The Road to Great Valley and Beyond

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.”

This entry was posted in Food and Restaurants, Jobs, McKeesport, Summertime. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to The Road to Great Valley and Beyond

  1. Roger Beal says:

    I was born in ’47 in East Liberty, and grew up in Forest Hills, graduating in the first class from Churchill Area HS in 1965. Our home was on the west end of the boro, near where the Parkway crosses Ardmore Boulevard. There used to be two competing Gulf gas stations at the intersection there, right across the boulevard from each other. The hill on the south side of the boulevard was riddled with abandoned coal mines. There were some fires in them that gave off smoke right through the hillside, as late as about 1958 or 1959…. In those days you could take the 87 trolley down the middle of Ardmore Boulevard to East Pittsburgh for about 25 cents…. The other day something made me think of Claber’s discount store, and Google led me to your terrific post about Great Valley. That place was a mecca for my mom: We’d drive down “The Ardmore” and over the Westinghouse Bridge to Great Valley. Claber’s was probably the first store of its kind, at least in the ‘Burgh: Equal parts discount store and what used to be called “railroad salvage” (scratch ‘n’ dent). A great place to find offprice canned foods for Mom, and slightly damaged (and cheap) toys for me. Some great old memories: Thank you!

  2. Norma Fulmek Grabiak says:

    I worked at DOLLY MADISON BAKERY behind Eastland Mall for 10 years. I think it used to be a tire store for KNE of the bigger stores in the Mall. I lived in Ca. For 20 yrs. before coming “home” to this area again in 1986. When I came back, Eastland was the huge flea mkt. and we’d go every weekend. And buy “stuff!”. As a kid, my two gal cousins and I would walk across the Duquesne bridge and walk to KENNYWOOD! Had an aunt who lived in Clairton, and I think we would drive across the bridge and go along River Road to her house. I may be mistaken about that, not sure.
    My grandmother lived on S. Duquesne Ave. and we three gals would love to spend weekends at
    grandmas. We,d slide down the big mill slag pile next to their house on cardboard till we made holes in it. My grandfather and father both worked the Duquesne Steel Mill. Grandma would send us to SHRAGERS for a few things, and we,d get a nickel to spend at Pirhalla,s small store on the
    Corner. She’d also send is to Balsamos for groceries. I am 77 yrs. old now, and he’s, you surely did bring back old memories of childhood. I still remember coming back from an errand, and all the whistles and car horns were suddenly blaring. I got so scared, never having heard such a thing before, and ran the rest of the way home. Grandma was crying, and told me, HONEY THE WAR IS OVER, AND YOUR DADDY AND UNCLE DAN WILL BE COMING,HOME. What a glorious day that was. Thanks for the memories. Norma (Fulmek) Grabiak

  3. Terek Richard says:

    Speaking of Hot Dog places does anybody remember the Coney Island Hot Dog place in Mckeesport? When I attended CCAC, that used to be a hang out for us between classes.

  4. Terek Richard says:

    Right across from Bloom’s is the East End Grill. All the guys who worked in Duquesne Steel Mill would stop after their shift to have a shot and beer before heading home. The bartenders, Ed and Helen, knew everyone’s favorite brand and set them up when they walked in the door. My dad would get my brother and I a bag of chips and a soda . We’d sit in the booth and munch away while dad had a brew with his buddies. Sometimes we’d get a hot dog from Bud’s on the way home

  5. linda triompo says:

    This post was such a nostalgia trip for me. My mom used to do our Christmas shopping at the stamp store. My sister worked at Clabers. I loved that place…thanks for the trip back in time. You are amazing.

  6. linda triompo says:

    I love your posts…brings me back to my youth and PA. Thank you, thank you and thank you.

  7. Michael Chahoy says:

    Does anyone remember the sealed rocket in GV shopping center. It was suppose to be opened I think in the year 2000. I always wondered what the hell was inside of it. It was located in the corner by Isaly’s.

  8. Jim Hartman says:

    The sign at the end of the Duquesne-McKeesport bridge was for Duquesne Pilsener. It had the Duke with his medals on. He had his arm extended out. The one to remember is at the end of the bridge you either made a left to Eastland or a right to McKeesport. At the bottom of the present day ramp there was a billboard nad I think it was for Longine watches — it had a large clock on it. Then you would make a stiff left to get on East Fifth Avenue and ride the brick with cobblestone between the street car tracks. Once past Earl Schieb and the A&P market (this is where the street cars made the loop to return… The 61 would go across the DM bridge and go down the hill into McKeesport making a left at Lysle & Fifth Avenue and right past Market Street would make a right (by the Penn-McKee – present day State & Sherwin Williams was. Then another right back onto Lysle then onto Market to get back on Fifth Ave to return to Duquesne.

  9. John (Jack) Berta says:

    Jim, do you remember past Bud’s Red Hots on the left was the “Twin Kiss” a soft serve ice cream stand that was located near Nigro’s restaurant present location. It was the small building that Lemko’s Appliance Parts shop later occupied. Of course my family would go for a ride and stop there for a cone. We still have a large glass mug that HAD the Twin Kiss Logo on the side. Unfortunately we didn’t know the older logos were not dishwasher proof so we lost that. Still great for having a frosted mug of beer. Again, as many times before, thanks for the memories.

    • Jim says:

      Jack, I do remember the Twin Kiss. Since my dad worked at Eastland, we sometimes would take Westinghouse Ave down to 5th Ave Ext. to treat ourselves to a cone after work.

