TRAIN OF THE STARS – THE SUPER CHIEF

Social History – Virginia Leith (starred in 20th Century Fox’s KISS BEFORE DYING) appears in a 1950’s publicity film from the Santa Fe RailRoad about “the Super Chief” passenger train which ran between Chicago and California.

Cruising The Past welcomes you aboard the legendary Santa Fe Super Chief – the train of the stars. Extra Fare – All Pullman Streamliner.


She came on the Super Chief.

One reason that the Santa Fe became such a famous railroad was because of its flagship passenger train, the Super Chief (and, the railroad also claimed the most streamliners in operation at one time).

The train quickly eclipsed its rivals (including its own cousin, the Chief) as the premier train to the Southwest and became so popular that it was the transportation choice of many Hollywood celebrities from the late 1930s through the 1960s.

It was also the Super Chief that inspired Santa Fe’s classic “Warbonnet” livery that is arguably the most beautiful paint scheme ever to be applied to a passenger train. Today, the Super Chief carriers on under the Amtrak banner although its one-of-a-kind paint scheme and interior designs are relegated to history.

Interestingly, the Super Chief came about because of necessity. With the Union Pacific having launched its new streamlined City of Los Angeles in 1936 the Santa Fe needed to launch its own competing premier train between Los Angeles and Chicago.

Having a direct route to the two cities (unlike the UP which had to hand off the train to the Southern Pacific to reach Los Angeles and Chicago & North Western to reach Chicago) gave the Santa Fe a distinct advantage although its first version of the Super Chief, while well planned, was not really up to par with the City of Los Angeles in that it was not streamlined and used standard heavyweight equipment.

Knowing it needed something better the Santa Fe with the help of the Budd Company, introduced the all new streamlined Super Chief in May of 1937. What resulted was a passenger train unrivaled in style, design, and luxury.

Super Chief Pullman Drawing Room – By day and by night.

Part of the train’s phenomenal success was its appeal and character. In designing the new Super Chief the Santa Fe wanted not only a contemporary passenger train but also one that reflected the railroad’s long-held relationship with Native American’s of the Southwest. To style the new Super Chief the train had an entire staff of designers, which quickly set to work bringing the soon-to-be legend to life.

Industrial designer Sterling McDonald created the train’s classic interior Indian designs and themes. Whenever possible McDonald used authentic Native American (many of which depicted the Navajo) colors (such as turquoise and copper), patterns, and even authentic murals and paintings in the train. He used a combination of rare and exotic woods like ebony, teak, satinwood, bubinga, maccassar, and ribbon primavera for trim through the train giving the Super Chief an added touch of one-of-a-kind elegance.

Everything inside the train exuded the Native American culture and way of life. However, the Super Chief’s livery also conveyed this, if not to an even greater degree.

The train’s now-classic “Warbonnet” paint scheme was actually designed by General Motors’ artist Leland Knickerbocker. Knickbocker’s livery featured gleaming stainless steel with the front half of the locomotive painted in red crimson, wrapping around the cab and trailing off along the bottom of the carbody with a Native American-inspired design (a design that would go on to distinguish the Santa Fe) used on the front of the nose with “Santa Fe” flanking the center.

For trim golden yellow and black was used. As Knickerbocker put it the design was meant to convey an Indian head with trailing feathers of a warbonnet (thus where the livery derived its now-famous name).

The locomotive that powered this new train was General Motor’s EMD EA model, a streamlined and completely self-contained diesel locomotive that handsomely matched the new Budd-built cars (themselves clad entirely in stainless steel giving the train a gleaming, “new” look).

For the most part the Super Chief remained quite popular through the 1950s. In 1951 it was reequipped for the final time featuring the Pleasure Dome lounge that included dome viewing, a cocktail lounge, and the famed Turquoise Room used for dinner parties. However, none of the upgraded equipment matched the exquisite beauty of the original Super Chief cars.

