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STORIES FROM THE ATTIC: Roadside attraction

Fiberglass statue was father of the A&W Burger Family

July 6, 2017
By ANDY FLYNN - Editor ( , Lake Placid News

ROTTERDAM - Anyone growing up in New York in the 1950s, '60s or '70s may remember the fiberglass figures advertising popular theme parks throughout the state, especially at resort communities in the Adirondack Park.

There's the world's largest Uncle Sam at Magic Forest in Lake George and Paul Bunyan at the Enchanted Forest/Water Safari in Old Forge.

Yet fiberglass figures also advertised roadside restaurants throughout the state. Most notably from the 1960s was the Burger Family. At its Rotterdam storage facility, the New York State Museum is restoring a roadside statue called Papa Burger that had been placed outside an A&W root beer restaurant in the 1960s.

Article Photos

Papa Burger, a roadside fiberglass statue advertising the A&W restaurant chain during the 1960s, sits at the New York State Museum's storage facility in Rotterdam. The burger and root beer mug he was holding are also being restored.
(Provided photo — Andy Flynn)

"He came into the collection in 1998, and nobody even knew he was Papa Burger," said Karen Quinn, senior historian and curator of art and culture at the New York State Museum. "He came in as a fiberglass man holding a mug and a hamburger. Some recent research has revealed that he is, in fact, Papa Burger, one of four figures the A&W root beer chain used as advertisement."

In 1963, A&W introduced the Burger Family to America, and each roadside statue represented a different burger on the menu: Papa Burger, Mama Burger, Teen Burger and Baby Burger. The only member of the Burger Family still on the menu at U.S. restaurants is Papa Burger.

Yet an extended family of burgers can still be found on the menu at restaurants in Canada, where the A&W chain is popular.

Papa Burger has two 3-ounce beef patties, two slices of American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles and the signature A&W Papa Burger sauce.

Mama Burger has one 3-ounce beef patty, A&W seasoning, Teen sauce, onion slice, pickles, ketchup and mustard.

Teen Burger has one 3-ounce beef patty, onion slice, pickles, ketchup, mustard, bacon, Teen Sauce, lettuce, tomato and cheese.

Baby Burger has one 1.6-ounce beef patty and ketchup.

Then there is the Grandpa Burger, a three-patty bacon cheeseburger; the Uncle Burger, a 5-ounce beef patty with onion slice, pickles, ketchup, mustard and Teen Sauce; and the Buddy Burger, one or two 1.6-ounce beef patties, mustard, ketchup, Teen Sauce and grilled onions.

The A&W website for the U.S. shows only six restaurants currently in New York, not including the summer-only establishment in the Adirondack town of Wilmington, which first opened in the summer of 1966 as the A&W Root Beer Drive-In.

The news was announced in Clara Hazelton's Wilmington column in the May 19, 1966 issue of the Lake Placid News.

"Mr. and Mrs. Sven Johnson and family have moved into Fair Acres on Lake Placid Road," she wrote. "He has built a stand nearby. It will be known as the A. and W. Root Beer Drive-in. The place will be open in June. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson came from Albany."

An advertisement below Hazelton's column in the July 28, 1966 issue of the News gave a few more details.

"Come meet the Burger Family - Mama, Papa, Baby and Teen. ... Your Host and Hostess, Sven & Ethel Johnson ... Open Noon till Eleven P.M."

It's not known whether the Wilmington A&W had the Burger Family statues outside, trying to lure motorists along state Route 86 to stop and get a bite to eat. But the figures were obsolete by the mid-1970s, when A&W replaced the family with a bear mascot, Rooty, the Great American Root Bear, introduced in Canada in 1974 and the U.S. in 1976.

The New York State Museum's Papa Burger is about 8 feet tall. The burger and mug of root beer he was holding was separated from the body so staff member Jeff Stringer could restore all three parts with the goal of eventually putting Papa Burger back together again.

"He's got a lot of character and personality, and roadside sculpture is disappearing across the country because of its large size and disposability," Quinn said.

Papa Burger is a bald guy, or balding. He has a mustache, blue eyes and a tie. He looks presentable.

"Certainly, he's a cheery figure, and I think that appeals to the consumer," Quinn said.

As far as restoration, he needed a lot of work.

"We've done some tests on the original paint that he had, and he's been painted many times," Quinn said. "But we've got him peeled down to what we believe is the original layer of paint, that sort of sparkly orange shirt that he's wearing. We're working with the colors of his flesh and the original colors of his costume."

Papa Burger is one of Quinn's favorite artifacts in the museum's collection.

"When I started coming out to our storage area, I saw him in the farthest bay away," she said. "The poor thing was lashed to a pole to make him stand up straight, and his belly was supported by a chair. And every time I walked by him, I just thought, 'Wow, he's a real opportunity to work on something that would have a great appeal to our audience.' And once we started, the proposals to work on him, virtually everyone we spoke to said, 'Aww, we love him.'"

This particular Papa Burger was most likely used somewhere between Syracuse and Rochester.

Of local interest, there was a restaurant in Saranac Lake, opening in 1970, that featured the Burger Family, but the restaurant was not named A&W, even though it obviously featured burgers on the A&W menu. It's obvious because the name of the restaurant was "The Burger Family," across the street (Broadway) from the post office.

The March 25, 1970 issue of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise features a Bill McLaughlin photo from opening day, which was March 24.

"Ribbon-cutting at 11 a.m. was slightly delayed but patient public waited in the snow," the Enterprise stated, adding that Chick Scollin was the manager and owners were G. Carver Rice, Bob Rice and Art Rubin.

An advertisement in the March 26, 1970 issue of the Enterprise confirmed the Burger Family Menu, with Papa (75 cents), Mama (45 cents), Teen (60 cents) and Baby (30 cents) burgers. They also served Mason-Dixon fried chicken, hot dogs, fish, hot and cold sandwiches and ice cream.



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