After my last post about Eastland Mall, I began remembering so many other things about my family’s travels outside of Duquesne. By the mid-60’s, Duquesne was no longer a self-sustaining area. Because of the “demise” of a large portion of its shopping area, residents had to look beyond the boundaries of the city to find many items that they needed.
North Versailles provided a shopping mecca to the folks across the river that neither Duquesne nor downtown McKeesport was unable to offer. Certainly, Eastland Mall was a huge draw for us, but even before it opened, there was another shopping “magnet” in the same area…….. Great Valley Shopping Center.
Great Valley was opened in November of 1958. It was the first complete commercial area in North Versailles. There were 38 different stores in the center at opening, and the parking lot held 1500 cars. I was able to find a list of some of the stores that were to be part of the Shopping Center when the opening was first announced in 1956. Among them was the largest A&P in the Pittsburgh area. Other retailers that were to be part of the center were Kroger’s, W. T. Grants, Sun Drugs, Forsythe Shoes, Kinney Shoes, Maries and Betty Jay Dress Shops, Economy Market, Isaly’s, Bell Drapery and National Record Mart.
The two stores that I most remember, besides Isaly’s, would have to be Claber’s and the Top Value Stamp Redemption Center. Our family trips to Great Valley always included stops at those stores. The stop at Claber’s was always exciting for me, primarily because of the toy department. From what I recall, the store was a cross between a Zayre’s, K-Mart and a Flea Market. Lots to look at, haphazardly merchandised, and basically a treasure trove of bargains!
Dad loved the gardening section. Granted, his idea of gardening was planting a few tomato plants and some lettuce, and hoping the crop came in before the weeds overtook the garden. Nonetheless, he would pour over the array of gadgets and sprays while Mom would scour the rest of the store for bargains.
The store that I always thought was fascinating was the Top Value Stamp Redemption Center. My mom and my Aunt Mary would toddle into the center, hand over a few books of stamps that they had collected from Kroger’s, and come out with really neat stuff. I remember how the ladies that worked there would shuffle through each and every page of the stamp books to verify that they were filled before handing over the merchandise. They way they would lick their fingertips and swat at the pages to count them was precision at its finest! Mom would have already decided what she wanted to redeem the stamps for. Each year, Top Value distributed a catalog of items that customers could choose from. Many nights, I remember Mom sitting on our sofa next to the lamp, drinking a cup of coffee, and contemplating just how she’d be spending her stamps. It was like found money in her mind and her chance to treat herself to something she wouldn’t ordinarily every dream of buying. I liken it to spending your Skeeball tickets at Kennywood Park!
Next to Great Valley was the Greater Pittsburgh Drive-in. I understand that it is now home to a Walmart Super Store. God only knows that the world needs another one of those. The Greater Pittsburgh Drive-in holds a very special place in my heart. Being from Duquesne, we normally would go to Woodland Drive-in when I was a little one. Once my mother died in ’65, we stopped going to drive-ins altogether. I guess we all just lost interest. However, one time on a whim, my dad asked me if I’d like to go to see Dr. Zhivago that was playing at the Greater Pittsburgh Drive In. Since the movie was released on December 22, 1965, I figured this must have occured during the Spring of 1966 and that Dr. Zhivago had made its way into the drive-ins by that time. I remember that it was a bit chilly, so Dad kept on starting the car to warm it up while we watched the movie. It was over 3 hours long, so a lot of starting and stopping occurred. We both enjoyed the movie, the popcorn and the bonding. That was the only time Dad and I saw a movie together, and the last movie he ever saw in a theatre.
The trip from Duquesne to either Eastland or Great Valley was an easy one. We would just zip across the Duquesne-McKeesport Bridge, up Bowman Ave and onto East Pittsburgh-McKeesport Blvd. Who remembers the mechanical billboard that was directly ahead at the end of the bridge on the McKeesport side? This was before they eliminated the billboards and built the interchange at the end. I especially remember this billboard because my grandfather, whenever he happened to be driving with us, would make the same corny comment every time he saw it. It was a mechanical billboard that featured a huge beer bottle that was pouring beer into a pilsner glass. The billboard had a spinning strip off material that gave the effect of beer actually being poured into the bottle. Grandpa would always remark that it was such a waste of good beer. There was a similar sign at the end of the Homestead High Level Bridge too. For the life of me, I can’t remember the brand of beer being advertised.