  10. Michael Bashista says:

    And don’t forget the competitor – S&H Green Stamps. Always funny to see my mom check her stamp books to help decide where we had to shop to make sure we had enough of whichever stamps she need for something she wanted.
    Loved the drive-ins. Many great memories and dates there.

  11. Michael Bashista says:

    I also remember and loved Vienna Baking company. But for me it was more, as 2 of my uncle’s worked there for many years [one until it closed]. I used to get a job on some weekends and more often during the summer helping one of my uncles load truck and deliver bread and pastries from the bakery to delis, restaurants and food stores [ mostly by Clairton and that area]. Hours were brutal, usually starting about 4am and going until 4-5pm. The great part besides getting paid, was getting great free lunches and at the end of the day when we delivered any returns back to the bakery getting to pick some out to take home as well as going into the bakery store for some fresh bread and sometimes pastries to take home. My dad really loved when I worked for my uncle.I always remember that bumpy drive down Sate St behind the bakery. As you drove back toward McKeesport from Highland Ave, there was a Betera’s Supermarket that opened in a small shopping area {Betera’s also owned the Holiday House supper club in Monroeville]. One of the son’s opened a restaurant next to the supermarket and his claim to fame was the largest hamburger you could get. He served a 2lb burger on specially made buns. I took a date there once & she looked at me funny when I ordered 1 hamburger special and drinks – didn’t give her a chance to look at menu [probably thought I was really being cheap!!]. The look on her face when they brought out our hamburger was priceless!!

  12. David Marks says:

    Wonderful!

    I remember the excitement of cashing in those Top Value stamps at Great Valley, and arguing with the next-door neighbors on the proper pronunciation of Clabers!

    Thanks!

  13. Donn Nemchick says:

    One of the bars on that route may have been Yancik’s — I recall the bar with the rocket also but the name escapes me —- maybe I spent too much time in there back in the day!

  14. Lou A. says:

    WOW, Jim, WOW!! The red & white ’57 Dodge to the far left of the photo was my Dad’s!!! He worked for Bell Drapery, located at the bottom outside corner of the Center; it’s now a bank, I think. He worked for Westinghouse Airbrake in Wilmerding, and when they lost a big gov’t contract in ’58, he was laid off and went to Bell Drapery, working with them at various locations around PGH until he got sick in ’84. Never thought I’d ever see a photo of ‘the rocket’, as he called it. The photo chopped off the tailfins; they had chrome tips. It was always my job to scrub the whitewalls with cleanser and a scrubbrush when he washed it. It was so long that the tail end would scrape coming up Center St. Where did you find the photo? I’d like to make a copy.

  15. Dave Gaydos says:

    Jim, what was the name of the bar/restaurant that was along East Pittsburgh / Mckeesport Blvd that had the rocket from Kennywood’s rocket ride , as one of it’s decorations hanging outside the bar?

  16. Karen Smith says:

    The hot dog place by Bloom’s was Bud’s Red Hots. Soooo very yummy. Love your blog. My husband’s family was from the Duquesne/West Mifflin area,as was my dad’s family,so I love reading all these memories.

    • Michael Bashista says:

      Hi Sue, How’s the world on Detroit doing these days. Looking forward to our reunion next year – hope to see you both there.

  17. George DeVirgilio says:

    The road behin Vienna Bakery that went down to 5th Ave Ext. was State Street, a cobblestone (not brick) paved steep road with a sharp right hand turn at the top that actually ended at Highland Ave.
    We lived about a half mile up from the bakery next door to Zelicks beergarten on one side and next to Alt Street on the other side, a dirt alleyway that went down to some houses on a hill. My uncle Henry Boyda lived there for a while. Next to the Vienna Bakery was Highland Grove Park, a nice grass covered park with lots of trees. A man would show motion pictures there on weekends for free. My mom used to take us there in the late 40’s. What sticks in my mind today was that while he was showing a “werewolf” movie, a dog got loose and bit our paperboy. My mom made my brother and me roll up in a blanket for protection. Ever since then, I can not watch a “werewolf” movie.
    Also just up the hill was the Bowman Social Club. My grandfather would go there for his shot and beer after work. Not much farther up the hill from the Club, you could look over the hill and see the entire city of Duquesne and especially the steel mills.
    I watched my first tv show in Zelicks in 1948 (I think) of the Lone Ranger.
    Speaking of Great Valley shopping center, my son worked at Foodland for about 3 years in the early ’90’s. We went to many drive in movies at Great Valley drive in. I remember our best friend, Gary Schreiber from Mt. Vernon in Elizabeth Twp. took us to the movies. But we tried to sneak in in his trunk. The attendant knew something was fishy when he saw the spare tire in the back seat. Needless to say, we got kicked out and never tried that stunt again. Teenagers…

  18. Gene (Geno) Sabolcik says:

    You need to leave your brain to science, Jim!! How in the heck do you remember all this stuff? Keep up the great work.

    I spent a lot of time at both Woodland and Greater Pittsburgh Drive Ins. Sometimes I watched the movies, sometimes I didn’t ;-). I had an old 55 Chevy with a BIG trunk and a back seat with a seatback that popped out. We used to stuff a couple guys in the trunk with a case of beer and sneak them into the drive-in. When we got inside the drive in, we just popped the seat back out and…..instant party. Had a lot of great times back then.

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