CASPER — It was the frenzy of the 2017 total eclipse that triggered a life-changing opportunity for a Casper entrepreneur and his wife.
It would involve the city’s first Greek family, cigar smoke, old coins and tokens, stories from a pool hall and gambling den, and some spooky encounters — all woven into the fascinating back story behind the tiny 285-square-foot Historic Rialto Soda Fountain at the corner of Second Street and South Center next to the historic theater.
The tiny space boasts sodas, malts, milkshakes and other comfort food all with a nostalgic taste of life from the early half of the last century. There’s a restored soda fountain that dates to 1922, a 1948 cash register, original woodwork and a floor that mimics the 1925 version of the space. There are also a few seats to sip and watch those on the sidewalk pass by.
Owner Rob Piotter and his wife Vivian weren’t looking for or planning any of that when a guy walked into their Atrium Plaza gift shop in spring 2017.
“We had a gentleman come up from Denver the year of the eclipse. He was looking for a place to sell his eclipse gear,” Piotter said. “He came to our shop and asked if we knew anyone.”
The eclipse that August brought a lot of attention and opportunity to sell T-shirts and other souvenirs as it created a path of total darkness that covered a significant portion of the U.S. — something not seen since 1776. And Casper was right in the line of totality.
The Denver man left his number.
In early summer, Piotter noticed a “For Rent” sign on the jewelry store now occupied by Sidadel Jewelers. He called the number and was informed that it was rented. But the owner wanted to show him the former cigar store space on the corner. The cigar store’s owner had died of a heart attack while working there in 2016.
Piotter and his wife went to the store, thinking it might meet the Denver man’s needs.
“We got down here and he opened the door and we were hit with just a massive stale smell of cigar smoke. It was so bad it would almost make you puke,” he said. “My wife is allergic to cigar smoke, but she looked in the corner and there was a soda fountain. She said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to put that back in commission?’ And the owner offered us a great deal.”
They never called the guy in Denver. Instead, after dealing with all the eclipse-related business at their own shop, they signed a lease for the new business that September.
Removing The Smell
Then the real work began to restore the historic soda fountain that had been there nearly a century before. Ironically enough, the space began in 1922 as McDonalds Cigar Store, then added the soda fountain in 1925 and became the Rialto Soda Fountain and Cigar Store.
But that was history; the Piotters first had to get the stale smoke out of the place. They first removed the bricks and cedar wood pieces out of the humidor cupboards where the cigars were once stored.
To remove the cigar stench, Piotter scrubbed the walls, painted them with two coats of special paint to seal up odors and rubbed down the oak woodwork four times with Murphy’s Oil Soap and then lemon oil. The smell was gone.
But the floor needed to be replaced, a counter that was 18 inches from the wall needed to be moved and there were other renovations that would require work throughout that winter.
Piotter put up a soda fountain scene in the windows to hide what he was doing and hopefully intrigue the community. One day a woman poked her head in the door. Her name was Helen Panos.
She had a special connection to the place.
“What’s going on in here?” she asked. “I used to work here in the ’40s. My husband and I owned this.”
When Piotter explained they were putting a soda fountain back in, Panos invited him and Vivian to breakfast.
“She said it’s so nice to see it coming back. She said, ‘I used to work behind that counter with my husband.’ So, we became friends with the family and their kids,” Piotter said.
A Rich History
The friendship that developed with Helen and other members of the Panos family, along with digging into some old Casper newspaper clippings, gave Piotter an interesting history lesson.
The Second Street location goes back to a hardware store site, followed by the construction of what was first the Lyric Theater for vaudeville acts and in 1922 then renamed Rialto Theater for movies. The actual soda fountain space attached to the theater can be traced to the Panos family’s ownership that started in 1925.
Constantine Panos arrived in Casper in 1925 and ran the space as a cigar store and soda fountain. There was a dumbwaiter in the corner. Downstairs, accessible by a door outside and around the corner, was a billiards hall and a gambling den.
Piotter said the gambling operation was managed by a man named John Velos.
A Lucrative Business
“There are records in the newspapers of him getting $25 fines every week for gambling,” Piotter said. “But they were pulling thousands of dollars out of the place because of the oil fields and all that.”
It’s unknown whether Constantine Panos had business ties to what went on downstairs. What is known is that in 1929, Panos decided to go back to Greece with his family, Piotter said.
“He had accumulated from 1925 to 1929, $50,000 with the things that they were doing, I’m not sure what it was,” he said.
But before the family could get on a boat and head to their native land the stock market collapsed. Panos had all his money invested in the stock market and got 10 cents on the dollar. He turned around and came back to Casper and bought his store back for $5,000. Piotter said the shop remained in the family from 1929 to 1981.
