The majority of post-baby boom Americans understand carhop culture from film and television, not wistful memories of our Saturday nights. While Kitty Can’t Help It and Happy Days taught us about the bumbling, charming antics of our teenage forefathers, one of the finest specimens of oddball, 1950s fetishization is served up in an early 1970s low-budget documentary called, appropriately, Carhops.
The entire film, which clocks in at under fifteen minutes, turns an oral history-style spotlight on car-hopping culture in Dallas, Texas, during an era when Schlitz flowed freely at drive-ins and chain smoking on the job was as common as impossibly high-waisted jeans.
“I like to move around, you know? I can’t stand just to sit still,” says one carhop about how she fell into the line of work, a molasses-thick accent coating every word. “So, car-hopping is a pretty good job.”
The documentary focuses on the legacy of Jessie G. Kirby, whose father is credited with creating not only the first drive-in—the Pig Stand—but the concept of carhops, in the early 1920s.
High school boys in triangular paper hats were the original carhops, but drive-in owners (running around 70,000 theaters in the swell of post-World War II suburbia) soon recognized that women were a far more attractive demographic to carry trays of beefy comfort food to eager in-car diners. Soon, the act of car-hopping became an immersive, theatrical experience unto itself, not just a means for food delivery. Female carhops quickly became noted for any number of outlandish, sparkly outfits, from sequin-lined majorette-style skirts and hot pants to feather-topped hats and, most notoriously, roller skates.
“My wife and I was talking one day when a football game was on,” says drive-in owner J.D. Sivils, his pencil-thin moustache an ode to the bold facial hair of the decade. “And we noticed how pretty those little girls looked in shorts—the baton leaders and cheerleaders—and we thought, how about opening up a drive-in? We started out with five girls in shorts, and business just got so good we couldn’t take care of the customers. We had to put on more girls, and first thing we knew, we have more than a hundred girls working every day.”
While carhops today are less hypersexualized (and just as likely to be letterman-jacket-wearing boys), one thing remains the same: car-hopping is a job for extroverts. It is a social affair, a form of performance art that bubbled forth from American road culture. Their role as bipedal (or, occasionally, wheeled) ambassadors of cheeseburgers and milkshakes reinforces the car not only as a part of a person’s identity, but as a home away from home. At a drive-in, cars are granted the kind of social third-placeness more often than not reserved for bars, coffee shops, and sit-down restaurants.
Though mom-and-pop drive-ins are largely a thing of the past, some, like the Parkette, in Lexington, Kentucky, are still holding out. Brothers Jeff and Randy Kaplan have owned the sixty-year-old establishment for the better part of a decade, slinging the restaurant’s longtime signature burger, the double-decker “Poor Boy” (two beef patties, cheese, onion, lettuce, tomato, pickle, mustard, and “Parkette sauce”) to the hungry masses.
Randy’s stepdaughter and relatives have served as carhops, but he says his wife is the restaurant’s best. “She’s probably one of the best that ever has been in Parkette history, because she can do it by herself—and we’re busy.” said Kaplan. “She’s driven, very people-oriented. She knows that speed matters. She’s just that good.”
And then there’s Sonic: as of 2011, Sonic (tagline: “America’s Drive-In”) has built more than 3,500 cookie cutter, retro-styled locations in forty-four states.
Is there some sense of sadness that a corporate, bastardized version of the drive-in is the only one to find modern-day success? Yes. Is scarfing down a tray full of chili-drenched tater tots still a nostalgia-inducing, giddy-making pleasure? Indeed.
On a recent visit to see carhops in action at a Sonic in Gretna, Louisiana, I found the staff decidedly youthful and surprisingly familial. It was a Saturday afternoon just after a high school graduation, and a fresh crop of carhops had just come on board to replace the celebrated old guard. Massive, foot-high letters congratulating graduates—complete with rudimentary cap-and-gown illustration—were affixed to the building’s windows, each name affectionately spelled out as if penned by proud parents.
A rising high-school junior caught in the transition between gangly pre-teen and willowy, Iman-esque young woman, Kayla—a fairly seasoned server—flitted around on her roller skates while balancing Sonic Blast milkshakes and blue raspberry slushes with ease, stopping at each car with a curtseying toe-tap of her skate’s front brake. Her lipstick, Pepto-Bismol pink, was plaster-thick and flaking, and rosebud stickers adorned a blocky, handwritten name tag that closely resembled the kind of decorative note passed in study hall.
When I ask if she had to learn to skate for the job, she pursed her lips and gave me a withering side eye.
“Girl, I skate every other weekend at Skate Country down the road,” she explained, clearly shocked that I was unaware of her rink reputation. “Yeah, I’ve been skating a long time. This isn’t hard.”
Her sneaker-wearing coworker, Spencer—small-framed and baby-faced with a mess of dishwater-blond hair—begged to differ. “It gets tough after eight o’ clock because everyone starts rushing in for the half-priced milkshakes. There are only three carhops here, max, at any given time, so it gets hard to keep things straight.” He pawed the change dispenser on his belt sheepishly after admitting his current struggles. “But I’ve only been working here a week. Actually, I’m still in training.”
He paused, looking up again with a toothy grin. “It’ll get easier!”
Simultaneously intimate and public, the drive-in is a community without communal tables, a kind of frame story for the individual narratives being written inside each vehicle. The driver of the Buick that just pulled in ordered two ice cream sundaes, both for himself. The carhop knows that. The Chevy van in the next spot over is filled with teenage stoners looking for munchies. The carhop obliges. Everyone is simultaneously alone and part of the larger elaborate dance, threaded together by the carhop’s zig-zagging service.
The drive-in isn’t a pit stop on the road to somewhere else: it is the destination.