost’s book “Fresno Growing Up.” Special to The Bee

Stephen Provost is a first-class Fresnophile.

The author was born here and lived and worked in the city for most of his life. When he left for a job, it was to the Central Coast, to Arroyo Grande, a place with so many area expats its often referred to as Fresno Annex West.

“It’s just kind of a part of me,” says Provost, whose book, “Fresno Growing Up: A City Comes of Age 1945-1985” (Craven Street Books, $24.95), will be released Saturday, Aug. 1. The author hosts a book launch party, 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 6, at All Things Fresno in the Warnors Theatre complex.

The book is historical nerd fest of words (100,000, give or take) and pictures (100, both current and historical) that document the city in which Provost grew up. Think Al Radka and Christmas Tree Lane. Think Fulton Street before it was the Fulton Mall. And after. Think Harpain’s Dairy and The Happy Steak and drive-in theaters. There were once six or seven spread throughout town, Provost says, including Sunnyside Drive-In, which had the biggest screen on the West Coast.

There are chapters dedicated to the city’s urban development and downtown’s retail and restaurants. There are pieces on its TV and radio personalities, sport stars, bands and musicians and movie theaters.

It’s the stuff that rarely makes the history books, says the book’s publisher Kent Sorsky.

“What people did for fun, what they ate, where they shopped,” he says. “It’s a good thing for Fresno that Stephen recorded these memories before they were forgotten.”

Provost started with no outline in mind. He scoured newspaper archives and interviewed people who were there (Roger Rocka, the late radio personality Dick Carr). He crowd-sourced information from online nostalgia groups like Fresno Forever, which he runs on Facebook.

He went where the leads took him. Sometimes, people had spotty memories, Provost says. But even if the leads didn’t pan out, he was never disappointed with what turned up.

“I came into the project thinking I knew a bit about Fresno,” he says.

He was amazed at what he didn’t know. For instance:

▪ The once ubiquitous Fresno restaurant The Happy Steak (home of the golden spud) had an off-shoot restaurant called Happy Burger.

▪ Fresno was a test market for BankAmericard, the precursor Visa card. The company mailed out 60,000 of the credit cards to Fresno residents, Provost says.

▪ The city was also a test market for the National Bowling League, a team version of the then-popular Pro Bowler’s Association. There was even a bowling hall built on Peach and Shaw avenues specifically to house the league matches. The league didn’t last long, he says.

Then, there was the ostrich race.

If you’re picturing the video game joust, you’re not far off.

Provost had heard such a thing happened and spent a solid week tracking leads before giving up and calling Carr, who happened to work at the station in question at the time. Carr confirmed the race had indeed happened, at the Fresno Fairgrounds no less, and was part of radio promotion. The book has a whole section on Fresno radio stations and their crazy promotions.

The race turned out badly, as one might guess.

In a way, Provost is the Fresno he’s writing about. He was born at Saint Agnes Hospital (the old one, before it moved north to Herndon Avenue) and graduated from Bullard High School, where he sat next to Fresno State football star Kevin Sweeney in 11th-grade algebra.

Provost’s father taught political science at Fresno State at a time when its student body was rioting. Provost later attended the university, himself, and later still became an avid member of The Red Wave. Fresno State will always be his team. And, to him, Me-N’-Eds is still the best pizza in the world.

So, while the book tells the history of the city, it’s also a bit of collected nostalgia. Writing it allowed him to reconnect with the city he loves.

“I realized I missed Fresno,” he says. “I wanted to give readers a way to go back home.”

‘Fresno Growing Up: A City Comes of Age 1945-1985’

A book launch party