426-5050, whatever happened to the Lydo?
Four-two-six, five-oh, five-oh, if you’re hungry, call the Lydo!
Never had such crappy Chinese food gained such a huge local reputation – thanks to the little jingle written to go with their phone number that remains an Edmontonian brainworm 10 years after the place went bankrupt.
A lot of people who ordered Lydo vowed never to eat it again. Voice artist Michelle Armeneau, who starred in the TV commercial that aired incessantly for decades, remembers, “I was the one biting into the deep fried shrimp and smiling into the camera. First of all it was so rubbery that I couldn’t bite if off, so they had to cut up with an X-acto knife. After every take I would spit it in into a cup. It was like cold rubber.”
Local comedian Tim Koslo even had a bit where he parodied the Lydo song, rhyming “Lydo” with “Fido.” It became local legend.
So it’s a marketing miracle that the Chinese food delivery emporium stayed in business as long as it did, but the story has a sad end. From its start as a family café and bar in the early 60s, Lydo launched in 1966, run by Lai Jen Lee and the rest the Lee family, Hong Kong immigrants who later took over Chicken-on-the-Way, which sold not-very-good delivery chicken cooked in its own truck long before food trucks became all the rage.
Lydo did booming business. They catered to hungry people too drunk to cook or too stoned to remember the names of their loved ones – but they could remember that damned phone number. Lai Jen’s kids Shirley and Kong Lee eventually took over, but unfortunately Kong had a terrible gambling problem, and shortly after mom died in 2001, the empire came crashing down. The place closed for good around 2003. The kitchen is still there – located on that retail ghost town strip along 111 Avenue between the bottle depot and Commonwealth Stadium, having since flipped owners a couple of times (now owned by Bridges Catering). You can still make out the word “Lydo” on the faded sign.
“It was really a shame,” says Jack Swann, who was Lydo’s landlord at the time, and current owner of the Cherry shoe store on Whyte Avenue. “I actually had to evict them. They weren’t paying rent. It was a bad situation, let’s put it that way.” He adds, “It was a really great business. I’m sure it was the biggest take out Chinese food place in the city. When the old man was alive, they made millions on that place.”
But what to do about that valuable phone number? Swann says he tried to cut a deal with another local Chinese restaurant and bar – he can’t remember the name but says it may have been near the Brick – that in exchange for a small cut of profits they could use the number. For a time the restaurant actually did and dutifully delivered Chinese food without telling customers it wasn’t Lydo, Swann says. The arrangement didn’t last. Neither did the restaurant, apparently. A quick poll of retailers and Chinese restaurants in the area yielded no clues. The only bar near the Brick that is said to do Chinese take-out is the Milla Pub, and the proprietor looked at me like I was insane when I walked in and asked him: “Does the number 426-5050 mean anything to you?”
Earlier, after getting directions from the owner of Henry’s Quality Grocery on 111th – who still lives upstairs from the long abandoned grocery store – I tracked down the famous Frank Lee, Kong and Shirley’s brother and current owner of Frank Lee’s Muay-Thai Kickboxing Gym, just down the street.
Lee says it’s too painful to talk about.
“That was the past,” he says in a very short phone interview. “I’m a martial artist.” His son Corey recently made a feature length NFB documentary called Legend of a Warrior, a father-and-son tale featuring Lee and his gym. Frank Lee has all but disowned any association with the Lydo, and while he grudgingly gives up some information from the past before hanging up on me in a second very short interview, there are still a few unanswered questions.
For instance, who wrote the jingle and where was it recorded? Phone number jingles are nothing novel. Pizza 73 uses one in more than a dozen markets across Western Canada – “dial four-seven-three, seven-three, seven-three!” – for what is called in the marketing game “top of the mind awareness.” But Lydo’s is far more famous, even now.
Lee says he thinks it might’ve been recorded at the CFRN-TV studios, while some veterans of Edmonton’s music business say it was done at the old Darryl Goede studio. Others say it was in Vancouver. The identity of the jingle writer remains a mystery. Whoever it was, he – or she – has made as great an impact on Edmonton as Tommy Banks. Even Frank Lee, despite painful memories, didn’t hesitate to sing it on the phone when reminded. Anyone in Edmonton over a certain age does. We can’t help it.
The old Lydo phone number is currently out of service, and if no one has a hold on it, Telus will sell it to you for $100. Of course you’d have to add the 780 area code that it didn’t have back in the day. It just wouldn’t have the same ring to it.