Looking back on... Richie's Drive-In

DOWNEY - This year, Downey saw the rebirth of one of its oldest restaurants when the drive-in formerly known as Johnie's Broiler opened its doors once again as Bob's Big Boy on October 19.However, during the 1950s, Johnie's, then named Harvey's, was not the only drive-in in town. In fact, less than a mile away from Bob's Big Boy, near the corner of Rives Avenue and Firestone Boulevard was another burger place called Richie's Drive-In. Built in 1953, Richie's was bought on July 15, 1954 by Buck Chandler, who turned the structure into one of the most popular drive-ins in the area until Harvey's opened four years later. Though the small restaurant has been closed for decades, the building is still intact and has not changed much since it played host to the wild teenagers of the '50s who would cruise around the restaurant looking for friends and possible dates. Seventy three-year-old Don Frieze remembers being one of those teenagers. "It was basically a Downey Senior High School hang out, although kids from surrounding towns would cruise it as well," said Frieze who graduated from Downey High School in 1956. "It was not very big compared to the drive-ins in some of the other cities - however, it was very important to us who went to Downey High to be seen at Richie's - to "show off" to others the girl you were dating." Bill O'Neill, who graduated from Downey High in 1952, recalls vividly the atmosphere of Richie's. "That was the "happening place" on Friday nights, long before Harvey's was established a few yards to the west," said O'Neill, who covered high school sports for the local newspaper during that time. "A couple of kids named Jim Hearn and Ward Vaughan used to stop cars "cruising" bumper-to-bumper into Richie's, and charge them 25 cents to drive through. And Jim, the legendary street fighter and football star, would get up and dance a jig on the hood of any car whose driver refused to pay the "toll." Like most drive-ins of the time, Richie's had several carhops, where visitors could order their delicious Richie's burgers. Frieze recalls them always being full. "I never remembered anybody walking up to Richie's window," said Frieze. "That would have really been a not cool thing to do at Richie's." Growing up, Kay Cofield never got to hang out at Richie's, where teens were also known to secretly smoke and drink so not to be caught by the Downey Police. "I vaguely recall that I was not allowed to go to Richie's because it had a rather "rough" reputation," said Cofield. "What that meant in the parlance of the mid to late '50s was that the kids who went there were a little on the tough side." Towards the late '50s, Richie's began to lose some of its teenage patrons as another burger restaurant named McDonald's began to expand. "When McDonald's on Florence Avenue and Lakewood Boulevard opened up, it slowly took the place of Richie's as the Downey High School hang out," said Frieze. "It [Richie's] became more of a hang-out for the car-club guys in the area than for the average teens." Today, Richie's is owned by Kal Motors, a used car dealership based in South Gate since 1995. Kal Motors purchased the property in 2007. Despite its many owners and minor changes, the integrity of the building is still intact, standing as a reminder of Downey's golden era of hot rods, juke boxes and carhops. Next up:‚ÄàGallatin School and Bell. Do you have memories of the old Gallatin School that you would like to share? If so, contact reporter Christian Brown at christian@thedowneypatriot.com.

********** Published: December 18, 2009 - Volume 8 - Issue 35