The Modernization of American Mobility The Transformation of Diners on the Open Road Essay
The diner is a universal symbol of Americana, these quintessentially American establishments can be found from the junction between York and Eagle Rock Boulevard to the busy streets of Seoul. Diners, no matter private or corporate owned, instantly brings comforting and nostalgic images of 1950s to mind- Googie architecture, booth seats, waitresses on roller-skates and of course, French fries, greasy burgers and tall glasses of Coca-Cola.From its humble beginning as lunch wagons in 1890s, to the drive-ins of 1950s and the more familiar drive-through restaurants of today, the evolution of roadside diners captures the modernization and development of American mobility.
And although diners have transformed a lot since its beginnings, it still remains an iconic and permanent stature on the American landscape as it symbolizes comfort, familiarity and an opportunity for travelers to take a break from the open road. Automobility revolutionized the American landscape and made automotive transportation a way of life in the United States.By 1955, a staggering number of sixty million auto vehicles were registered in the United States, almost tripled the amount of twenty-three million only twenty years ago in the 1930s. Automobility promised speed and convenience in traveling but more importantly, it allowed Americans to discover their nation and themselves all over again, but this time, on their own schedule. As a result of the widespread adoption of the automobile for personal transportation, the development of new auto motor oriented commerce such as “service stations, fast food restaurants and motor inns” to sprang up along the highways of suburbia.
The development of diners is as a result of widespread automobility in America. John Jakle and Keith Sculle, scholars from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, noted in their study on fast food restaurants in the United States that diners are a “generational subculture built substantially around cars”.Diners began as lunch wagons designed to meet to the demands of New England factory workers in the 1890s. Those workers, running on tight schedules, relied on diners for its convenience and cheap and quick meals. Since then, the diner had dropped its wheels and began its function as roadside restaurants, compliment to a newly motorized America bought on by Henry Ford’s introduction of the first affordable automobile in 1908- the Ford Model T.
4 However it was until the mass production of automobiles, combined with inexpensive gasoline and the passing of the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, which allocated thirty-three billion dollars to construct four thousand miles of new roads that popularized automotive transportation in America. No longer was the automobile “a sporting device” and a “status symbol” reserved for the nation’s wealthy.The popularization of auto vehicles provided the average American the freedom to come and go as they wish, and the cars themselves served as a mean for owners to express their personality through car customization. 5 Diners functioned as a rendezvous for teenagers during the era of custom cars, cruising and low riding from the late fifties to the early seventies. The innovation of the drive-in diner and carhop where waitresses on roller-skates took orders and brought meals to the car, “fit nicely into “cruising” routines where youngsters followed set routes between drive-ins after school and during evening hours”.For adolescents, the diner was important as it essentially served as a playground for social display and “were places where teenagers could congregate largely outside adult supervision.
.. manipulating the symbolisms of automobility especially”. 7 The freedom that the youth enjoyed from automobility was spent at diners and drive-ins as it functioned as a place for car owners to “see and be seen” with their customized cars. 8 Johnie’s Broiler, located in Downey, California, being the largest outdoor drive-in diner of the state, personified the era of custom cars and cruising in its heydays.
Cruising by Johnie’s was the “in-thing” for teenagers to do at the time. A record of five thousand cars passed through the diner every weekend during the glory days from the late fifties to the early seventies in the United States. 9 Teenagers from all over Los Angeles would dress up in the best fashion and the latest hairdos just to go to Johnie’s. Katherine Rodriguez, who grew up in the glory days of Johnie’s remembers, “We would drive real slow to watch other people and to let them watch us”. 10 Roger Humphries, who graduated from Downey High School in 1972 remembers, “Cruising nights were on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.
We would cruise all the hot spots and then end up at Johnie’s to sit and share stories of the night and things going on in school and such”. 11 Johnie’s Broiler meant more then just another eatery in that period. For the teenagers, it functioned as an arena for parade- a parade of the latest styles and a parade of the customized cars, and it was also a place of recuperation after a night of activities. George Lucas’s 1978 coming-of-age comedy American Graffiti, set nostalgically in 1962 California, indicates the role of the diner in the era of custom cars, low riders and cruising in regards to youth culture.American Graffiti follows a group of friends who had just graduated from high school. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), Steve (Ron Howard), John (Paul Le Mat) and Terry (Charles Martin Smith) were on their last night in town before they each head off to different journeys.
While Steve and Curt will be leaving for college in the East the very next day, Terry, a fumbling nerd, and John, an older kid with “the fastest car in the valley” are remaining at home. 12 Celebrating their last night at home in Modesto, California together, the four friends decided to cruise around town in their shiny automobiles.The film begins at the local diner, Mel’s Drive-in, with the familiar space-age Googie designs and carhops with waitresses on wheels bringing meals to the car, functions as an unspoken meeting point where friends would naturally find each other again in midst of the many riotous events that slowly unfold over the course of the night. Throughout the night the four friends stumble into Mel’s Drive-in one way or another. Steve lends Terry his car to cruise for the night while he rode with his girlfriend. Unfortunately, Terry, being the klutz he is, loses Steve’s car in a forest.
Distraught, he then stumbles into Mel’s Drive-in to collect his thoughts and to come up with a plan to find the car while sipping on cherry cokes with Debbie, a girl he met during the night. Somehow, he later magically stumbles onto Steve’s car and steals it back with help from friends. John, being the cool guy of the group, went cruising the streets in his customized yellow Deuce coupe, looking for female company. However, he ended up with a thirteen-year-old girl, Carol, who is an unbearable chatterbox.Looking to take a break from cruising the streets with Carol, he went to the drive-in.
