The Real “Happy Days” – Remembering Don’s Drive-In

By Jeff Friedman
Let’s all sing now “These happy days are yours and mine… happy days.” Happy Days was an American television sitcom that aired from January 15, 1974 to September 24, 1984 on ABC. Created by Garry Marshall, the series followed the adventure of teenager Richie Cunningham and his friends, Ralph Malph, Potsie, and Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli. It presented an idealized vision of life in the mid-1950s to mid-1960s. Much of the action took place at the local teen hang-out, Arnold’s Drive-In (later Al’s Drive-in).
The Cunninghams had nothing on Don Roth and his iconic Don’s Drive-In restaurant, located at the corner of South Orange Avenue and White Oak Ridge Road in Livingston.
Alas, Don’s is no longer. The Livingston Planning Board has approved the subdivision of the property that once housed everyone’s favorite burger joint. One lot will be home to a Jewish synagogue and community center; the other lot will be for the construction of 12 low- and moderate-income apartments.
But the Don’s legacy lives on in the memories of many.
Opening as a drive-in hot dog and hamburger stand in 1955, Don’s soon had a large parking lot, complete with car-hop service. Local high school students would cruise the lot to enjoy those special, endearing feelings that were part and parcel of the mid ’50s to ’60s, and, of course, to scarf a couple of Don’s widely-known burgers (with fries, of course).
Later, Don’s eliminated its car-hop service, built a larger restaurant with a famous bakery, and continued to be revered for years to come. Mr. Roth retired, finally, in the early 1990s.
He sold his culinary kingdom, but Don’s was never the same, and closed some years later. The ingredients were the same, except for one: Don. And apparently, it made all the difference in the world.
How do I know that Don’s is truly revered, even now, in 2018? Because I have lived in Livingston for 60 years, so I’ll take that liberty. But, there’s more tangible proof. As many of us know, a Facebook page exists for just about everything. And, yes, there’s a page entitled, “You Know You’re From Livingston When You Remember… Don’s Drive-In.” Following, some former – and possibly a few current – Livingston residents share their fond memories of Don’s.
Joseph James Murph loved the “Blu-cheese burgers, and pong in the front room.” Heidi Berger calls it “The best place ever!” and says, “I cherish my days as a carhop. Love you, Don!”
Joni Mintz Cohen says Don’s had the “best pizza burger and low-cal milk shake.” Eric Farber feels the same way, and posts that Don’s had “The Best of the Best! Nobody made a better pizza burger.”
Joyce Furnbach recalls that the hang-out was “also known as the ‘Passion Pit’ back in the ’50s… LOL!”
Elaine Jones Brock says the restaurant had the “best onion rings and burgers ever! And Don himself was an absolute stand-up guy!” Sharon J. Marie agrees: “Never had another burger as good!”
Wendy Bornstein says Don’s had the “Best burgers, best bakery,” and that “Life was never the same after it closed.”
Former employee Judi Levine Lederman recalls that Don’s “had the best burgers, and was such a fun place to work! I was a carhop and my brothers worked in the kitchen. Great times!”
Andrew Dunbar recalls that “my older brother was a ‘soda jerk’ there. Class of 1961.”
Janie Buchbinder says she “ate there more than at home! No burger has ever lived up to theirs. I can taste it in my dreams!”
Ellen Orleans’ favorite was Don’s “Chicken in the Basket. Delicious. My go-to. I could never finish the fries and usually gave the drumstick to my father.”
Marcia Vardi (Marcia Steinberg) worked in the bakery at Don’s, and remembers it well. She recalls the restaurant had “the best French fries,” which she would enjoy “late at night, with gravy.”
Donald Roth, who won the hearts (and taste buds) of an entire community, passed away in Florida on November 25, 2009. He was 83 years old. He and his iconic Drive-In may be gone, but they most assuredly will never be forgotten.

Photos:

Don’s Drive-In restaurant as it appeared in the 1950s. The iconic Livingston burger joint opened in 1955, and is fondly remembered by generations of Livingstonites. Its original owner, Don Roth, sold the establishment in the early 1990s, and died in 2009.

 

 

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