Memories of Schang's Drive-In
Brenda Reeg Robison
|Being a car hop at Schang's Drive-In in the 1950s was
a perfect job for me and many other teenaged girls. We were
actually paid to see all our friends! Of course, there was a bit
of work that had to be done, but it only felt like work in cold
or rainy weather when not many customers pulled into the gravel
lot. Then the time passed exceedingly slow, the tips were few,
and the replays of the limited stack of 45 records over the
loudspeaker became a reminder of how long the shift was. Whenever
I hear songs like The Wayward Wind by Gogi Grant, It's All in the
Game by Tommy Edwards or Til I Kissed You by the Everly Brothers,
I remember the many wonderful times I had at Schang's.
In the 1950s few homes had air conditioning, so on hot summer nights the ultimate treat was to get in the car and go for ice cream at the drive-in. There were three at the time: The Barrel on North Main Street, Wheeler's B & K Root Beer across from the 30 Club on U.S. 30 East and Schang's on U.S. 30 West. After movies, football games, City Hall dances and the Teen Canteen, those teenagers lucky enough to have the family car would make at least one circuit of the drive-ins to see and be seen. Few teens had cars of their own, and even a station wagon was better than none. Cars customized by their teen drivers were widely admired, so some guys cruised simply to show off the latest addition to their cars. Holly Glass Pack mufflers were in style, and those who had them made sure everyone else heard their unique rumble.
I worked at Schang's in the seasons of 1955, 1956 and 1957. The season began about April 1st and ended September 30th. I don't recall the exact hours but on weekends we didn't close until 1 am, much later than my curfew. Like many of the carhops, I was too young to drive so my parents took me to work and picked me up. For day shifts I sometimes walked the mile from town to work.
My supervisor was usually Mrs. Schang or her daughter Joan, who was about four years older than I. By then Mr. & Mrs. Schang had the operation running smoothly, including the handling of their teenage employees. Expectations were made clear at hiring, and it was rare for someone to be a no-show at the scheduled time or not do their share of the work. The carhops were all girls but the inside help included some guys. We didn't have uniforms, and the carhops usually wore blouses or sweaters with skirts and bouffant crinolines. I think my starting pay was 20 cents an hour plus tips, and I worked 20 hours or so a week. A dollar bought more then, of course, and I could purchase a nice Ship 'n Shore blouse for $3.98 or a wool skirt for $7.98 at Blumenthal's Department Store in the 200 block of West Van Buren Street in Columbia City.
When I first began working at Schang's, the hamburgers were cooked on a traditional restaurant grill, but it wasn't long until a marvelous new automatic broiler was installed. A hamburger patty and a bun were put on a conveyor at one end of the machine, and they emerged on the other side fully cooked and ready for condiments. Even a lowly carhop could fry hamburgers with this machine! All of us employees were fascinated by this modern marvel and spent quite a bit of time watching raw hamburgers disappear inside and emerge, magically ready-to-eat.
Menus were printed on white posterboard and had a number painted on the back. A hamburger was $.25, french fries $.20, and a Coke cost $.10, so for just over a dollar a guy could take his favorite gal out to eat. A french fried chicken dinner with salad, fries, roll and beverage was only $1.50. Sauerkraut topped hot dogs called "Dutch Dogs" were a favorite of many customers.
Carhops placed the card under a car's windshield wiper on the driver's side so that the menu could be read by people inside the car and the number could be seen by the carhop outside. The carhop wrote the number on the order so that when it was ready she knew which car to take it to.
As the inside help readied an order, they put the food on a 10" x 14"aluminum tray at a pass-through window between the kitchen and the outside. In those days the drinks were served in glass mugs and glasses. Sandwiches and fries were nestled in plastic oval baskets lined with sheets of waxed paper. After paying for the order, the carhop carried the tray of food to the car with the matching number.
Fastening the tray to the car was somewhat tricky: Two padded clips at one long edge of the tray were placed over the partially opened driver's window and the arm that hung below the tray top was pushed in against the side of the car. If not positioned exactly right, the tray with all its contents would unexpectedly fall off the car. Most carhops had a few trays fall before they mastered the technique. My most embarassing moment came when a tray suddenly moved just as I was letting go of it. In my haste to catch the falling tray, I dumped its two cups of hot coffee onto the driver's lap.
The busiest time of the season was after the fireworks on the Fourth of July. To be scheduled to work that night was a bit of an honor, because it meant you'd proven you could handle the stress of handling three to four rows of cars at once. It was also a good night for tips, because all the customers could see how hard you were working.
There was always a bit of a rush at nine o'clock at night. Partly because that's when the movie let out and partly because people seem to get the munchies about that time. Even on a slow night, you could be sure of a few customers at 9:00 p.m..
Working and growing up in Columbia City in the 1950s was a wonderful time of innocence and shelter from the world at large, although I didn't realize it then. A telling example occurred when a black family drove in one summer afternoon. There were no blacks living or working in Columbia City, and my only exposure to non-whites had been while shopping in Fort Wayne. I walked to the car and as usual asked, "May I take your order please?"
The man behind the wheel asked if they could be served. I answered, "Sure, what would you like?" He must have sensed that I didn't understand his real question because he repeated the question in plainer language, "Can people like us eat here?" Then I understood that he was asking whether we served Negroes, as they were called then, and without a second thought I replied, "Of course. What would you like?"
It wasn't until years later that I fully understood the incident. At the time I was so sheltered that I didn't realize there were restaurants, some even in Columbia City, which refused to serve Negroes. Fortunately for this black family and for me, Mr. & Mrs. Schang's drive-in wasn't one of them.
The above appeared September 1999 in The Bulletin, a publication of the Whitley County Historical Society.
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