John and his girlfriend Laurie went to the drive-in after attending a high school dance and then got into a fight over their relationship. The scene ended with John stepping away from the car and into the diner to escape from the quarrel while Laurie drove away. And finally Curt, after a hilarious run in with the mob of gang members who called themselves ‘The Pharaohs’, he ended up at the diner and running into John, who was still sitting there. 3 In American Graffiti, Mel’s Drive-in functioned as a natural stop between places and events, it provided the teenagers a familiar and comfortable setting to take a breath and recuperate from the incidents of the night while still parading their customized cars in the carhops. Randal Kleiser’s sensational American classic movie-musical Grease, also released in 1978 and nostalgically set in the fifties, is another teenage blockbuster that portrays the culture of custom cars and cruising of the period.The movie stars John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John as leading characters and the plot of the film revolve around the typical high school themes such as cliques and relationships.
14 The diner in Grease, called The Frosty Palace, plays a pivotal in the movie as it served as a popular social destination among the teenagers. The diner functioned both as a place for going on dates and as a location to hang out in between friends. Grease perfectly embodies the relationship between youth, the car culture of the fifties and diners.We first see the diner in a reconciliation scene between Danny Zuko (Travolta) and Sandy Olsson (Newton-John) near the beginning of the film.
As lovers in middle of a row, neither Zuko nor Olsson knew the other would be present at The Frosty Palace at that time. However, the diner being the social playground outside of school eventually led to a reunion of the two after the unexpected encounter. Later on in the film, Zuko and Olsson who were on a date, was unpredictably joined by all their friends.Zuko, who was attempting to keep his involvement with Olsson a secret, failed, because of the prominence of diners in the lives of teenagers in the fifteens. Another scene that featured the diner is right before Kenickie’s (Jeff Conaway) race against a rival, where Zuko and the gang encouraged Kenickie to go on and win the race with his newly customized car. Although the film Grease does not revolve around the diners, nor is the theme of diners a critical part of the movie, it still remains crucial to the film because it is often at The Frosty Palace that events begin, and then later moves on to another place.
Although the main characters in both Grease and American Graffiti are the cars and not the diner, diners are still important and crucial to the films because they served as a place of reconciliation and recovery as they allowed drivers an opportunity to slow down and take a break from cruising down the open road. Diners from the fifties have made such a huge impact that the influence and presence of drive-ins and diners can be witnessed all over the world.The fact that even Universal Studios amusement parks from Florida to Tokyo have replicas of the iconic Mel’s Drive-in from American Graffiti on permanent display as gift shops to the parks proves the significance of drive-ins and diners on the global stage as a permanent and iconic fixture in the American road story. Diners are a quintessentially American business that spread from the popularization of automobiles in the fifties in the United States. The American landscape changes to keep up with the modernization of American mobility.
As the generation of cruisers and car customizers from the fifties grew up, many drive-in diners in the United States began to disappear, as there was no longer a demand for them. 15 Whereas diners functioned as a place of socialization and a place to parade said custom cars in the late fifties to early seventies, the immense parking lots for carhops at the drive-ins were now seen as a waste of space. 16 The modern way of living required that people could dine on their own time without the hassle of having to stop moving forward to eat.Thus, gone were the nights of cruising through the city, and in was the new trend of the drive-through diner. The drive-through first appeared in the forties, but did not become popular until after the drive-in diner craze that lasted into the early seventies.
17 The drive-through allowed modern citizens to eat quickly and conveniently in the peace of their own car, even without having to stop commuting in order to enjoy a meal. Ridley Scott’s 1991 road film Thelma and Louise, illustrates the contemporary journey of two women who are on the road because they are on the run from the police. 8 Being women, Thelma (Gina Davis) and Louise (Susan Saradon) faced more challenges while traveling than men. For example their initial plan of going camping was ruined due a man’s selfish attempt to rape Thelma. In order to save her friend, Louise shot the man who tried to rape Thelma.
After the incident, the two went into a diner to figure a way out of the mess they are in, so they pulled into a diner instead of aimlessly driving without a direction.Diner scenes in Thelma and Louise tend to be scenes after something big had happened, such as after Louise shot the man and after a hitch-hiker by the name of Jacky (Brad Pitt) had stolen all their money from Thelma. 19 The diner functioned as a sanctuary for Thelma and Louise, it provided a place for the two disheveled and confused women to collect their thoughts and recover from the horrible events before having to set off into the world defenseless and marginalized again.Even in the modern-day setting, with the availability of other roadside rest stops such as convenience stores or empty parking lots, Americans still choose to pull into a diner when they are feeling distressed while on the road because they needed the comfort and familiarity that only diners provide to figure a way out. The popularization of automobiles as personal transportation has forever changed road culture and landscape of America.
The road will continue to change with the modernization of mobility in America.For instance, as we have witnessed in the transformation of the roadside eatery from a wagon to a drive-in and finally to the drive-through restaurant more popular today in order to meet the demands of society. Yet, although the roadside restaurants of America have changed a lot throughout history, the diner still remains an iconic and permanent fixture on the open road because it symbolizes comfort, familiarity and functions a rest stop for travelers to take a break from their travels in order to recuperate from the trip so they can take on the road again.