Shared Stories: Cruisin' the Boulevard

Sharon Benson Smith is a native Angelino – born in East Los Angeles, and a regular at cruisin’ Whittier Boulevard. Car clubs were so big in the 1950’s, that when Sharon was named Queen of the Friendship Festival, famed County Supervisor John Anson Ford was the one who placed the crown on her head. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Sharon Benson Smith

I was born Sharon Darlene Benson on February 4, 1938, to Levi and Beatrice Benson.  I was only one of six children born at home at 4537 Gleason Street, Los Angeles, which is just south of the 60 Fwy.  My father was a truck driver for Safeway Stores for forty-two years.  Prior to that he drove a truck for Lucerne Milk.  My mother was a homemaker.

We kids attended Humphreys Avenue Grammar School, Kern Avenue Jr. High (later renamed as Griffith Middle School), and James A. Garfield High, a school that was later made famous by the movie “Stand and Deliver.”  A few siblings, after attending Garfield for a while, transferred to Roosevelt High School.

Gleason Street was flanked by Ford Blvd. on the west, and McDonnell Ave. on the east.  A few blocks south was 3rd Street, or Beverly, where one of the first “The Hat” restaurants was located, famous for “The World’s Best Pastrami.” It is now a King Taco and still a popular eatery.  Farther south is Whittier Blvd. where all of the 1950’s happenings took place.

Particularly on Friday and Saturday nights, we cruised the “Boulevard” from Ford to Atlantic. There was a Stan’s Drive Inn on that corner of Whittier and Atlantic which was a popular teenage hangout.  If Stan’s was all “full up,” you went next door to the GG Drive Inn to get your fries and Cherry Coke. 

This busy corner was also the home of the Golden Gate Theatre, where I worked as an usherette and cashier all through my high school years.  The building was badly damaged by an earthquake years later, and is now a landmark.  It truly was an architectural piece of work.  This is also where I met my husband.  He was the doorman, and we were married for seventeen years and had three wonderful, successful children.

Car clubs were very popular in the 1950’s.  I recall names like “the Drifters,” Coffin Cheaters,” and Road Knights.” They had their club colors, jackets (which girlfriends wore if the guys didn’t), special license plates, and bumper stickers.  And who could forget the Angora dice hanging from the rearview mirror? All of this, not to mention tuck & roll upholstery, lowered chassis, twin pipes, skirts, moon hubcaps, and Huggie Boy blaring rock ‘n roll on the radio!

When I was sweet 16, the Road Knights and Knightettes asked me to represent them at the upcoming annual contest for Friendship Festival Queen held at Fresno Park. Car clubs from all around the greater East LA area sent a contestant.  WOW! Was I surprised and excited when I was crowned Queen. And, how fortunate I was to have this open the door to many such awards.

That was 60 years ago, and I’m still humbled, and appreciative of the honor bestowed on me that day.