Above: Few things scream "1960s" like a tall, ornate and busy neon sign.
Pictured is the one for Roebuck's Mr. Good Guy Drive-In, as it looked in October 1967.

by Jane Solomon
(Originally published in THE BIRMINGHAM NEWS MAGAZINE, October 1, 1967)

Drawing a deep breath and putting on a mask of indifference, the three girls approached a local drive-in.

The driver guides her car toward a row of brightly lit stalls, circles one and parks in another. Then all three seemingly turn their attention to the menu, which each could quote by heart, while they secretly look around to see who is there.

This accomplished, they settle back for an evening of the favorite teenage game -- drive-in sitting.

A boy, driving a late model car, enters the lot and with a faint squeal of tires, proceeds around the stalls. His companions, slumping in their seats, "check out the scene." The three girls are noticed and, after two or three turns about the lot, the car parks next to them.

While gazing at the menu, the boys "discover" the girls. A few more minutes pass, the crucial ones.

But there is success... "Hi, how y'all doing." And before the evening ends, three new friendships blossom. All for the price of a soft drink.

The particulars vary, often the people know each other, then the conversation is likely to run, "Hey boy, what ya know," or "Sherry, baby, fancy meeting you here."

But whether in Mountain Brook, Roebuck, Midfield or West End, while the faces and cars may change, the reasons for being there don't.

If a steady relationship has broken up or a new car is purchased, the drive-in is almost as good a place to spread the news as the front page of a newspaper.

The look is casual. The boys, in athletic shirts, cut offs or faded bermudas, arrive to "check out the scene." The girls, attired in fresh blouses and "grubby pants" come to see and be seen.

The unwritten rules are more binding than a court order and as intricate as a computer.

Sunday through Friday, dating couples are not the rule. Often a boy will take a girl on a date and spend the evening at a drive-in. But more often seen are the cars of just girls, boys or an uneven combination of the two.

In one evening, a car may circle the stalls several times, letting off and taking on new passengers at every turn.

For all their indifference, these kids are there to see old friends and meet new ones. Approaches vary. They can be as simple as "Hi, what's your name?" or as complex as that of one young man, a college freshman, who has everything down to a science.

He approaches a car of girls and begins, "Hi, I'm a representative of Playboy Magazine, and we're having this big contest to see what state can get the most girls' names. And well, out of 27 states, Alabama is 22. But I got 2,000 names and just started last night."

Finishing this speech, he handed each girl in the car a blank he borrowed from a department store contest. Each girl was asked to fill in her name, address and telephone number. He would then look at the information and proceed to get better acquainted.

When asked what his prize would be if he won, he answered, "...oh, it's some trophy that says Playboy Award to the state with the most girl names."

Riding around and socializing are not the only thing teenagers do at a drive-in. They also eat.

Connie Lewis of Eastwood Shoney's estimates that his stalls bring in as much as $12,000 on a Saturday night, down to $750 on Sunday nights.

The consensus of restaurant managers is that the management can make or break the place as far as teenagers are concerned.

"We appreciate the business," Bert Cornelius of Mr. Good Guy said. "I know many of the kids by name and they know me. At one time, we had a problem with people getting out of cars and walking around, drinking on the lot and being loud. We talked to the kids, made them realize this was a privilege, and any privileges they abused would be revoked. We haven't had any trouble in a long time."

"When you make friends with the kids, they help you," according to John Hill of Shoney's Third Avenue. "If they like you, they won't let other kids cause trouble."

Although most drive-ins employ policemen in the evenings, their purpose is preventive rather than punitive.

The constant driving around can cause problems. For one thing, it can give the impression that the drive-in is more crowded than it is.

The teenagers do not "scare off" the family trade. Some managers said family trade has even been improved by the presence of well-mannered teenagers.

C. J. Larson, president of Burger In A Hurry, said, "Many parents and policemen have told me they would rather see the kids at the drive-ins drinking soft drinks and eating hamburgers under the lights than off in a dark alley drinking beer."

One drive-in might be crowded to overflowing while its twin, in a similar location, has very little teenage trade.

The key is in the "cool" of the place. One hamburger stand which used to be "the place" is now "out." The reason given by one young authority was that it "lost its cool."

Losing one's cool is not always a disaster. The manager of one "lost cool" place is happy about it.

"We don't cater to teenagers in the first place," he said. "Our aim is toward the young married couples with one or two children. It's not that we don't want the teenage business, it's just that we aren't crying about losing it."

"One-third of our revenue comes from the stalls and from 8 p.m. until closing, each stall is worth about $3 an hour," one manager explained. "So naturally we don't try to alienate any of our customers, no matter what their age. On the whole we have very little trouble. But it only takes one apple to spoil a barrel." And that one apple can prove to be very costly.

The one thing the managers objected to the most is rest room destruction.

"Every Monday I know I will have to call someone to repair the restroom," according to one. "They will come in here and rip the fan out of the ceilings, tear the fixtures out and just wreck the place. This is the thing that puts a bad taste in your mouth."

Most of the problems usually encountered in an outdoor business that is popular with this age group have been sidestepped by local managers. There are rules that no one is allowed to wander around the lot and that to sit in the stalls, someone must be eating something.

In California it is the beach; in Vermont the ski slopes, but in Birmingham, it is the nearby drive-in that is "the place."


BIRMINGHAM REWOUND's man on the spot Tim Hollis recently spoke with Bert Cornelius, who was mentioned in the accompanying article as the manager of the Mr. Good Guy drive-in in Roebuck. Mr. Cornelius was gratified that the public is interested in such pop culture history, and explained how the restaurant and its unusual name came to be.

"I got together with some partners and we decided to open a drive-in," he says, "and it was totally patterned after Shoney's Big Boy. I didn't want to do it that way -- I said we should go in our own direction -- but my partners overruled me and said we had to follow what was already successful. So we got a fellow who had been the manager at one of the Shoney's and talked him into coming to work for us. His name was Monk, and we called the new drive-in Monk's Good Guy, as a ripoff of Shoney's Big Boy.

"Well, eventually Monk didn't work out, and we changed the name to Mr. Good Guy. We had a few other, smaller locations around town but the one in Roebuck was the main one. It lasted until Shoney's built a Big Boy across the street from it, and that put us out of business pretty quickly."

Mr. Cornelius later opened a store called The Redneck on 1st Avenue, where he sold T-shirts and 8-track tapes, but Mr. Good Guy was the extent of his drive-in restaurant career. Apparently there was no connection between his drive-ins and another chain of Mr. Good Guy restaurants that operated in the area around Nashville, Tennessee, as he was unaware of their existence.


MR. GOOD GUY sign from cover photo of The Birmingham News Magazine, Sunday 1 October 1967.
Picture of car at stall from a News photo inside the same issue.

10/09/2005 -- 537 PM EDT

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