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A relationship started at this storied Billings drive-in

A relationship started at this storied Billings drive-in
King’s Hat, as it appeared in late winter 2023. (Dennis Gaub)

Want to buy a real Billings landmark, a drive-in burger joint that traces its lineage to the late 1940s? And, to sweeten the deal, you would pick up the place where Dave McNally took his future wife. Jean, both students at Billings Central Catholic High School, on their first date in 1959.

Then, Jim and Vicki Hodgson may have a deal for you. Quick explanatory note. In 2023, we’re talking about an eatery that has a different name. Moreover, the drive-in in question stands at a different location than it did when Dave and Jean munched on typical teenager fare 64 years ago.

The Billings Gazette, in its April 1, 2023, issue, reported that the Hodgsons had put their business up for sale. They were asking $975,000 for King's Hat Drive-In, located at First Avenue South and South 37th Street. That price included the land, the building, all equipment, and inventory.

King’s Hat began as the Big Boy Drive-in that opened in 1949 at the corner of North 27th Street and Rimrock Road. It stood across the street from then Eastern Montana College, now Montana State University-Billings. That appears to have been an obvious ploy to attract business from college students.

Sometime in the 1960s, Big Boy moved to Billings' South Side and became the South Side Drive-In. Aileen and Tom Carr bought the restaurant in 1977 and changed its name to King’s Hat.

The Hodgsons bought the business in 2010. It survived the pandemic, and through all those years, Billings residents young and old, ordered oodles of the drive-in’s trademark entrée: the Flying Burger. This sandwich is made in what the Hodgsons call the “the Flying Burger Machine.” The machine crimps the bread around the burger and its toppings into “a tidy handful that looks a little like a flying saucer,” the Gazette reported.

Perhaps whoever buys King’s Hat should consider putting up a picture of Dave McNally somewhere prominent in the establishment. This would honor a now-renowned customer long before he became famous. The photo could either be from Dave’s days as a star American Legion pitcher in Billings, or from his time as a stalwart on the Baltimore Orioles' staff.

Here’s why—or, as Paul Harvey used to say, here’s the rest of the story.

One Sunday during the 1958-1959 school year, the phone rang at Jean Hoffer's home in Billings.

“Hi, Jean. It's Jim Scarborough. Dave wants to take you out tonight,” the caller said. The Dave that Scarborough referred to was Dave McNally, his best friend. Dave was a Junior at Billings Central, and Jean was a sophomore.

“I knew he wanted to take me out,” the future Jean McNally said more than a decade later, “but I hadn't heard a word from him,” she told the Billings Gazette for a story that appeared on January 19, 1971. “I told him (Scarborough) 1), if Dave wants to take me out, he can call himself, and 2) I happen to be busy tonight.”

Jean was going steady with someone else then, but if Dave knew that, it didn't stop him.

“He called me the next day,” Jean said.

She remembered their first date. “Would you believe we went to the Big Boy Drive-In and had a Buzz? It’s like a 7-Up, with some other things in it. We laugh about it now,” Jean said. She was speaking nine years after her husband’s spectacular major-league pitching debut in 1962. (About a month before his 20th birthday, he won a two-hit shutout against the Kansas City Athletics.)

Dave and Jean had as an All-American experience as any teenagers in the country in the 1950s could have had on their first date when they went to the Big Boy Drive-In. Don Campbell operated the eatery, located just below the Rimrocks and along the main route to the Billings airport.

In 1959, Campbell advertised a Sunday dinner special that probably was typical of the menu that Dave and Jean looked at. For $1.10, patrons could choose from “World Famous Kentucky Fried Chicken,” fresh jumbo shrimp, or Bar-B-Q Ribs. Someone who wanted to spend 75 cents could get fish and chips.

The 1950s Big Boy Drive-In started Dave and Jean's romance of almost 43 years. It ended with his death from cancer in December 2002.

"I thought he was really neat, and we started dating pretty steady after that,” Jean said.

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Jamie Larson