One of my favorite places along the way to Eastland had to be the Vienna Banking Company. Even if we didn’t stop to buy something from the bakery, the aroma of the baking bread permeated the air. It was heavenly. Of course, a stop to visit the bakery even made it better. My favorite was the sugar donuts. I remember the ticket machine that was at the front door that incoming customers would use to designate their place in line. I was always in charge of getting the ticket. Dad or Mom would always buy a loaf of fresh bread that would be dropped into the slicing machine, fed through and be perfectly sliced. Once sliced, the girl would somehow manage to lift the loaf up to the top of the machine without disturbing a single slice, place it on a v-shaped tray, and place it perfectly into a waxed bread bag. All the while this bread slicing was occuring, the clerk would be packing our baked good choices into a pristine white box and then quickly wrap them with string that was housed in containers hanging from the ceiling. A quick bow would be tied to seal the deal, and we were on our way.
Although we would normally continue to follow Bowman Blvd. around the bend in order to reach out destination, occasionally Dad would decide to treat us and take a shortcut down to 5th Avenue Extension. The purpose of the shortcut was to treat us to hot dogs at a drive-in restaurant close to Bloom’s Cut-Rate. I don’t recall the name of the hot dog place, but all I know is that they were delicious! The best part of the shortcut, besides the hot dogs, was the road he took to get there. It was directly behind Vienna Baking Co. and was loaded with twists and turns and bumps. The road was eventually closed off, but when it existed, it was awesome!
Rather than prattle on any longer, I’ll leave you with an article that appeared inYour Norwin in 2008 that paid homage to the Warrens, the owners of Greater Pittsburgh Drive in.
FYI – The Greater Pittsburgh Drive-In opened May 28, 1954 with a curved Cinemascope screen. It was one of several Pittsburgh area drive-ins owned by Marty Warren and family. The drive-in originally had a children’s playground, however in later years, a miniature golf course was added on the hillside before the box office. It closed at the end of the 1997 season. A Wal-Mart now occupies the site where the Greater Pittsburgh stood.
Lifelong passion leads to collection, labor of love
by Zandy Dudiak Staff Writer
January 23, 2008
Joe Warren’s life has always centered on the big screen.
As a child, he spent many evenings in playgrounds below it, more interested in the pre-movie cartoons and intermission trailers with dancing hot dogs than films. As a man, Warren focuses more on the main features as he makes his living preserving one of the true 20th-century icons.
This spring, as the drive-in theater industry celebrates its 75th year, Warren looks forward to reopening his 61-year-old Evergreen Drive-In just off Route 119 at the Scottdale exit. Evergreen is one of about 400 drive-ins that remain open today, down from the nationwide peak of 4,063 in 1958, according to the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association, based in Middle River, Md.
Since the first drive-in opened in Camden, N.J., on June 6, 1933, the outdoor picture show has been a way of life for many Americans, especially for Warren.
“It’s in his blood,” says his wife, Debbie.
From 1954 to 1997, Warren’s family operated Greater Pittsburgh Drive-In on Route 30 in North Versailles, where Wal-Mart is now situated. Between 1949 and 1988, Warrens also owned the Blue Dell and Bel-Aire drive-ins, adjacent to each other, along Route 30 in North Huntingdon, Super 30 on the same highway near the Irwin Turnpike interchange, Rose on Route 130 near Harrison City and South Hills along Route 51 in Pleasant Hills. The family also owned the Super 50 Drive-In in Ballston Spa, N.Y.
Before the drive-in business, the family operated the Warren-Morocco Coal Co., a strip mining venture in Trafford. Warren says his father and grandfather sometimes ran into each other at the theater after sneaking out of work to catch the latest flick. Their love of movies led th e father and son into the growing drive-in business, where they were joined by two of Warren’s uncles and an aunt. As a result, Warren and his cousins grew up at the drive-ins.
As they bought existing outdoor theaters, the family ended up in side ventures, such as the dirt track speedway at the Rose, miniature golf at Greater Pittsburgh and a diner and pool that shared the name with the Blue Dell Drive-In.
