For teenagers during the 1950’s, the highlight of almost every weekend – with or without a date – was a cruise to Busch’s Drive-In restaurant to savor the delightful taste of a hamburger, large order of fries and a large Coke. After devouring such a fine meal, socializing with friends until closing time made the night complete.
This was a weekly activity for thousands of teenagers during those wonder years – when pegged pants, the “D.A.,” tight skirts, white bucks, saddle shoes, rock ‘n roll and the Bop were all the rage, and students at Lincoln High School enjoyed their carefree youth making Busch’s their home away from home.
With the largest public parking space of any drive-in north of San Francisco, Busch’s attracted all ages of cruising enthusiasts starting in the spring of 1951. Tacoma became a cruising capital of the West Coast, a fact that sometimes goes unnoticed in the annals of T-Town. However, on Aug. 28 those bygone days of car hops and jukebox memories will get the recognition they deserve during Busch’s 60th anniversary reunion party to be held at Griot’s Garage (3333 S. 38th St.), 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Open to the public, everyone is invited to come out, join in the festivities and maybe even learn a thing or two about Tacoma’s storied cruising past. Open to all special interest vehicles, the first 150 registrants will receive a Busch’s Drive-In desk clock, an 8x10 glossy black and white photo of Busch’s in its heyday, an 8x10 photo of local car club plaques of that era, and a CD of the greatest songs from the ‘50s that once played at Busch’s. Registration is $15; call Griot’s Garage at (253) 922-2400 or reunion organizer Walt Kaplin at (253) 858-8739.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
From 1951 to 1959, Busch’s was a way of life for thousands of teenagers, their parents and perhaps their grandparents.
Kaplin, a lifelong motor sports enthusiast who has many wonderful memories of Busch’s in the ‘50s, said there are all kinds of stories and myths about how cruising at Busch’s began, but only he was told the real story by owners Bill and Thelma Busch, one of Tacoma’s most wealthy and respected couples. Hard working, industrious and very successful but private people, the Busch family rarely allowed even the media an interview.
“It wasn’t until the summer of 1987 that I became aware of how it all began,” Kaplin said.
On a Saturday in August of 1986, while Kaplin was DJ-ing for a local car club that was hosting a Rod Run at Busch’s, Thelma Busch asked him if he would like to play music at the restaurant on Saturday evenings for the rest of the cruising season (cruising had been re-established for the first time since 1959 and it had become a popular happening again). “During the last Saturday evening cruise in November, I was asked to come back the following summer. Of course, I agreed,” Kaplin said.
One Saturday in June that next summer, Thelma asked Kaplin to join her for dinner (it was her ritual to eat dinner at the restaurant at 5 p.m.). It was there that she relayed this story to him, as told by Kaplin:
“In May of 1951, Thelma met with Ken Flora, principal of Lincoln High School in Tacoma, and told him that the south side of the large parking lot at the restaurant would be available Saturday evenings for the students. It was announced on the last day of school and by the end of June, the south side parking lot was full of Lincoln High School students and friends. Before the summer was over, the north side of the enormous parking lot was also being used and Saturday night cruising became a Friday and Saturday activity. Thanks to Thelma and Bill Busch and the Lincoln High School students, cruising at Busch’s was born!
“Thelma said that by the end of 1953, Busch’s had become the largest attended drive-in north of San Francisco. They received letters and telephone calls from newspapers in Detroit, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, all wanting interviews and photographs of the famous restaurant. All such interviews were refused.
“Thelma said she remembered seeing car club plaques at the restaurant from Los Angeles, Portland, Spokane, Olympia, Bremerton and, of course, Tacoma. There were hundreds of car clubs throughout the Northwest, and members attended a Friday or Saturday evening cruise at the Northwest’s most famous drive-in.
“At the conclusion of dinner, Thelma reminded me that when they opened their new restaurant in the north end of Tacoma during the early ‘60s, cruising at Busch’s sadly came to an end. Thelma also reminded me during dinner that our conversation was confidential and that I was not to share this information until such a time that I thought appropriate.”
That time, it seems, is now, as Kaplin and numerous other cruising enthusiasts of the Busch’s era prepare to celebrate the heralded drive-in’s 60th anniversary. Even though the beloved cruising hot spot is no more, and Bill and Thelma Busch have since passed away, their spirit and the great memories of Busch’s will be honored during the family friendly anniversary celebration.