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Cruise Night Takes 'Em Back : Downey Drive-In Revs Spirit of '50s With Classy Rods, Carhops

January 12, 1989|LUCILLE RENWICK | Times Staff Writer

Buddy Holly's 1957 classic "Peggy Sue" boomed over the disc jockey's sound system as patrons wandered about the parking lot at Johnie's Broiler drive-in restaurant in Downey. Some eyed the pre-1970 cars, others grooved to the tunes.

It was 6 on a Wednesday evening--time for the weekly "cruise night" at the former Harvey's Broiler drive-in on East Firestone Boulevard, known as the area's coolest cruising spot of the late 1950s and early '60s. As it had done in that era, the restaurant was spinning rock 'n' roll and turning its floodlights on more than 160 vintage cars.

Many cruisers had come from the San Fernando Valley and Palm Desert. Why come so far just to park your car and look at other parked cars?

"Because I'm never too old to cruise," said Tony Perez of Whittier. His 1949 black Mercury, which he named the "James Dean Special," came with two scrapbooks on the '50s heartthrob.

"This was our old stomping ground," said Marty Krumm, 44, who grew up in Downey. "You got your cherry Cokes and hamburgers and circled around Harvey's. I look at these cars . . . they're all classics. It brings back so many memories."

The cherry Cokes and hamburger plate specials still dominate the restaurant's menu, although the prices have nearly tripled. Most of the time they are served by the same carhops who waited on the coupes and roadsters almost 30 years ago.

When Harvey's opened, one of its first cruisers was Duke Hingley's green '40 Ford sedan. Hingley, 50, of El Segundo, has been interested in classic automobiles since he was 13. He owns a red '34 Ford roadster and two '40 Ford coupes. Some cruising mobiles are worth more than $100,000, while the average price is about $15,000, aficionados say.

"Now we can afford to indulge in repairing and spiffing up the cars we just dreamed of having when we were younger," Hingley said.

Lee McCullough, a former cruiser, started cruise night at Johnie's in March, 1987. His intention was to create a family-style atmosphere where everyone could step into the past, enjoy the classic automobiles and talk about old times.

"It's nice to see the old spirit of the drive-in back again," said Chris Smyriniotis, Johnie's owner. He said Johnie's is one of the few '50s drive-in restaurants still around, and its flavor of authenticity keeps drawing people back.

Fred Bush, 39, of Rowland Heights, who has missed only one cruise night, wore his Elvis Presley applique jacket and pompadour hair style for the occasion. His red '51 Chevy is one of more than 6,000 pre-1970 cars that has passed through the lot since McCullough started cruise night.

"There's an essence this restaurant has that none other has. We can relive the time we spent here, the girls we went out with . . .," said McCullough, 46, who cruised the drive-in when it opened in 1958 as Harvey's Broiler. In 1965, Harvey Ortner sold the drive-in to Smyriniotis, who changed the name to Johnie's Broiler.

The Rules Are Simple

"Harvey had no idea that 2,000 cars a week would go through this spot," McCullough said. "This was the most premier spot in the Southland. The rules then were simple; stay in your car and keep moving. You stopped for food service, but that was all."

The rules now for Wednesday cruise night are also simple: no post-1970 cars, animals, alcohol, tire burnouts or loud radios. Cruisers pay the $1 admission price and enjoy the sights.

There's also a raffle, with Elvis Presley photos, cassette tapes of '50s music and car posters among the prizes. And Harvey's Broiler T-shirts and sweat shirts have no problem selling.

With her Harvey's sweat shirt in hand, Marilyne Nelson said the cruise night was a fun reminder of times past.

"The first thing I said is that I have to bring my kids and show them what happened in my day," said the 44-year-old mother of two. "I know they'd love it."

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