“The first memory I have of being around drive-ins was at the Super 30,” Warren says. He remembers being about 3- or 4-years-old and watching the shapes formed behind the glass block at the bottom of the ticket booth, which was backlit with neon lights that buzzed and crackled.
The gameroom of his North Huntingdon home, decorated with drive-in posters and art, is a tribute to his lifetime passion. The focal point is the old Carbon Arc projector from the Bel-Aire Drive-In. Beside it is an illuminated ramp marker from Greater Pittsburgh listing the 5 mph speed limit and denoting when the row was full.
“The kids that used to work there were called ramp boys,” Warren says. “When the row was filled, they would put on the ‘full’ sign.”
Warren’s train platform includes a drive-in, complete with cars ready to watch the show. He has a frame that includes the metal nameplates from the equipment used in the projection area. “We have state-of-the-art surround sound,” jokes Debbie, pointing to the vintage window speakers on poles positioned around the room, salvaged from the Rose and Greater Pittsburgh.
Another conversation piece is the old Jubilee hot chocolate maker, which Warren has on an end table. The Jubilee sign still rocks back and forth, just as it did at the Greater Pittsburgh Drive-In. Warren has scrapbooks that preserve photos, ticket stubs, letterhead, payroll documents and newspaper clippings. He also has a few of the old heaters that could be rented for 25 cents to warm up the car on a chilly night.
Over 75 years, the drive-in business has remained basic — films, projectors, screens, parking spaces, concession stands and restrooms. “It remains pretty much the same,” Warren says. “The movies change. It always keeps the business fresh.”
There are minor changes. Instead of the old window speakers, the soundtrack now is broadcast on an FM frequency to car radios. Warren has spent money on two new screens, new projector equipment, restrooms and snack bar since buying the Evergreen in 1999, a year after the season Greater Pittsburgh went dark.
Originally opened as the Ruthorn Drive-In in 1949, the theater was renamed the Evergreen the same year. When Warren bought it, the drive-in was like a throwback to the 1940s or 1950s and in need of major upgrades, according to Debbie. “He sinks every nickel he makes into the place,” she says.
As with the other Warren theaters, the Evergreen is a family business with their son, Bryan, 13, and Debbie’s mother, Roberta Nese of Penn Hills, joining the couple in running the show. Projectors once used at the Greater Pittsburgh and South Hills drive-ins still light up Warren’s three screens at the Evergreen. He says the equipment was “designed to run forever flawlessly.”
Despite digital technology, there’s been no push to move to the format in the theater industry. He attended a drive-in association meeting that included a digital demonstration, showing the format will work. “If and when it happens, we’ll have to adapt for it,” Warren says. “It’s just a question of when we’re going to have to put it in.”
And will it be expensive to switch?
“Costly — yeah! It’s costly for us, given we’re only open six months of the year.”
But there is still a place for film. What most people don’t realize, Warren says, is that most movie VHS tapes or DVDs they watch at home are made from the original 35mm film print. Although the business centers on films, drive-ins feed off food. “That’s what keeps us alive,” Warren says, talking about his concession stand.
The top-selling food is cheeseburgers, which Warren still makes using the chopped beef steakburger recipe his father did. Popcorn is the top-selling snack. Also popular are pizza, hot dogs and footlongs, meatball and grilled chicken sandwiches, ice cream, soft pretzels, mozzarella sticks and french fries.
The concession stand menu changes with trends, including the addition of nachos and cappuccino — but forget wraps and other healthy choices on drive-in night. Those items just don’t sell, Warren says. Unlike other owners, Warren has resisted pressure to institute a food permit fee for those who want to bring their own food into the drive-in. He says he tries to keep his food both quality and affordable for families.
“The families have always been the heart and soul of the drive-in business,” says Warren. “It’s still a date night for a lot of kids.”
Warren says the future of drive-ins may eventually include being venues for big-screen pay-per-view-type sporting events. Come March, when the weather breaks, Warren will be ready to resume his 99-hour-a-week schedule, which is truly a labor of love. “It’s almost like having a big party every night and inviting people over.”