Drive-ins were at the center of social scene

For decades, drive-in restaurants were the places to see and be seen - and sometimes they even were the site of key social statements.

Published July 21, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - From the 1930s to the 1980s, local drive-in restaurants boosted soda and sandwich sales with energetic carhops.

The Keystone, Florida Cut-Rate Drug Store, the Pier and later Triplett's were among the first drive-ins to employ carhops. During the 1950s, carhops satisfied patrons enamored with dates, friends and rock 'n' roll at restaurants including Chick's, the Barrel and Toot-N-Tell-It. "Life moved like a slow stream then, not like today's flowing rapids," said J.A. Sizemore, a Triplett's carhop from 1946 to 1950.

In the 1960s, however, carhops were dodging rowdy teens and calming patrons absorbed in racial conflict. Hungry residents later swapped curb service for Big Macs and Whoppers. When Steak 'n Shake Inc. curbed their carhops in 1986, an era had ended.

"It's a tough way of earning your bread and hamburgers," the press once said of being a carhop.

In the 1930s, a future mayor and a prominent educator were hopping cars at the Pier.

"Johnnie Burroughs (mayor 1957 to 1959) hopped the curb there when we were in high school," said Harry Woods, a resident since 1931. "So did Floyd Christian, later a state supervisor of public instruction."

About 1946, Dean and Hazel Triplett established Triplett's Drive-In at 2500 Fifth Ave. N.

"That was the real good days," said Sizemore, 72. "I met business people and students from other schools."

Triplett's featured 50-cent steak sandwiches and 10-cent Cokes.

Resident Mary C. Taylor, 68, remembered the male carhops at Triplett's, a legend for 35 years.

"Some places used all girls or all boys," said longtime resident Lon Cooper. "Not many mixed the hops."

From 1951 to 1966, residents kept carhops jumping at Chick's Drive-In at 4901 Central Ave.

Irene Mumtaz, 51, recalled a gum-chewing carhop there who stashed her pen in her dark hair, which she wore in a French twist. Mumtaz, then about 12, said the hop wore a petticoat under her skirt and flavored her questions with "sweetheart, sugar and honey."

One drive-in known as the Barrel, which was open at 401 16th St. N from 1954 to 1970, became the focus of racial tensions when African-American teenagers asked to be served. They were. But teen versus teen tension escalated during July 1964, resulting in several arrests of teens on both sides.

Rutledge Pearson, then the NAACP's state president, moved forward his scheduled appearance here and changed his topic to civil obedience.

Away from civil rights issues, most drive-in controversies were less about social movements and more about unruly teens just cruising and socializing.

"They camp for hours at St. Petersburg drive-ins, spend little and create problems for drive-in owners, police and hungry families," the press wrote then. From 1964 to 1973, the Circle R Drive-in at 3880 66th St. N was a Dixie Hollins High School hangout.

"We didn't get paid an hourly rate," said JoAnn Craven, who carhopped there at age 15. "We made tips. The most I ever made in one night was $7. If someone gave you a $1 tip, it was a huge deal."

At age 17 in 1966, Barrel employee Nancy Atkinson discussed the woes of a hop. It's like "running the 50-yard dash, only in all directions at once. Some people who forgot their glasses ask you to read the menu, the whole thing, and then order coffee."

Open about the same period as the Circle R, Arrows Drive-In at 5515 Fourth St. N allowed patrons to summon female carhops electronically.

"You punched a button on a speaker and placed your order," said resident Chuck Black, 64.

Kathleen Shea Aregood, Dixie Hollins class of 1968, said the carhops at Steak 'n Shake were enticing. "It still sends a bit of a shiver down my spine to think of the guy I had a crush on loping toward the parked Rambler with a tray of cherry Cokes," she said.

"Steak 'n Shake was one of our favorite hangouts," said resident Sharon Centanne, 54, about the chain that had restaurants in Tyrone and on 34th Street N. "But the carhops weren't on skates like in American Graffiti."

In May 1986, Steak 'n Shake Inc. closed its store at 2451 Tyrone Blvd. N, and carhops all but disappeared. Today, they skate the Sonic Drive-in parking lot at 4625 66th St. N. Not everyone is impressed.

"The new Sonic is supposed to be like the old drive-ins," said Cooper. "Went once. That was enough."

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-Scott Taylor Hartzell can be reached at hartzel@msn.com