Fond memories of things past
Two local icons have found a permanent home at our Museum. Symbols of our past considered well worth preserving, the neon signs from Del's Drive In and the Bee Hive Café were once a familiar sight to residents.
Stylized and colourful, both signs appeared on the Campbell River scene about 40 years ago. In the case of Del's the sign's presence and the business ended together. The red and white "Bee Hive Café", however, was one in a succession of signs for a continuing enterprise nearly as old as the town itself.
The sign now in the Museum's collection recalls a special era in the life of the Bee Hive Café. When the sign appeared about 1961, it was attached to a stucco, art deco building close to the wharf. It was the teenage hangout where students gathered after school, sipping "floats" and playing tunes on the juke box. It was the meeting place where locals heard the latest scuttlebutt. It was where a family could get a cardboard boxful of French fries for $1. It had a friendly, easygoing proprietor; homemade hard ice-cream, the first soft ice-cream machine in town, the "biggest magazine rack north of Nanaimo," and people playing bridge in the basement.
The square, grey block was the second Bee Hive. The first, already in business in the early 1900s, was an ice cream parlour and pool room in one of a few buildings clustered along the waterfront. The second Bee Hive Café was built in 1937 and sported at least two previous signs, one shaped like a hive; one bearing the five-pointed Star Weekly emblem, before the red and white neon sign went up.
This large sign was leased from Bayliss Neon Signs in Victoria for nearly 30 years. By the end of that time both the café and the building had seen better days. In 1988 owner Skip McDonald had the building demolished and built the third Bee Hive Café complex. Bayliss Neon Signs refurbished the neon nameplate and returned it as a gift; it hung in the new café building for a further 10 years. When renovations made its removal necessary, current owner Lynn Bendickson donated it to the Museum's collections.
After the sign came to the Museum, other memorabilia followed. Two bar stools, complete with nostalgic significance, were also donated. They had been a gift for school principal Doug Flynn, presented by a colleague in memory of their "staff meetings" at the old Bee Hive before catching the ferry for the Quadra Island School. The friend obtained the seats when the aging building was torn down, and saved them for ten years until Doug retired. His retirement party, fittingly, was held in the "new" Bee Hive.
Someone else acquired a pair of bar stools when the Bee Hive came down. Pat Turner chuckles when she describes her pair's history. As a girl, she worked in an appliance store just down the street from the Bee Hive. She often went there for lunch, and so did a certain young man. They began taking seats closer and closer together, until they were always sitting side by side. The young man, now her husband of 38 years, worked in his father's barber shop next door to the café, in the Bee Hive block.
"I have pieces of stucco from that old building," continues Pat, "and an ashtray, and the door from the barber shop¼" Still chuckling, she recalls how they gathered in the barber shop with their friends, listening to CKWX, Vancouver's rock and roll station, and phoning their requests to disk jockey Red Robinson. "We kept inviting him to come up, and one weekend he did! We have a picture of him in the barber shop, with all of us pretending to cut his hair."
On a nice note of continuity, the barber shop still operates in the newest Bee Hive block, with both a daughter and son involved in the business. The Turners' bar stools occasionally get called into service at extra large family dinners.
Toward the north end of town, the appearance of "Del's Drive In" in the 1950s signalled a new venture, joining Campbell River to the mainstream where the automobile reigned supreme. Campbell River's first drive-in, Del's brought "car hops" and "fast food", and the ease of enjoying a milkshake or a meal without having to get out of your car. Early on, the drive in was literally driven into, when a car smashed into one of its walls.
Del and Betty Pelletier began the restaurant, but after leasing it to others they sold it to Del's brother and sister-in-law Ernie and Joyce Pelletier in 1960.
"We bought it on a shoe string, with Ernie's holiday pay," says Joyce Pelletier, "Really! If anyone had come in with a $20 bill we couldn't have made change."
The Pelletiers poured their energy into the business. "We made really good hamburgers," says Joyce. "I used to do all the baking. We bought local cod for our fish and chips. We got our meat from Schultz and bought local potatoes. We hand peeled the potatoes and made our own patties. Eventually we bought commercial patties and the Potato Board forced us to buy regulation potatoes. Our food was good and we had lots of customers; families, American tourists, elderly people and kids. Lots of kids would come every night and park in the lot with their music blaring. It was a meeting place for young people.
"In 1968 I introduced car hops. They looked really cute in their go-go boots and green and white uniforms. I made their uniforms myself. I had crests made for their hats and blouses: For the most on the coast, stop at Del's .
"You know, the July 1 parade always went past Del's. So one year Ernie and I were there at 8 a.m. peeling 400 pounds of potatoes. By 5 p.m. tempers were flaring. I finally shouted, 'I quit' and I went outside and sat on the curb. Ernie came and sat beside me and told me that he had quit too. So we went back to work and carried on until 11:00 pm. Then we went to the dance, and stayed half the night.
"In 1977 we took a cruise to Australia and we heard someone say behind us, 'Well, if it isn't the hamburger king!' Someone from Alaska who had visited Campbell River recognized us."
The sign at the Museum is orange and blue, featuring an ice cream cone and the words "Del's Burgers." At some point it had replaced an earlier, less ornate sign that read "Del's Drive In."
The Pelletiers had a staff of 25 including themselves, their sons and daughters. They sold the restaurant in 1986 and it continued under new owners until, with a proliferation of fast food outlets to be found, it closed 10 years later.
Joyce Pelletier sums things up: "I've never been able to buy a hamburger as good as a Del's burger."
Nostalgia takes many forms. A young woman, returning to her hometown to be married, indulged an old dream by riding to her wedding seated on the back of a classic convertible. As a shy teenager, she had watched her more boisterous peers congregating at Del's, sitting atop their open cars.
For now, the neon signs and the bar stools are not on display, but their acquisition for the Museum's collection assures their preservation and security. More than a few people, however, are known to hope that someday there will be an exhibit devoted to the '50s and '60s, serving up nostalgia for many of us.