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Sometimes I still crave a Teen Burger

May 19, 2014 - By Randy Tucker

So the sight I saw in Thermopolis last week was a sad one.

You never know when you'll encounter the end of an era. As I rounded the curve into downtown Thermopolis from Shoshoni last week ,the shell of a Wyoming icon was in the final stages of demolition. The Thermopolis A&W, along with its accompanying bowling alley, was in the process of being removed forever from the Hot Springs County landscape.

It's something we've all seen before. The Diane Drive-In movie theater in Lander and her sisters, the Knight and West drive-ins in Riverton, suffered the same fate.

Lander now has the only bowling center within a 100-mile radius. Riverton once had two bowling centers totaling 40 lanes. Bowling and fast pitch softball were once trademarks of Riverton but neither exists anymore in the community.

The A&W franchise is in decline nationwide. In the mid-1960s I remember trips to South Pass with my grandparents, aunts and uncles ending with root beer, ice cream cones and "Baby Burgers" at the long defunct Lander A&W.

As a high school student (is connoisseur an appropriate adjective) the A&Ws in Riverton, Shoshoni and Thermopolis were familiar culinary haunts. (The Thermop restaurant being demolished actually stopped being a true A&W franchise years ago, but the recognizable building and similar menu remained.)

You could drive to town from Pavillion, Morton, Crowheart, Midvale or Shoshoni and meet your friends at the Riverton A&W. In the 1970s there were always cute Riverton girls working as car hops. If you bought something every half hour or so, the manager would let you park there all evening. After an hour or so we usually filled a gallon jug with root beer for 50 cents then went on to one of the drive-in movie theaters.

The unwritten rule was to take a date to the West, but if you didn't have one, the Knight was much more exciting, with rivals from Lander and the Wind River Reservation sometimes coming to blows with the boys from the northern part of the county.

Shoshoni's A&W, also with a bowling alley, was a place to meet friends from Thermopolis. If one of the Wind River or Shoshoni boys had a connection, sometimes girls would travel through the canyon to eat at the A&W, bowl a few frames, or most likely "drag Main" (yep, Shoshoni had a main street well worth dragging back in the day.)

Thermopolis had one of the earliest auditoriums in the region, and FFA conventions, speech meets and music festivals often were held there. We almost always ended up eating at the A&W.

Any athlete who ran for Leroy Sinner at Wind River remembers coach Sinner's preference for feeding the team at the closest A&W to the meet we were competing in. The menu was always the same -- a small root beer and a Teen Burger for everyone on the bus. It didn't matter if you were a 105-pound distance runner or a 285-pound shot-putter; everyone ate the same.

A&Ws used to dot the way north from Lander, with the three in Fremont County, the Hot Springs County restaurant and additional establishments in Worland, Greybull, Powell and Cody.

As teenagers most of us 50 and older remember picking up the telephone in the dining room, or pushing the buzzer to order from your car.

The carhops brought your meal on a tray that hung on your slightly raised window, and the girls made change with little lever-operated coin tubes attached to a belt they wore. As the years go by, it seems more and more like a scene from "American Graffiti" or "Happy Days," even though these drive-ins were still open a quarter century later than the settings for those shows.

The A&W is a vestigial organ of American culture. There are an estimated 1,200 franchises in America and 15 foreign countries, but its ubiquitous presence one or two generations ago has slowly eroded.

Partners Roy W. Allen and Frank Wright (A&W) franchised their first restaurant in California in 1923. The concept quickly spread. While McDonald's holds the honor of the world's largest fast food franchise, A&W was the first.

Shoshoni and Thermopolis were not unique in adding bowling alleys right next door. America emerged from the Great Depression, won World War II, and entered the era of middle class affluence in the 1950s and 60s. The combination of fast food and 10 pins was an incredible success.

Leagues formed everywhere, with pre-teens through octogenarians rolling the ball down heavily polished hardwood lanes nearly every night of the week.

Many communities lost one or both of these attractions over the last two decades.

Modern social historians often blame the preponderance of VCRs in the early 1980s and the following rise in DVD rentals, online movies and the exponential growth of cable television for the demise of smaller food franchises, bowling alleys and drive-in movie theaters.

Whatever the reason, all are quietly becoming the stuff of fading memory to the Baby Boom generation and a case of "never was" to generations X and Y. Once there were more than 4,000 drive-in theaters in the U.S. Estimates now place that number at 357, with the majority in southern states and California.

Towns as small as Shoshoni and Lusk once had big screens on the edge of town, but they've almost all faded away.

The nearest to Fremont County is Powell's American Dream Drive In, which still operated in 2013.

What was once common to our communities now requires a round trip of at least 200 miles for a "Teen Burger" and nearly 400 to watch a movie through the bug splatter dotting your windshield.

It was a sad drive in and out of Thermopolis last Friday.

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Editor's note: Staff writer Randy Tucker is a retired educator.

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