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Car Hops

Glamburger Girls, Belles of the Boulevard, Car Hoppers, Hops, Tray Girls, Curb Hoppers, Car Hostesses, Curb Operators - they were the oil that kept the drive-in machine running smoothly. The car hop was the central figure of the drive-in world, playing an essential role in the mobile meal business.

The first servers to the curb were at Harold Fortune's Memphis drugstore, where gentlemen customers were allowed to take fountain items to their ladies waiting in carriages. As this serving option became popular, runners were employed to perform this job. True car service was initiated with the Dallas Pig Stands in 1921, when their male servers performed the chore of carrying food on trays to customers. Clad in traditional waiter's garb of white shirt, bow tie, black pants, ankle-length apron, and white cap (all to emphasize cleanliness), they claimed their customer by hopping on the car's running board as it drove up to the barbecue stand - hence the name car hop.

With lucrative salaries as an incentive, competition was fierce for jobs at the most popular locations. Aware of this, employers sought out the girls who could make the cut and had that special something - the more charm, personality, and beauty a girl had, the better her chances were for landing a plum job. In 1940, at Sivils drive-in in Houston, prospective hops had to pass the scrutiny of the owner's wife, twenty-one-year-old Mrs. J.D. Sivil, who made sure applicants were "... between 18 and 25, have good figures, a high school education, health cards and 'come hither' personalities." Once hired, they were expected to smile, stand erect, memorize the menu, and endeavor to sell large orders of food. A cardinal rule was that the female hop could not touch a customer. Change was placed on the tray, not in the customer's hand. Also, she was not to touch the car or leave the lot during her shift. Trays were to be balanced on one hand and carried at ear level. The two costumes that the girls purchased for $37 (boots were an additional $5) were to be kept absolutely spotless. Mrs. Sivil coached the hops in diction. deportment. and the importance of laughing at customers' jokes. Punishment for small infractions. such as carrying a tray two low, was folding a thousand napkins. Larger offenses merited immediate dismissal.

For this they got to work at Sivils, one of the most noted drive-ins of its time due in large part to a Life magazine article that featured a Sivils car hop on its cover. Josephine Powell was fresh out of high school when Life Photographers snapped her picture. She recalled, "I don't know why they picked me to be on the cover. I remember they said they were going to pick the most photogenic, but I didn't have any idea it would be me." After being a cover girl she was inundated with job offers. "The people at Chesterfield tobacco wanted me to be the Chesterfield girl and Goodyear wanted me to model bathing suits." But a bout with appendicitis railroaded her career and Powell returned to car hopping.

Other car hops had similiar brushes with fame. Dulores Moran, a soon-to-be Warners starlet, was a sixteen-year-old San Jose car hop in 1942 when a local apricot grower pulled into the drive-in she was working at and ordered a cup of coffee. So smitten was the grower with the striking hop that years later when he died he left his entire $300,000 estate to Muran, having never seen or spoken to her again.

Of course Hollywood drew hundreds of motion picture job hunters to area drive-ins. These young hopefuls all wanted that elusive break - being spotted by an agent or studio head. In 1938 Paramount Pictures public relations representatives made the rounds of drive-ups, selected a hundred for a look-see, and chose one for a bit part in a longforgotten movie. It was more flackery than fame guaranteed.

The attention car hops received outside of Hollywood could he a bit more genuine. Capitalizing on the publicity generated by Life magazine's car hop article, the city of Galveston, Texas, initiated a car hop contest in conjunction with its Splash Days festival opening their resort season. A statewide gathering of car hops paraded on the sea wall and performed a series of restaurant maneuvers while judges sat in an open convertible. Contestants were judged on their charm, figure, courtesy, technique, and quickness of repartee. Balancing a tray filled with bottles of Coke, Seven-Up, Dr. Pepper, and beer, car hops were cheered on by thousands of onlookers celebrating "this newest and most popular of modern institutions."

The most noticeable feature of the girl car hop was her wardrobe. Elevated from mere work clothes, car hop outfits were unique to a restaurant's business. Originally, servers' outfits were carried over from the restaurant business. Some A&Ws, for example, dressed their tray boys and girls in a wardrobe common in the '20s - for the men it meant white shirts, ties, and black slacks, for women it was a dress with apron and maid hat. Uniforms assumed a number of styles throughout the United States, but it was left to California to lead the way. The Tam O'Shanter lassies inspired other places to experiment with theme dress. Having a consistent thread run through a whole business was an important marketing tool, plus identically clad waitresses made a restaurant easier to remember.

Loose-fitting overalls in bright patterns with wide-brimmed straw hats for summer and corduroy trousers held up by suspenders and sweaters for winter were one drive-ins fashion solution in 1930. Another early '30s favorite featured high-waisted, bell-bottomed pants, a long-sleeved jacket with an oversized collar, and a tam hat. This ensemble could be found at most drive-ups in the first half of the decade. Rain brought out ankle-length plaid robes with hats to protect car hops at one drive-in, while another provided transparent raincoats to cover their girl's jade-green pajamas.

