On the last full day of his life, Bernie Bollig returned to the parking lot of the former Big Wig Drive-In to reminisce about the two decades he and wife Patty operated their popular restaurant on Lebanon’s Route 66.
Mr. Bollig, 86, died unexpectedly the morning of Jan. 20. One day earlier, he talked enthusiastically about their years at the Big Wig in connection with a $500 donation his family was making to the Route 66 Mural Project in honor of him and his wife.
The Big Wig was located on the south side of East Route 66 in the block building that now houses Shaggy Shears Pet Grooming, next to JR’s Western Store, a building the Bolligs also owned at one time.
Bernie said he started building the Big Wig in 1960 after the family’s first Big Wig Drive-In, which they took over in 1959 on Glenstone Avenue in Springfield, closed to make way for a motel.
He moved the equipment to Lebanon, built a building (doing much of the work himself), erected a big neon sign with the Big Wig name, and opened the new drive-in in 1961. Later, he and Patty also had a Big Wig on Spur Drive in Marshfield.
“When I first opened this drive-in, the first year, Friday nights the cars were parked all the way back beyond that curve waiting to get in,” he recalled. Often, cars also filled an unofficial parking area where JR’s Western Store now is.
The drive-in’s canopy stretched over the sidewalk 110 feet toward the highway. Twenty cars could park under the canopy, where carhops served Papa burgers (two beef patties), Mama burgers, Teen burgers and Baby burgers, plus the Big Wig Steak, a breaded-beef sandwich in a hoagie bun with Bernie’s homemade hot sauce.
“I sold those things by the carload,” Bernie recalled.
Bill Jones, president of the Lebanon-Laclede County Route 66 Society, was a customer of the Big Wig starting as a teen-ager.
“They were delicious,” Jones said of the Big Wig Steak. “None any better.
So was the cheeseburger, the Papa cheeseburger.”
Jones remembered that the Big Wig was the local teen hangout. “He put up with a lot of stuff,” Jones said as he and Bernie remembered specific incidents with laughter. “We were just kids,” Jones said apologetically.
“This was the place to go,” Bernie agreed.
Bernie recalled that the Big Wig Steak cost 90 cents in 1961 and $1.75 when the drive-in closed in 1982. He said he paid 90 cents a pound for ground beef when the Big Wig opened and $1.75 when it closed.
“I told a salesman when they got to $2 a pound, I’m closing down,” he quipped.
Actually, the decision to close the drive-in for good was spontaneous. The Big Wig always shut down for two weeks of vacation at Thanksgiving.
“We went to California (in 1982) and said, ‘Heck, we’ve cooked enough hamburgers,’” Bernie said.
After Bernie and Patty, married for 60 years, posed for a photo with Jones and Jones’ 1969 Chevy Nova in front of the old Big Wig, Bernie said he was disappointed that he didn’t have any pictures of the drive-in when it was open.
The Bollig family’s donation to the Route 66 Mural Project will be acknowledged in tile on the back of one of the three murals: “In Honor of Bernie and Patty Bollig.”