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Ask Me: Norm’s drive-ins were popular mid-century spots in Fresno

Question: What is the history of the Norm’s drive-in chain in Fresno in the 1950s and 1960s?

— Michael Kobata, Fresno

Answer: At one time, Norman L. Christensen owned about six drive-in restaurants in Fresno bearing his name. A 1962 Fresno Bee story credited him with opening Fresno’s first self-service restaurant.

At least two Norm’s restaurants were operating by 1955, when a Norm’s manager was robbed one night by “thugs masked with women’s nylon hose.” A Bee story said the manager had closed up “the firm’s No. 1 establishment” at 3234 Palm Ave. north of Shields Avenue for the night and was checking the Norm’s at 1848 N. First St. north of McKinley Avenue when he was robbed.

The First and McKinley restaurant later was moved from the corner of the shopping center into the Ivory Tower building, the two-story former office of the Mayfair subdivision developers in the middle of the shopping center. The Bee called it a “popular spot for the teen-age crowd.”

In 1957, Christensen opened a Norm’s drive-in at the Shawstone Shopping Center at Shaw and Blackstone avenues. According to The Bee, “The interior is early American. The walls are lined with glass cases displaying antique guns valued at nearly $15,000.” The restaurant had seating for 135.

In 1959 when Christensen opened Norm’s 49’er restaurant near Blackstone and Dakota avenues, a Bee story said he owned five other Norm’s. A story later that year said he remodeled that restaurant “from cafeteria to waitress-type eating establishment.”

In 1963, Christensen opened another Norm’s at 2525 N. Blackstone Ave. near Clinton Avenue at the site of a former swim park.

A former barber, Christensen was also concessionaire at the Millerton Lake Marina and in 1967 became part owner of Wofford Flying Service at the then-Fresno Air Terminal.

Q: My husband’s family says that some of the movie “The Big Trees” was filmed in McKinley Grove, but we’ve been unable to confirm this. Can you find out?

— Susan Chappell, Sanger

A: The 1952 movie “The Big Trees” told the story of “a Quaker colony [that] tries to save the giant sequoias from a timber baron,” according to a movie website. It starred Kirk Douglas as the “greedy timber baron.”

Some filming locations were in Williams Grove in Humboldt Redwoods State Park on the Northern California coast. Students from Humboldt State University in nearby Arcata played members of the Quaker congregation in the movie.

“The Big Trees” is said to be a loose reworking of the 1938 movie “Valley of the Giants,” based on a novel by Peter B. Kyne.

More about: After a question about the Scandinavian School District was published on Nov. 23, Sharon Hanley of Fresno and Terry Nephew of Clovis shared their memories of district schools.

“I first attended Scandinavian School in 1951,” Hanley wrote. “I was in the second grade and the school went from first to eighth grades.

“The primary grade classrooms were in wooden Army barracks that were moved from Hammer Field to accommodate the increased enrollment.

“My brother was in the sixth grade, which was housed in the ‘big red brick’ main building. It had two stories and I believe it had a basement. The rumor was that the principal had a big spanking machine in his office, so none of us younger students would dare misbehave. This rumor was confirmed by my brother who said he had even seen this feared machine!

“There was no food service or cafeteria. However, in the southeast corner of the campus, as I recall, an old wooden church building had been moved in to serve as a lunch room. We all either brought our lunch or went home for lunch.

“The school was surrounded by open fields, vineyards, pastures and irrigation ditches. We were strongly admonished to stay out of the ditches because that is where we could catch polio,” Hanley said.

“There were homes on half-acre lots just west of the school where my family lived on Courtland Avenue. The vacant lots were quickly being bought and many of the homes were built by the owners on weekends and days off.

“In about 1954 the old brick school building was replaced by a ‘modern’ school, which is the one we see now. There were three classroom wings and an office building. Best of all, there also was a ‘huge’ cafeteria and auditorium with a stage, teachers lounge and kitchen.

“My mother worked in the kitchen and a Mrs. Nelsen was the chief cook. The other ladies who worked in the kitchen were also from the neighborhood.

“When I began at Scandinavian it was a country school. By the time I graduated from eighth grade, the area south of the school was totally built up with houses. The irrigation ditches were paved over and the open fields and vineyards disappeared. The increased population meant new schools were needed: first Norseman and then Viking soon after.”

Nephew recalled that Leif Ericson School opened in 1960. “I moved into that school district in September 1959 and attended Norseman school as a third grader until Ericson was completed. I was in [Ericson’s] first fourth-grade class.

“Most of the kids went to Sierra or Yosemite junior highs once they left Ericson, and most of us eventually ended up at McLane [High School],” he said.

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