Drive-In & Classic Diner have historic past, bright future

Lila Mitchell enjoys a delicious milkshake from the Route 40 Classic Diner. Photo by Mitch Mitchell.

Lila Mitchell enjoys a delicious milkshake from the Route 40 Classic Diner. Photo by Mitch Mitchell.

It’s not many towns, even regions, that can brag about having their own drive-in theater. But Grindstone and Brownsville area residents are lucky enough not only to have one of their own, a classic that dates back to 1947, but also a classic diner with a flashy ambiance that recalls the 1950s.

“I. J. Ficks opened the Brownsville Drive-In 68 years ago,” said manager Charlie Perkins of Brownsville, who’s now also serving out his final term as a Brownsville councilman. “At their peak in the 1970s, there were about 5,000 drive-in theaters scattered across the country. Now there’s only 338.”

Extreme Southwestern Pennsylvania is blessed to have three of the outdoor theaters tucked into our corner of the state. Besides Brownsville, Mt. Pleasant and Carmichaels can also make a claim to having this classic form of summertime entertainment where families and teens on a date can watch the latest releases in the comfort of their car.

The late Tom Clark, Jr. was so drawn to the Brownsville Drive-In he started working there as a teen. While still in his 20s, he and John (Preach) Sebeck partnered to purchase the business in 1972.

Each year, the drive-in opens for weekend screenings in April but switches to a daily operation around Memorial Day After paying the $8 person admission fee (children under ten pay $3), patrons get to watch, not one, but two new releases on one of the theater’s three screens. Perkins keeps the drive-in open through October with the screening of horror films appropriate for Halloween.

Recently, the theater installed a new $100,000 digital projector and booth after a fundraising campaign that brought in $6,000 and a Honda award of $15,000. The rest of the financial outlay came via a timely loan.

Still to come are two additional digital projectors, which Perkins hopes to have installed by the end of the 2015 season. In the meantime, two 35 mm projectors will continue to carry the load.

“We make a lot of our revenue, not at the box office, but at the snack bar, where our most popular items are pizza and fresh cut fries,” Perkins said.

Other snack bar treats are cheeseburgers, hot dogs, nachos, corn dogs, candy, ice cream, cotton candy and, of course, popcorn.

As much as Tom Clark, Jr. loved his drive-in, he also loved old diners, those shining, gleaming eateries that date back to the 1950s. In 2006, Clark and Sebeck found a classic diner in Mattron, Illinois and had it moved to their property adjacent to the drive-in. Their Route 40 Classic Diner opened in November 2008 with chrome chairs, big comfy blue and white vinyl booths, a lunch counter flanked by a string of stools, black and white checkered floors, a Texaco pump and pink neon line lighting that runs along opposite sides of the ceiling.

To add to the diner atmosphere, the walls are decorated with celebrity autographs and photos, gold records presented to Frank Sinatra, Sonny and Cher and Buddy Holly, even a framed snippet of four strands of Elvis Presley’s hair that Perkins said are authentic.

“Over the years, we’ve had some celebrities come in to eat – like Peggy March, who made popular the 1963 hit “I Will Follow Him” and Joe Hardy, who liked to come in on Tuesdays for our chicken and biscuit special,” Perkins said.

The diner is open daily from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. for breakfast, lunch and dinner with specials featured everyday along with fountain favorites like milkshakes and banana splits. “Most everything is home cooked,” Perkins said. “We make our soups daily, and our most popular item is our Garbage Plate.” (The menu describes it as scrambled eggs, bacon, ham, onions, peppers, home fries and biscuits and gravy – all piled up on one plate).

Besides managing both the drive-in and diner, Perkins has yet another managerial duty – overseeing TJs Craftique, an emporium that sells antiques and crafts but also jewelry, candles, Amish products and electronics in what used to be the old Radio Shack. TJs is located on the same property as the diner and drive-in and is, in fact, sandwiched in between them.

Not one to stand still, Perkins said he eventually plans to build an outdoor patio onto the diner and is also thinking of opening another restaurant on the property.

“That’s something that could be years in the making, maybe like five years down the road,” he said.

The Route 40 Classic Diner, TJs Craftiques and the Brownsville Drive-In are located on Business Route 40, east of Brownsville.
Story by Dave Zuchowski for Pennsylvania Bridges

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