Sivils Drive-In, An Oak Cliff Institution: 1940-1967
by Paula Bosse
by Paula Bosse
When J. D. Sivils (1907-1986) and his wife, Louise (1918-2006), brought their “Sivils” restaurant to Dallas in June 1940, their Houston drive-in of the same name had already been featured as a Life magazine cover story, garnering the kind of incredible national publicity that any business owner would have killed for! And all because of their carhops — “comely, uniformed lassies” whom Mrs. Sivils insisted on calling “curb girls” (which might have a slightly different connotation these days…). Life — never a magazine to overlook pretty young girls in sexy outfits — not only devoted a pictorial to the “curb girls,” they also put one of them (Josephine Powell of Houston) on the cover, wearing the Sivils’ uniform of (very, very short!) majorette’s outfit, plumed hat, and boots.
Four months after the blitz of national attention the drive-in received from the Life story, Sivils came to Dallas. The drive-in was located in Oak Cliff at the intersection of West Davis and Fort Worth Avenue on “three acres of paved parking space.”
The day the drive-in opened, a photo of the not-yet-legendary Sivils appeared in The Dallas Morning News (see “Sivils to Open Dallas Place Thursday,” DMN, June 27, 1940). Other than this, there is surprisingly little in the pages of The News about this drive-in’s opening — surprising because it became such a huge part of the lives of Oak Cliff’s teens in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. It’s one of those places that seems to have reached almost mythic proportions on the nostalgia scale.
Sivils didn’t quietly sneak into town, though. Take a look at this very large, very expensive newspaper ad, which ran the day before West Dallas’ soon-to-be favorite hang-out opened. (Click for larger image.)
Nationally Famous for Food and LIFE
SIVILS COMES TO DALLAS!
Texas’ largest drive-in
(Thursday 3:00 PM)
You’ve heard about “Sivils”! You’ve read about “Sivils” in LIFE Magazine and you’ve seen a beautiful “Sivils Girl” on the cover of LIFE Magazine! But now Dallas has a “Sivils” all its own! Come out tomorrow. See Texas’ largest drive-in. Enjoy “Sivils” famous food and ice cold beer or soft drinks. “Sivils” special ice vault assures the coldest drinks in town!
75 Beautiful “LIFE Cover Girls” to Serve You
All Kinds of Ice Cold Beer and Soft Drinks
Juicy Jumbo Hamburgers
Tenderloin Trout Sandwiches
All Kinds of Salads and Cold Plates
Complete Fountain Service
Sivils – “Where All Dallas Meets”
At intersection West Davis and Fort Worth Ave.
Three Acres of Paved Parking Space
100-150 “curb girls” were employed by Sivils at any given time in those early days, and it was open 24 hours a day. The place was hopping. Sounds fantastic. Wish I’d seen it.
Sources & Notes
Top postcard from the Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers Postcard Collection on Flickr, here.
Read the 4-page Life article (and see several photos of the Houston “curb girls”) here (use the magnifying glass icon at the top left to increase the size of the page).
Interesting quote from that article:“They work in 7½-hour shifts, six days a week, for which they get no pay but average $5 a day in tips.” Doesn’t sound legal…. (The Inflation Calculator tells us that $5 in 1940 money is equivalent to just over $83 in today’s money.)
Sivils closed in 1967, possibly because Mr. and Mrs. Sivils wanted to retire, but it seems more likely that Oak Cliff’s being a dry area of Dallas since the 1950s was killing its business. Check out the News article “Big Head Expected as Oak Cliff Beer Issue Foams” by Kent Biffle (DMN, Aug. 17, 1966) which appeared just months before another election in which the “drys” outvoted the “wets.” (More on Oak Cliff’s crazy wet-dry issues, here.)
J. D. Sivils was interviewed in a short documentary about Dallas carhops, filmed in the early 1970s. In it, he talks about the early days of Sivils and — best of all — there is film footage galore of the drive-in from his collection. Watch it in my previous post — “‘Carhops’ — A Short Documentary, ca. 1974” — here. (Below a screenshot of Sivils from the film.)
Read the article “Carhops, Curb Service, and the Pig Sandwich” by Michael Karl Witzel (Texas Highways, Oct. 2006) in a PDF, here (increase size of article with controls at top of page).
Another Flashback Dallas post on drive-in culture — “Carhops as Sex Symbols — 1940” — is here.
Click pictures for larger images.
Copyright © 2015 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.