About That Basement
Piotter said one of Constantine’s grandson’s, Ted, would tell stories about working at the shop with a gambling operation in the basement.
There are Casper old-timers who have stopped by to share their stories about the business with Piotter as well.
One man talked about how in the 1950s, he and his brother would go to the basement to supply the men playing poker, roulette or other games of chance with sandwiches and drinks that arrived down the dumbwaiter from the store.
The old-timer said the men were instructed that all the money that fell on the floor would become the pay for the two boys. They reportedly collected $30-$40 a night.
A Revived Soda Fountain
In June 2018, Casper’s old-time soda fountain was revived by new owners and members of the Panos family there. Helen Panos, the wife of George (Constantine’s son), paid $1 for the first hot fudge sundae. That dollar hangs on the wall.
There also are separate photos of Helen on a shelf along with George, who at age 17 in the 1930s was given the shop to run.
During his initial renovations of the store, Piotter found dozens of old coins that were underneath the bar top from 1912 through the 1940s. He was told that George Panos would take tips and just shove them under there over the years. He also uncovered original tokens from the Lyric Theater that were in shop’s floorboards. Piotter now has them all under glass for patrons to see.
And then there is the letter, dated 1934 all in Greek that had apparently fallen against a wall.
“‘Helen we found this letter,’” Piotter told Panos. “And she said, ‘Oh yes, our families wrote back and forth.’ She looked at it and said, ‘It’s old Greek, but I can understand some of it.’”
She told Piotter to keep it as a conversation piece.
The Soda Fountain
During renovations, Piotter learned the soda fountain that had caught his wife’s eye when she looked through the window was unusable and had to be thrown away. But he found another, this one from 1922 that a Longmont, Colorado, company had boxed up for 10 years.
When he brought the fountain into the store, a health department inspector told him to take it out. So he contacted a local company to have it totally restored on the inside.
“They gutted it and put in new lines,” he said. “So a $2,000 soda fountain cost me $3,000 to get it up and running and in good repair. That’s fine. I wanted it to be a Cadillac. It’s a Cadillac inside a 1922 body.”
He also bought freezers for the Sloan’s Ice Cream they use, an ice bin and other equipment for the pretzels, nachos and cinnamon-glazed almonds, pecans and cashews.
His biggest sellers are the quarter-pound Nathan’s hot dogs and a Harry Potter-inspired butterscotch drink, “butter beer,” that he initially offered one Halloween. It was so popular he added it to the menu.
As a Michigan native, Piotter also offers Tim Horton’s coffee and Vernor’s soda, both products known in the Great Lakes State and east of the Mississippi.
One thing Piotter didn’t plan for as he initially opened the business in 2018 was the bizarre happenings.
In one instance, an employee talked about feeling “cool” in a corner of the shop. She also saw a glass move by itself. Another time a customer came in and asked where the “old man” was he had seen earlier behind the counter. No “old man” worked there at the time.
Piotter’s response to any suggestion of the place being haunted was, “I believe that you believe.”
But then came the day he and his wife were showing their employee how to do the store’s books.
“I’m not pulling your leg, this really happened,” Piotter said.
Piotter walked to the front of the counter to the right side of the soda fountain and took up a napkin holder.
“We watched this napkin holder that was sitting right here and a whole stack of shake cups, 18 of them. We watched this thing (the napkin holder) slide. I’m not kidding you, and then it launched. This actually happened,” Piotter said.
“See, see I told you,” the employee told him.
“I looked at Vivian and said, ‘Did you see that?’ And she said she did,” Piotter said.
He had a message for whatever moved the cups.
“We are not leaving. You are welcome to cohabitate, but we don’t want you to hurt anybody or break anything, please,” Piotter said.
The incidents stopped, as far as he knows.
Now a modern-day soda jerk running a Casper institution, Piotter said he and his wife enjoy the store and all the people they meet. He said the new owners of the historic Rialto Theater have asked him to supply food as part of their plans for turning the theater into a place for comedians, music, magicians and shows for kids.
A contractor is scheduled to put an access door between the theater and his shop.
Piotter plans to add pizza slices and other comfort foods to the menu.
A believer in a vital downtown, Piotter said he plans to stick around for a long time.
“I never want to lose this place; if I do it’s willingly when I retire,” he said. “I truly love it. I love the history and the returning customers I see every year, the tourists, the people who have never experienced what a soda fountain is. You can give them a little of what the past was and how it used to be. This is a very unique place.”
Dale Killingbeck can be reached at email@example.com.