Tik Tok: The past comes rushing in
Leah Nash/Special to The Oregonian
You know that parking lot at the intersection of Sandy and Burnside? There used to be a drive-in (restaurant) there, open 24 hours a day and the kids parked their cars outside — the El Caminos and the Chevys and Corvettes — and sometimes the kitchen made gooseberry pie, and the manager, he used to tell the girls who worked there (in short little skirts that showed everything but the president) that he needed them to hop up on the counter and change the lights. … He got fired.
“What is it about connecting with the past?” Kelly Burg asks.
She’s got her own answers to this question — and a life built around them — but it’s worth throwing out there to the rest of us, to all of us who drive by and only see the parking lots.
On a recent Saturday, Burg and her husband, Jeff Kunkle, actually were at the intersection of Sandy Boulevard and Burnside, along with a whole lot of other people, eager to conjure memories of the Tik Tok, Portland’s first drive-in and something of an institution from 1938 to 1971 — with its “Time to Eat” sign and giant coffee cup billowing neon steam. Eventually, like so many roadside attractions of that time, it disappeared.
The Portland Foursquare Church now owns the property where the Tik Tok once stood and, together with the Road Knights Car Club, had organized a daylong reunion — complete with classic car show, hot dogs and cotton candy — for anyone who wanted to reminisce. Near the classic car registration area, Burg and Kunkle had set up their booth, an inviting display of T-shirts with intriguing vintage logos, including one featuring the Tik Tok. But selling T-shirts actually was only a small piece of their overall mission.
Really, they were engaged in a kind of guerrilla campaign for historic preservation.
Both had always been drawn to the old, the overlooked, the disappearing. When they went somewhere on vacation, they made a point to drop by the local historical society. They loved taking back roads and staying at old motels. They were particularly fascinated by mom-and-pop businesses from the 1930s to the’60s — the golden age of automobile travel, as Burg puts it: drive-ins, bowling alleys, motor courts, odd roadside shops and displays.
On their travels, she says, “we would find the remains of places,” tantalizing clues to what used to be. “It looked so charming. We would wonder: What happened here?”
Their impulse always was to save what they could. One of their rescues: An A&W Burger family — the giant fiberglass statues that welcomed you to the drive-in chain. They now live in Kunkle and Burg’s backyard, hoisting frosty mugs of root beer and happily eyeing hamburgers for eternity. (”The alternative was a grass backyard,” Burg says. “This is so much better.”)
But what of the buildings, the places already gone? How could you bring them back?
That’s when Burg and Kunkle started thinking about the T-shirts. If they put the logos of these lost business on T-shirts, they had a chance to resurrect them, in a way. They could get people talking about these places again, wondering about them. They would research each one, piece together its history — often spending hours pouring over old microfiche, flipping through old phone books, calling on amateur town historians — so that when people bought a T-shirt, they weren’t just buying a piece of clothing, they were also getting a story.
That was just the starting point: Their secret hope was that all this would get people thinking about historic preservation, people who might not otherwise, people who maybe found the subject intimidating, thought historic preservation only applied to mansions or other fancy places, not the things close to their lives, like neon signs or roller rinks. Maybe they could get people to see history where they hadn’t before.
And like that, what had always been a passion became their life’s focus. They quit their jobs and last August launched Vintage Roadside.
They like events such as the Tik Tok reunion because they get a chance to unearth even more history, to hear people’s firsthand memories.
Their Web site includes detailed histories of their featured mom-and-pop businesses, but they are always eager to add information — the more specific the better. (From the 77 Ranch Tourist Court entry: “While we haven’t been able to track down the exact dates that the 77 Ranch operated, we do have the following fun facts from Dallas City Directories. In 1947 the manager of 77 Ranch Court was Maude Montgomery. In 1948-1949 Howard Hites is listed as the manager. In 1950-1951 Maude Montgomery returned in the role of manager once again. Yes, it does seem like there might be a story here!”)
For the Tik Tok event, they set out a display case of memorabilia in the Vintage Roadside booth, including an old Tik Tok menu (which included creamed waffles, with butter and syrup, for 20 cents) and an ashtray. Next to the case, they left a pen and a notebook, inviting people to record their favorite Tik Tok memories.
“Ate at the Tik Tok and walked over to Scotties to request a song from (local radio DJ) Dick Novak. Announced our engagement over the radio (before we told our folks). 1957.”
It’s hard to describe just how happy Burg and Kunkle seemed, taking all this in, all the people who would drift in to look at T-shirts and end up sharing stories not only about the Tik Tok but other forgotten Portland places: the barns where they stowed the trolley cars, old service stations, boarding houses.
With each T-shirt purchase, Burg handed folks a card letting them know they were eligible for a year’s free membership with the National Historic Trust (which has invited Burg and Kunkle to come speak on a panel at their National Preservation Conference in Oklahoma in October.)
Soon the couple’s friend Greg Clapp arrived. They had been thinking it would be good to videotape some of these conversations — further preservation — and create a documentary series that they could post on Vintage Roadside site.
While Burg held down the booth, Clapp, armed with a video camera, and Kunkle made their way to the old Tik Tok site, now filled with classic cars. It didn’t take them long to find some good stories.
“This was where it all happened,” Lyle Lilja said, standing by his 1951 Oldsmobile. “It was kind of the beginning point of the cruise. People went to the Tik Tok and Jim Dandy’s and Yaw’s, and then back here.” They were all young and broke. “Any money we had, we stuck it into our cars.”
But the greatest discovery came as they were heading back to the booth. There, near the hot dog table, they ran into Dolly Harris, the daughter of one of the Tik Tok’s last owners.
From her handbag, she drew a framed photo of the Tik Tok in 1968.
“I started there when I was 18,” she said. “I never got to work in the kitchen because it was too small. I got to learn to be a soda jerk. We made everything from Suicides to Green Rivers. … We made milkshakes and we made sundaes and we made our own fresh pies from scratch.” She listed them off: raisin cream pie, pumpkin, apple, cherry, gooseberry, peach cream.
“Do you remember the cook?” Kunkle asked.
“Chad was his name, and he was the head chef. And there was Larry the bus boy. … George was our butcher.”
She told them about the time the cook made clam chowder without the clams, her short-lived career as car hop because her mom thought the skirts were too short (even though her dad was the one who picked out all the uniforms).
They talked so long Clapp had to run and get a new battery.
When they were done, Kunkle thanked Harris profusely. “This is such an important part of Portland’s history, and I wanted to share it with as many people as possible,” he said.
Earlier, Burg tried to explain how she answers people when they ask why preserving these sorts of places and the memories around them is important.
“I think for us, a big part of it is roots — roots in the community. With everything new and places being torn down, you lose your connection to the past. And I think that connection is important for stability, for identity.” Which is another way of saying that maybe who we were says a lot about who we are.
Check out Vintage Roadside and its histories at