The casual look for women disappeared in the mid-'30s as Simons, Carpenter's, and Herbert's introduced a clipped, military-inspired uniform of crisp pants and fitted waist jacket with white blouse. This combination proved to be an enduring classic, with variations of it lasting well into the '50s.

Meanwhile, the Carl's chain opted for a theme look, and at their outlet near the University of Southern California campus, car hops were garbed in sombreros, sashed peasant blouses, and wide, loose pants. Of their Colonial-theme Viewpark restaurant, Western Restaurant magazine delivered this description "...waitresses are dressed in white gowns dotted with small flowers, puffed short sleeves and ruffled pantalets. The drive-in service girls are costumed like the dandies of the Old Dominion - long tailed coats of blue material with gray collars and white bow ties; gray pants, white dickeys with standing white collars; low crowned gray top hat worn at a rakish angle and a gold fob with a ribbon."

Once women had become confirmed successes in the drive-in trade, the presence of men greatly diminished, except behind the counter. The male car hop was here and there but never in the quantities that women were. One hop estimated that for every one male hop, there were two female hops. Still, there were drive-ins that relied on male help exclusively. The Varsity in Atlanta (With six locations statewide, the Varsity has become a Georgia institution, but the original in downtown Atlanta—opened in 1928—is the mother of all drive–ins, perched on a two–acre lot that can hold 600 cars. There paper–capped carhops still hand deliver all manner of fried goodies right to customers’ driver–side doors—two miles of franks and 5,000 pies a day. The go–to meal? A greasy chili dog; skinny, salty onion rings; and a frosted orange milkshake. The side of acid reflux comes free.) was one, and Dolores's in Los Angeles was another. The Hot Shoppes and White Castle employed males as many others also did, but the picture that was presented to the public was that of a cheerful, feminine face, and that was the image that indelibly remained.

The focus on appearance and costumes often drew attention away front the real work a car hop performed. Glamour aside, hoisting trays eight hours a day was tough and owners had job standards that often seemed medieval. The list of dos and don'ts filled manuals and countless trade magazine articles. Hody's Drive-in, a model in car hop procedure, offered these instructions: "KEEP SMILING. Uniform clean and pressed at all times. Nails clean and manicured - polish may he worn if applied properly. No jewelry or pocket handkerchiefs. Caps to be worn in the prescribed manner. Each employee is allowed 30 rninutes to eat during a shift. Caps will be removed while eating. Onions should not be eaten before or during a shift. Employees will eat only at allotted times. Keep the lot clean and free of paper. Don't chew gum on duty. Don't discuss personal problems with other employees while on duty. Don't scratch your head, pick your teeth or clean your nails in presence of guests. Get rid of sitters on lot - Keep cars turning as rapidly as possible."

The workplace was rife with other tedious rules and obstacles that lessened the purported glamour of the job. Drive-in etiquette required hops to conduct themselves to reflect the reputation of the restaurant. That meant no fraternizing with the customers. When asked, most girls complained that they were too tired to go out on dates after work, but if a customer persisted in dogging her for a date, diplomacy was called for.

To avoid confusion when claiming a customer driving in (if they weren't assigned sections), one policy dictated that each incoming customer belonged to the hop who stepped off the waiting-step first after the customer set his brake. Other lots worked differently. At some drive-ins the car hops worked sections or stations and in others, they worked an open-call car lot, which meant that if a car hop had no orders ready to serve and no cars with lights on, then they could call a car approaching the drive by calling out `C.I.' (car in). Sometimes they would also identify a car coming in by its color or position `up the hill,' `first turn,' `second turn,' etc. To identify the car that belonged to them, hops used what was called a 'pie card,' which was placed on the windshield of the car. The side facing the driver had a list of pies and desserts (thus its name), while the other side had the car hop's name or number.

Competition of a different sort was expressed by several female hops who said they preferred brunettes to blondes as coworkers, with platinum blondes considered poison. Some, it was claimed, would rather resign than compete with them. Another irritant was the novice customer who honked rather than flashed his lights. Hops complained that you couldn't tell where a horn was coming from.

Speed was promoted to keep the customer's food hot and tempers cold. The Dixie Drive-In in Hazel Park, Michigan, guaranteed their hops would be at a driver's window in just thirty seconds after the customer entered the lot. To handle this traffic, each car hop was supposed to wait on between eight and twelve cars at a time, which was, approximately, the accepted number countrywide. A Houston drive-in claimed to serve six cars every minute when handled by two girls. Despite the endless litany of rules and regulations, experienced car hops took most of this in stride. Rules were simply part of the job and conforming to them was not an obligation, but a source of pride.

When drive-in service began to wane in the mid-60s, the car hop as American icon was slowly becoming extinct. In small-town America, car service survived in small pockets, but these were its last repositories. Vestiges of the drive-in's heyday managed to carry on a dying tradition but were headed for obsolescence nonetheless. A few chains, like the Midwest-based Sonic Drive-In, still maintain service to cars today, and periodic retro-restaurants strive to recreate a nostalgic facsimile, but the real McCoy has been retired to memory.

Jim Heimann. Car Hops and Curb Service: A History of American Drive-In Restaurants 1920-1960. Chronicle Books, San Francisco, California, U.S.A. 1996.

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