There’s a clown on Rt. 35, just south of Belmar. He leers over the top of the Circus Drive-In sign with its Broadway-lit letters and neon-highlighted arrow pointing to the parking lot. But this is a sad day for the clown because, as the announcement board reads, “SUNDAY SEPT 7 LAST DAY OF THE SEASON.”
The Circus Drive-In opened in 1954 and, although the building appears to be well-maintained, its style is dated. Its circular roof has wide red and white stripes that hang over the facade so the whole place resembles a big-top tent. Cutout clowns, along with female performers that appear to be acrobats, stand hand in hand on the roof.
A metal awning with the tent motif stretches out from the right side of the main building, providing covered parking for maybe a dozen cars. A sign on top proudly proclaims “WEATHER-PROOFED CURB SERVICE,” meaning they bring the food to you right there in your car so you can eat without ever having to set foot in the Circus itself. You can even buy souvenir t-shirts bearing an image of the iconic sign and the restaurant’s slogan, “I’M WITH THE CLOWN” (which your spouse may or may not appreciate).
The menu, as you might expect from the décor, is heavily laced with cheese-laden appetizers, steaks, ribs, chicken, burgers, dogs, battered fish platters, and five varieties of French Fries. Oh sure they have salads, but eating green is clearly not what the clown is about. If you’re with the clown, you’re gonna eat grease.
I pulled in last Friday afternoon, just two days before lights out, but I couldn’t bring myself to order any food. It’s not that I wasn’t hungry, and I’m not averse to the occasional artery-busting plateful of mouth-watering, deep-fried everything. But, senseless as it seems, because the Circus opened the same year I was born, I felt somehow responsible for it, as if I had conceived of its garish style and approved its throwback menu selections.
I was embarrassed to be there.
1954 was the height of the post-war baby boom, and most people in the U.S. were feeling optimistic about the future. Good jobs were plentiful. Gasoline cost about a quarter a gallon, and you could buy a brand new Ford for less than $2,000. Cigarettes, not considered harmful at all, were still promoted in magazines and on billboards with ads featuring images of doctors and babies – even Santa Claus.
The Circus Drive-In must have been a pretty cool place to idle in your shiny metal machine, unfiltered Camel dangling from your mouth, waiting for your double cheeseburger, shake, and fries. The Clown’s gleeful smile must have felt exactly right for the times.
But look what’s happened since: assassinations, suicide bombings, terrorists beheading journalists, war after war after bloody “police action,” natural disasters, exotic diseases, overflowing jails – the list of modern ills is as expansive as the country’s 1950’s dreams. The Clown’s smile today feels forced; almost cynical. The Circus Drive-In’s season may have just closed on September 7, but the season of our optimism from which it sprang ended, sadly, many years ago.