Drive-in Movies & Restaurants
When I was a kid there were three drive-in theatres that I regularly visited. They are all closed now. I think the one on Old 47 between Union and Washington, Missouri was called the Sunset Drive-In. The Grande Drive-In, in Sullivan, Missouri, was along Route 66 and was one of the two I went to when I lived in St. Clair until 1965.
The Rolla Drive-In, along Route 66, was out of the city limits and in the Village of Northwye. The October 12, 1950 Rolla Herald carried Rowe Carney's announcement that the Rolla De Luxe Drive-In would open the following Tuesday, with room for 500 cars. The drive-in's owners were Rowe Carney (owned all three of the movie venues in Rolla) and Bill Bray (land) of Rolla and Harry Blunt of Potosi.
The drive-in's peak popularity came in the late 1950s and early 1960s, particularly in rural areas, with some 4000 drive-ins spreading across the United States. Among its advantages was the fact that a family with a baby could take care of their child while watching a movie, while teenagers with access to autos found drive-ins ideal for dates. Revenue was more limited than regular theatres since showings can only start at twilight. There were abortive attempts to create suitable conditions for daylight viewing, such as large tent structures, but nothing viable was developed.
In the 1950s, the greater privacy afforded to patrons gave drive-ins a reputation as immoral, and they were labeled "passion pits" in the media. During the 1960s, the movies shown changed from family-oriented pieces to sexploitation movies. In addition, the economics of real estate made the large property areas increasingly expensive for drive-ins to successfully operate. These changes and the advent of VCRs led to a sharp decline in the popularity of drive-ins. They eventually lapsed into a quasi-novelty status with the remaining handful catering to a generally nostalgic audience.
There was a continued attraction of viewing movies under the stars. The indoor theaters were more flexible about scheduling, however, and could show one film five or six times a day instead of only at night. So to sell as many tickets as possible, the movie studios sent their first-runs to the indoor theaters. Drive-ins were left to show B movies and, eventually, X-rated ones. And being naughty helped some drive-ins survive.
In 2003 and 2004, groups of dedicated individuals began to organized so-called "guerilla drive-ins" and "guerilla walk-ins" in parking lots and empty fields. Showings are often organized online, and participants meet at specified locations to watch films projected on bridge pillars or warehouses. While the phenomenon remains relatively obscure, decreasing video projector costs will likely lead to an increase in popularity. The best known guerilla drive-ins include the Santa Cruz drive-in in Santa Cruz, California, and MobMov in Berkeley, California. Family drive-ins are making a comeback in some states. Garrett, Texas is the home of the Galaxy Drive-in Theater, a four-screen drive-in which opened for business in 2004.
There was at least one drive-in in town that was turn 3 & 4 on your lap around town. Sometimes there was another one for turn 1 & 2, and often another for a pit stop in the middle. But there was always at least one on your drag through town that everyone at sometime during the night stopped. It probably wasn't the one with the best food (could've been), but was normally the one with the most understanding proprietor or the one where the most kids worked. It was certainly the place to go to try and get some girls or a girl to get in with you (cruisin' was something you definitely didn't do alone), to get your money together for a beer run or just sit, talk, maybe get out and exchange hellos and greetings.
It could be that we started exchanging something heavier than hellos and greetings or that some moved on from beer to stuff a little more illegal, but anyway, they started getting cops to monitor the drive-in lots and it seems that shortly thereafter the drive-thrus were put in. I could be wrong, there was probably some other reason, like being able to serve grown-ups without them having to wade through all of us, but for whatever reason the drive-in either changed or died. Too bad. It was fun while it lasted.
From the early 1920s to the late 1950s, the American drive-in restaurant was the social arena for the young and old alike. Swinging ponytails, shiny new automobiles, and the aroma of French fries drifting through unrolled car windows heralded a new freedom for American consumers.
The demise of the drive-in restaurant at the end of the 1960s gave rise to its mythology. As car hops and curb service were slowly being phased out by fast food outlets, the last generation of drive-in customers began to re-examine this indelible part of their youth. Filmmaker George Lucas recalled his Modesto, California, cruising days in his film American Graffiti. Filmed at Mel's Drive-In in San Francisco, it has since become one of the drive-ins most celebrated homages. Other movies also found drive-in imagery illuminating, and in other feature films and B-movies employed the drive-in as a backdrop.
It may have started in 1921 at the Royce Hailey’s Pig Stand in Dallas when drivers began pulling up for barbecued sandwiches. Doubtless it started with cars, a population pushing out of the cities into the suburbs, and a volume business based on large production at minimal costs: hamburger factories with retail outlets. Tracking down the earliest restaurants, however, is a formidable exercise in genealogy. Dunkin’ Donuts begot Mister Donut, which then begot Tastee Donut. White Castle sired White Diamond, Royal Castle, and White Crest. Some of the names give themselves over to chants: Taco Bell and Taco Tico, Taco Villa, and Tico Taco. The burger dynasty has maintained a somewhat bovine sound, not unlike cow bells gently clanging on a summer night: Burger King, Burger Chef, Bun & Burger, Wendy’s…Mooooooo. Compare the burger line to the clucking chicken family: Bojangles, Church’s Fried Chicken, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Popeye’s Famous Fried Chicken. In pizza there are the Italian uncles: Godfather’s, Domino’s, Pizza Hut. Presiding over dessert are the married monarchs Dairy King and Dairy Queen and their wicked stepson, Dairy Cheer.
The McDonalds began to sense the limitations of their restaurant. Car hop service was becoming increasingly burdensome. The turnover rate in their work force was accelerating. Not only were they being pressured by competitors copying their operation, but they were also forced to compete against other industries for employees. Moreover, because the typical car hop was young and naturally attracted an adolescent clientele, the theft of knives and forks was driving up their operational costs.
A&W appeared in 1924. The name was derived from the initials of its founders, Alien and White. A&W was based on a single product: Alien and White’s root beer syrup. It did not begin serving food until much later, a fact that eventually spelled the chain’s decline.
Though A&W is not a thriving chain today, it is still noted for its earliest franchises—the ones in Washington, D. C., where J. Willard Marriott got his start in the restaurant business. By 1928 Marriott had changed the name of his A&W stands to Hot Shoppe, forming a restaurant chain specializing in barbecue sandwiches. The sandwiches proved popular. The profits Marriott realized on the Hot Shoppes served as the foundation for the Marriott Corporation, one of America’s largest hotel chains.
Initially, in the '20s, car hops were primarily male., mirroring the restaurant industry's standard employment practice. This was the case of the Sacramento-based A& W chain, which employed men to serve trays laden with frosty mugs of root beer and food to their customers. A&W called these employees tray boys. An exception to the all-male norm was at the Tam O'Shanter, where women had been servers since the restaurant had opened in 1922.
By 1930, with drive-ins secure in their cultural niche, car hops began their ascent as an American institution. The lure of car hopping was magnetic. Other factors encouraged women to join the drive-in ranks. One was pay. Standard practice for car hops was to work for tips only. This, in effect, made them independent vendors whereby they purchased the food from the restaurant and then re-sold it to the customer. In California, hops were guaranteed a minimum-wage salary, which by 1940 was $16 a week for women. In 1933, George Sanders, owner of the giant coffee pots drive-in chain, claimed his eight servers received $1,000 a month. Divided among them, that was an average $31 a week, a handsome sum for Depression-era salaries. By comparison, a female Chicago factory worker was making twenty-five cents an hour, or $10 for a forty-hour week in 1932. An executive secretary in New York could bring home $16 for the same time period.
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