Photo Essay: Americana Through the Eyes of a 16 Year Old

Recently Patrick and I went did a massive clean out and reorganization of our garage. Part of it involved me sifting through boxes of photos. Yes, real, glossy, shot on film type of photos. Growing up in the infancy of digital photography means my early memories were captured on film, and I learned the ropes of photography on film.

As soon as I could hold a camera my parents let me take pictures. I took some pretty off kilter photos, even broke two cameras, but by the time I was in high school my dad entrusted me with his beloved Minolta that he used to capture the 1984 Olympics, my parents’ visit to Egypt, and much more. In addition to using it for a film photography class in high school (a class that was discontinued the year after I graduated) I used it at auto races, car shows, road trips, and day trips to capture old cemeteries, drive-ins, decrepit buildings, and vintage neon signs. When I took these photos I really had no idea what I was going to do with the photos, I just had a strong desire to capture certain places.

Among the shots of friends, school plays, and more, were several envelopes of day trips out antiquing and a road trip to California, but all happened to be taken in 2004 when I was 16 years old. To be honest, I’ve almost forgotten what it was like to shoot with film. In looking at these images I see mistakes I’d like to think I would not make today, but also today I have the luxury of shooting hundreds of photos without fear of running out of film, and see my photo immediately after taking it, and delete what I don’t like. I can also use programs such as Lightroom to alter the exposure, shadows, and so much more. But, one thing I can’t often do is repeat photos I took over 15 years ago, since some of these places are gone, or completely changed. And I thought, even if some of these photos aren’t the perfect angle, or the perfect exposure, I thought it would be fun for some of them to be seen by someone other than myself, Patrick, or my family, as they are images of places I would gladly share with you all had I taken them yesterday.

The following shots were taken between June and September of 2004, all on Kodak Gold, and are presented untouched.

Marquee for the Cameo. A small blue sign reads "Cameo" in white letters. A yellow neon starburst sits on the edge of the sign. Below is space for the movie being played, which reads "Spider Man 2"

Cameo Theatre, still in operation, 304 E 1st Street, Newberg, Oregon.

The Cameo became one of my go-to places to see movies in the early 2000s. Built in 1937, it is owned and operated by the Francis family, who also own and operate the 99W Drive In, where I spent many a summer night. In Oregon, drive-ins can only operate seasonally, so for continued support of the Francis family, I would often go see movies here at the Cameo, including midnight showings, opting to support a small family business rather than a big corporate megaplex. I distinctly remember seeing the second Pirates of the Caribbean, Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire here. While not photographed (and why I do not know what was going through my head) on the front, facing the street is a small, backlit plastic image of a silhouetted bust of woman, ringed by neon.

The front of an antique car, sitting without its hood, a rag hangs over the grill, and covered with rust and moss.

Abandoned car. Unsure of location.

Oftentimes my dad and I would take lesser used roads on our outings to antique malls, hiking trails, etc. and I often brought the camera along. I recall driving up to Harrisburg from Eugene and stopping by to shoot this car, so I’m certain this car, and the following two locations were somewhere between the two towns.

A brown house with white trim sits behind a frame of green foliage. The balcony in the middle of the house is separating.

A brown house with white trim sits behind a plethora of foliage. The small balcony that juts out from the center peek is falling apart. An old navy truck sits in front, moss grows in some of the crevasses.

Abandoned House. Unsure of location.

Front of an abandoned house. The foreground features tall grass and blackberry bushes. Near the house tree branches envelope the roofline, the open front door is dark inside.

The front of a white painted house leans out, blackberry bushes grow in front of it, and various sticks and twigs are visible through the open door.

Side view of an abandoned house. The foreground is made up entirely of blackberry bushes. The middle portion of the roof is completely caved in.

Abandoned House. Unsure of location.

The remainder of these photos are from a road trip to California in September of 2004. My dad and I chose to take our time and drive most of the way on Highways 99 and 49. He not only supported my hobby of photographing these places, but patiently waited while I took these, and often pointed out details, and came up with creative angles and framing.

Ticket booth for an an abandoned drive-in. The body of the building is painted white, with red trim. A center box office sits with two lanes that are covered.

A sign lays on the concrete reading "Closed"

A collection of drive-in speaker stands sit clustered in an overgrown field.

The screen of an abandoned drive in sits in the middle of an empty field.

Abandoned Drive-In, Grant Smith Road, Roseburg, Oregon

Since I haven’t returned to many of these locations, I attempted to relocate them on Google Street View, and see if they were still there. As of May 2018, this drive-in theatre was still there.

Overall view of "Harder's" an abandoned gas station. Painted white, the paint flakes off. The faded letters at the top spell out "Harder's"

Detail of the corner of "Harder's" which features three arrows pointed downward. White flaking paint reveals grey beneath.

Angled view of the top of Harder's" which features a two sided neon sign with broken neon reading "Gas Beer"

Harder’s Gas, 7th & Highway 99, Artois, California

As of June 2012 (the last time Google drove by) Harder’s was still standing, but much more overgrown, and had a for sale sign attached to it.

A red painted building sits behind overgrown bushes. A large sign out front reads "Gene Valla's Blue Gum Luncheon-Dinners." A neon martini glass tops the large sign.

A dark red door sits off of its hinges. The door handle is framed by a starburst shape.

Close-up of the Gene Valla's sign.

Gene Valla’s Blue Gum, 2637 Co Road, Willows, California

This is perhaps one of my favorite places that I ever photographed. It simply hypnotized me. I vividly remember wanting to see if I could get inside, and my dad talking me out of it. I wish I had taken more photographs, because when I returned two years later it had been taken over by not very friendly Jesus freaks, who had painted the building cream, and put up signs reading “Jesus Loves You” side-by-side with “No Trespassing” signs. In some ways I wish I would have photographed that version of it for the comparison. Like Harder’s, as of August 2016, when Google last drove by, it was still standing.