As the 1960s dawned, and as with the passenger rail industry itself, the Santa Fe found its fleet likewise in decline as passengers took to their private automobiles or the skies for faster and more convenient modes of transportation. However, unlike most other railroads which let their service slip and trains run down, the Super Chief remained an on-time, clean and regal operation right up until the end when Amtrak took over most intercity passenger rail operations in the spring of 1971.

While the Santa Fe, perhaps reluctantly, handed over its illustrious flagship to Amtrak at least the railroad could take comfort in knowing that the Super Chief, while nothing near as plush as when it was privately operated, was one of the routes retained by the national carrier and continues to be operated to this day as one of Amtrak’s most esteemed trains (although it is now known as the Southwest Chief).  This was short lived – becase the Amtrak service deterioted.  And Santa Fe demanded Amtrak remove the names.

Amtrak will never achieve the service found on Pullman or First Class trains such as the Super Chief.   Amtrak still remains a dreary “government operation” with anything but deluxe service.

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About Michael L. Grace

MICHAEL L. GRACE is part of the award winning team that created the internationally performed award winning musical SNOOPY, based on PEANUTS by Charles M. Schultz. SNOOPY continues to be one of the most produced shows (amateur & stock) in America/Worldwide and has had long running productions in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and in London's West End. There are over 100 individual productions every year. He has written movies for TV, including the award-winning thriller LADY KILLER, various pilots and developed screenplays for Kevin Costner and John Travolta. Besides co-writing and co-producing SNOOPY, he wrote and produced the one-man play KENNEDY. He produced P.S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD by pulitzer prize winning author James Kirkwood. He wrote the stage thriller FINAL CUT which had productions in the UK, South Africa and Australia. His one-man play, KENNEDY - THE MAN BEHIND THE MYTH, was developed for HBO and has starred Andrew Stevens, Gregory Harrison and Joseph Bottoms. He has recently been involved in European productions with CLT-UFA, Europe's leading commercial television and radio broadcaster. He wrote MOWs THE DOLL COLLECTION, THE BOTTOM LINE and LAST WITNESS for German television. While in college and graduate school he worked as a foreign correspondent for COMBAT, the famous leftwing Paris daily, and as a travel writer. He visited more than 50 countries. He struggled as an actor, then joined the enemy and entered the training program at William Morris. He became a publicist and worked for Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's manager, at Paramount and MGM. He followed with a brief stint as a story executive, working in the frantic horror genre period of the early 80s and wrote THE UNSEEN. He went onto write for episodic television and develop series pilots. He was a continuing writer on such series such as LOVE BOAT, PAPER DOLLS, and KNOTS LANDING. He developed screenplays for such major award winning directors as Nicolas Meyers, Tony Richardson and J. Lee Thompson. He has written for all the major networks and studios. He has been hired numerous times as a script doctor, doing many uncredited rewrites on TV movies and features. He is currently writing A PERSON OF INTEREST, a thriller novel, and, IT'S THE LOVE BOAT... AND HOW IT CHANGED CRUISING BY SHIP a non-fiction book dealing with how the hit TV series as a major cultural phenomenon and altered the style of cruising by ship. He was raised in Los Angeles. He attended St. Paul's, USC and the Pasadena Playhouse. He received a B.A from San Francisco State University where he majored in theatre arts and minored in creative writing. He is listed as a SFSU leading alumni. He also apprenticed at ACT - The American Conservatory Theatre. For a brief period he had intentions of becoming an Episcopal(Anglican) priest and attended seminary at Kelham Theological College in the UK. When "the calling" wasn't there, he left seminary and did graduate work at the American University of Beirut. He has guest lectured at USC, UC San Diego, McGill, Univ. of London and the Univ. of Texas on the business aspects of making a living and surviving as a writer, focusing on development hell, in the Hollywood entertainment industry. Grace is a lifetime member of the Writers Guild of America, the Dramatist Guild and former regional chairman of the Steamship Historical Society of America. He resides in Palm Springs.

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