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Oasis Restaurants Symbolized '50s Teen Scene
Article first published in Vol. 13, 1995.
By Sandra Pierce
When you think of fast food, you automatically think of places like McDonald’s or Whataburger. Restaurants like these have not always been around, but the first fast-food service in America did appear many years ago, according to fast-food historians Marjorie Eberts and Margaret Gisler.
The Plaza Oasis at 127 Pioneer Plaza in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of the Southwest Collection, El Paso Public Library
In the early 1900s, working people wanted food that they did not have to wait very long for. From this idea came lunch wagons. Customers were able to go up to horse-drawn wagons and buy sandwiches, pieces of pie, and drinks.
As time went by, the wagons became even more popular and expanded in number and size. People were soon able to go inside of these wagons and sit down to eat. Business was so good that in time the wagons were permanently parked and became diners, popular all over the United States.
With the increase of automobiles in the 1920s and 1930s, there was a need for a new kind of restaurant. J. G. Kirby filled this need by opening the first drive-in restaurant on the Dallas Fort-Worth Highway. He named it the “Pig Stand.” The A & W root beer stand was soon to follow, and the fast-food industry was well on its way to becoming an American phenomenon, according to Ebert and Gisler.
The 1940s and 1950s showed major growth in the drive-in business all over the nation. Waitresses were called carhops because they had to hop onto the running boards of the car in order to take orders and deliver the food.
As technology grew, drive-ins took on a new look. Outdoor speakers and menus were installed. Carhops, serving the customers in flashy uniforms and sometimes even on roller skates, no longer went to cars to take orders, but they continued to deliver the food to the cars.
The innovative fast-food restaurants came to El Paso in the 1930s in a roundabout way. In the late 1920s, El Pasoan Tim Hervey managed the American Theater near Five Points, an outdoor movie house with wooden benches. His son, a young man by the name of Fred, ran the popcorn stand. The small business did so well that it quickly turned into a concession stand selling not only popcorn but also soda pop and candy.
At the age of 20, Fred Hervey opened the Five Points Oasis, the first fast-food restaurant in El Paso, located on the corner of Birch and Montana Streets. Hervey soon built a second Oasis at 700 North Mesa. These Oasis restaurants quickly became a hit.
A third restaurant, the Plaza Oasis, was soon to follow across from the Plaza Theater. This building housed the El Paso Herald newspaper in the 1800s and now is home to the San Francisco Bar and Grill. In 1943, Hervey opened his fourth Oasis, named the Town Pump. Located on the corner of Cotton and Montana, the Town Pump was the first drive-in restaurant in El Paso.
Hervey’s wife Hazel opened the fifth Oasis on Texas Street while he was away in the Navy during World War II, and five others were opened after his return. In 1950, the Alta Vista Oasis was opened at the corner of Copia and Pershing, a building which now houses the Five Points Video Store.
The original Oasis on Birch and Montana was closed and torn down. The land was cleared and the Empire Club parking lot occupied that space for years until the Club closed.
After arriving in El Paso from Germany with her husband who was stationed at Fort Bliss, Hilda Lynch went to work at the Mountain View Oasis located in the Northeast. She worked as a carhop and was fascinated by the different kinds of ice cream sodas, the likes of which she had never seen before in Germany. Lynch worked at several of the Oasis restaurants over a period of 30 years. Lynch remembers Hervey as a "fair businessman." He met with all of his managers at least once a month, and they would go over the profits and problems together. She recalls, "I remember one time in winter he couldn't figure out why the ice cream sales were down. I had to explain to him that people didn’t eat that much ice cream in cold weather."
Many people who started working for the Oasis restaurants when they first opened retired from them, an unusual event in the fast-food restaurant business where employee turnover can be high. Hervey treated his employees well, resulting in job satisfaction. Lynch remembers making fifty cents an hour when she first arrived in El Paso in 1953. "I was very happy to receive such good wages," she says.
The Oasis drive-in restaurants in the late 1950s were the local hangout for teenagers from every part of town. They went to see their friends, listen to their favorite songs and sometimes meet that special someone. Lynch's daughter, Trolla, who also worked at the Oasis, met her husband there.
Lynch says, "Many proposals were made at the Oasis, and there was a lot of smooching going on in the back seats of cars in the parking lots."
Teens cruised the parking lots until they found their friends. People would get out of their cars ands sit on the hoods so they could see everyone else. Then they would run form car to car to people they knew or wanted to know. The bigger the car the better because more people would fit into it.
Beverly Vincent, a 50s teen, remembers that her best friend drove a 1958 Nash Rambler with a continental kit on the back, a molded feature that would hold the spare tire on the trunk. "It was really cool because it was new and everyone would cram in it and head for a O.A.," she said, recalling the nickname for the Oasis.
While sitting on the hoods of their cars, the teenagers ordered sodas and French fries. If they had lots of money, they ordered root beer floats. What they ate with their friends might change when they had dates. Recalling the Oasis, Betti Rodriguez said, "We never ordered hamburgers at night because everyone had those old metal braces and the bread would get stuck in them and look just awful."
Helen Knoff, another 50s teen, recalled those days and laughed. "I'll never forget when we would order a pine float! We were such a cheap date!" she said. A pine float was a glass of water with a toothpick floating in it.
Vincent says, "Only the grown-ups would eat inside of the restaurant. You never wanted anyone to see you there with your family." Though people of all ages frequented the O.A., it was not considered "cool" for a teen to go inside the building except to use the restroom or to put a quarter in the juke box.
Music was piped from the juke box to outside speakers, but customers had to go into the building to select the music. A quarter bought six songs.
Laughing, Rodriguez remembers, "We used to sit outside until we had to use the bathroom so bad we would pee our pants if we didn’t go in. While we were in there, we would put a quarter in the juke box so no one would know our real reason for going inside."
The Oasis was the "happening place," Rodriguez says. "We always went to the one on Mesa. That's where all the Loretto girls and Cathedral boys hung out. People didn't have dates necessarily. It was more of a group thing."
Helen Knopp, who remembers the O.A. fondly, agreed. "The girls went with the girls and the boys went with the boys, and then everyone would meet at the O.A. Saturday nights were a little different, though. If you didn’t have a date, you wouldn't be seen anywhere near the O.A."
The Oasis drive-ins were round, their trademark. The shape also made it easier for teens to cruise the parking lots. There were other distinctions, too. "I remember that some of the restaurants had real vans on top of them for show," says Rick Hervey, Fred Hervey's son.
Most of the Oasis restaurants had closed down by the late 1970s. Some people seem to think the Oasis restaurants closed because of the new fast-food chains. Others think that the American people just outgrew drive-ins.
It doesn't really matter why the Oasis drive-ins closed down. One thing is sure: their memory will live forever in the minds of the teenagers who once cruised their parking lots.
"Nostalgic Hamburger Drive-In" El Paso Times 1986 article