Gene Valla was a baseball player for the Yankees, but sadly little is known about his restaurant, and there are virtually no images of it online. But I like to imagine it was a fun place to dine and kick up your heels.

Neon sign for "Grove Motel" which reads "Grove" in a small oblong shape, and then "Motel" in blue squares down the side.

Grove Motel, still in operation, 2591 Co Road, Willows, California

A red neon sign reads "coffee shop" in white letters, a small white coffee cup sits above. A small wooden hand painted sign above reads "Mexican Food"

Coffee Shop. Unsure of location.

I attempted to find images of this sign elsewhere on-line and found one photo that simply said it was in Sacramento, but with no other details. If you know, please comment!

A neon sign with flaking paint reads "Italian Dinners Cocktails" and features an arrow.

Italian Dinners & Cocktails. Unsure of location.

I’m fairly certain this sign was in Sutter Creek, California, along Highway 49, however upon street viewing that area, I could not locate this sign. So, if you know where this sign was/is, please comment below!

Marquee for an old cinema, simply titled Angels. Letters spelling "Angels" go down the front of the building, as well as across the front.

Angels Theatre, still in operation, 1228 S. Main Street (Highway 49) Angels Camp, California

Built in 1936, this is one of my favorite little cinemas along Highway 49 in one of my favorite gold rush towns. It’s just so charming. The town is also home to the unique tradition of a frog jumping contest.

A blue, red, and yellow neon sign reads "Frost Shop Drive In" and features a red arrow and a small soft serve cone of ice cream.

Frost Shop Drive-In, demolished, Mariposa, California

For a long time my great aunt and uncle lived in Mariposa, which is where I first fell in love with the gold rush towns along Highway 49. Much like Sutter Creak and Angels Camp, it’s a delightful small town. I was sad to discover on-line that the Frost Shop Drive In had been demolished.

An old burger joint called Astro-Burger" Brick pillars hold up a white roof which reads "Drive In" in blue letters. A blue oval shaped sign reads "The Astro-Burger" in white letters, a dark blue rocket swirls around the letters.

Astro-Burger, now abandoned, 40654 US-395, Boron, California

When I visited this Astro-Burger back in 2004 it was still in operation, however according to Google, it has since closed. As of November 2018, the building was still there.

An abandoned motel sits across a desolate desert road. It features a warm rock wall on the edge. To the right is a tall sign that has been shattered.

The broken out shell of the old motel sign.

Through two bushes are the doors of two rooms of an abandoned motel.

Through an open door you can see into one of the rooms of the motel, and then also through an open widow, which showcases a vast, empty desert landscape.

A sad, rusted merry-go-round sits in dirt and sand. A pair of old boots sits to the right. Behind the merry go round is a tree, and then nothing but flat desert space.

Abandoned Motel, located across the street from the Astro-Burger, Boron, California

This was another favorite place that produced some of the photographs I am the most proud of, especially the window through the open door, and the merry-go-round shots. As this is located across from the Astro-Burger, I could see it was still standing as of November 2018 via Google Street View.

Sign for the Orange Bowl, four white bowling pins, near the neck of the pins is an orange diamond shape which reads "orange" in neon. Within the body of the pins you can make out the shapes of letters spelling "Bowl"

Overall view of the abandoned Orange Bowl, mostly painted white, with some faded orange accents. Two tall palm tree reach toward the blue sky on the left.

Orange Bowl, demolished in 2008, Rialto, California

The back of the Roubidoux Drive-In screen, which reads "Rubidoux" in blue script. Tall palm trees flank the screen.

The massive screen for the Rubidoux Drive-In, which is flanked by tall palm trees.

Rubidoux Drive-In Theatre, still in operation, 3770 Opal Street, Riverside, California

Built in 1948, I was happy to find out the Rubidoux was still operating when we moved to California, however I have yet to return, but hope to visit soon and photograph it further.

Marquee for the Van Buren Drive-In, which features three screens, each showing a double feature.

A screen at the Van Buren Drive-In.

Snack Bar for the Van Buren, which is painted white, but features accents of green, yellow, and red. A back lit plastic sign reads "Snack Bar" above an open doorway.

A chainlink fence features a small lighted metal sign reading "Exit"

Van Buren Drive-In Theatre, still in operation, 3035 Van Buren Boulevard, Riverside, California

The Van Buren opened in 1964 as a single screen drive-in theatre, later expanding to three screens in 1975. Unlike the Rubidoux, I have visited the Van Buren since moving to California, but have yet to blog about it. Between my first visit in 2004 and now, the back of the back of the original screen was painted with a mural inspired by the vintage fruit crate labels of the 1920s through the 1950s, and the snack bar has also received a different paint job.

A large neon sign reads "Liquors" in a white swirling script.

5 Corner Liquor, still in operation, 109 W. Main Street, San Jacinto, California

Growing up, each of our drives to California meant a visit to grandma. For the early part of my childhood she lived in, owned, and operated a small hotel in San Jacinto, and I remember knowing we were very close when I saw this amazing liquor sign, as it was where we turned onto her street. It was the first sign I really remember falling in love with, as the script was just so dreamy.

Well that wraps it up! I hope you enjoyed this retrospective look at some of my early photos. I also unearthed photos from Disneyland in the 90s, which may be fun to share in the future. Who knows, you may see images of a very little Atomic Redhead soon!

Leave a Comment!

8 comments on “Photo Essay: Americana Through the Eyes of a 16 Year Old”