Louis George Giatras, known to Cumberland residents as "Big Lou" and as proprietor of the landmark downtown restaurant, Curtis' and Coney Island Famous Weiners, died of an aneurism Tuesday at the Beverly Living Center in Cumberland. He was 80.
Mr. Giatras was born in Cumberland, the son of immigrant parents from Sparta, Greece. His father, George Giatras, was a candy maker who launched a small conglomerate of downtown shops: George's Confectionary, then the Maryland Nut Shop, and finally Curtis' Confectionary.
"They were all within four blocks of each other," said Gino Giatras, George Giatras' grandson and Louis Giatras' son.
In 1905, Curtis' - named for a family member who ran it - sold the first hot dog. The item became so popular that the family eventually shut down all its other stores and in 1918 launched two restaurants - Curtis' Famous Weiners and Coney Island Famous Weiners.
In 2000, the family consolidated the businesses at the 35 Liberty St. location.
Mr. Giatras graduated from Allegany High School in 1944 and enlisted in the Navy. He served aboard the USS Atlanta, a light cruiser that saw action in 1945, including Japanese kamikaze attacks, during the Battle of Okinawa.
Discharged in 1948, Mr. Giatras returned to the family business. The restaurant is open seven days a week, and Mr. Giatras was up daily before dawn to prepare the restaurant's secret, meat-based special sauce behind a locked door.
Said to be the city's oldest business, Curtis' and Coney Island Famous Weiners has been a hangout for decades, serving everyone from schoolchildren, to servicemen headed off to war, to the courthouse lunchtime trade.
Under a pressed-tin ceiling that amplifies the noise, customers can sit at the marble counter or in booths. The dark paneled walls are festooned with yellowed newspaper clippings about the business, old photos of downtown Cumberland, and signed pictures of the famous people who have eaten there.
"The grill is still right up front, and it's loud; we're barkin' the orders out," said Gino Giatras, the current president and proprietor.
Mr. Giatras continued the family's tradition - established through two world wars - of feeding local soldiers as they headed off to fight the nation's battles. He handed out 400 bags of hot dogs to servicemen and -women as they departed for the first Gulf War in 1990.
Judges and lawyers were frequent customers. Donald S. Goldbloom said he sometimes sat with Mr. Giatras on a bench across the street from the store and tried out his closing arguments.
"He would tell you whether you were making sense or not. If he said, 'That's a really good argument,' I'd usually win with it," Mr. Goldbloom said. If not, "I'd go back and talk to my opposing counsel and see if we could settle it."
For many years Mr. Giatras remained a familiar figure in Cumberland, driving his Cadillac or seated in the sunshine on the bench.
He also had a love of motorcycles, and was a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers and NASCAR racing - he was particularly loyal to driver Jeff Gordon.
He liked to travel to Ocean City to visit his brother James G. "The Candy Man" Giatras, who was for 20 years a candy maker for the Candy Kitchens stores.
Mr. Giatras was a member of St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church in Cumberland, where services were held Friday. He was a member of the Knights of Columbus, the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Veterans of Vietnam Chapter 172.
Mr. Giatras lost his most valuable helper in 1995 with the death of his wife, the former Alcea D'Ascenzo, after 36 years of marriage.
In addition to his son and brother, he is survived by two other sons, Dr. Anthony G. Giatras of Tifton, Ga., and Troy N. Giatras of Charleston, W.Va.; and a grandson.