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Sleeping at the Movies

The Fairlee Motel & Drive-in Theater gives guests a unique view


Published July 22, 2009 at 6:28 a.m.

Vintage motels and drive-in movie theaters are essential relics of postwar roadside Americana, in the pantheon with Worcester diners and Route 66 tourist traps. But combine the two, and you get a real curiosity: a motel where you can watch the big screen ... in bed.

Today, the nation has only two such old-time establishments — and at the two-story Movie Manor in Monte Vista, Co., now owned by Best Western, not all the motel rooms face the adjacent screen. For the real deal, you’ll have to head to tiny Fairlee, Vt.

The full name of the spot where my boyfriend, James, and I are spending the night is the Fairlee Motel & Drive-in Theater, though most visitors call it one or the other. The drive-in opened first, in 1950, followed a decade later by the no-frills motel. Current owners Peter and Erika Trapp don’t know the name of the original proprietor or why he decided to combine the two businesses. He was the first, but not the last.

Arriving, I feel like I have just stepped into the Enchanted Hunters — the motel in Nabokov’s classic novel where old Hummy first experiences carnal knowledge of his Lolita. The vintage is right. It’s easy to imagine a black-and-white wash over the place, the aura of a time before roadside lodgings were strictly seedy.

From the front, the motel is a standard, long rectangle, with the original building paneled in blue-gray wood and red-brick additions that hold the guest rooms extending on either side. The office is closed, but a phone sits outside in a clear plastic cabinet with instructions to dial 00 for assistance.

The Trapps don’t have time to sit behind a desk and wait. The family lives just across the river in Piermont, N.H., where they farm 300 acres as Thunder Ridge Ranch. On evenings from the end of April through mid-September, Peter, Erika and their three boys head over to staff the projection booth and run the snack bar.

The phone gives us Peter’s cell; he’s in the projection booth, from which he hastens to let us in. Trapp is tall, with graying hair covered by an AIG baseball cap. If he doesn’t seem like a dyed-in-the-wool New England farmer, that’s because he’s not.

As he admits us to the office, decked out with movie paraphernalia such as directors’ chairs, gold paper stars and a Spider-Man 3 poster, Trapp explains that he moved the family from his native New Jersey in 1997. He hoped to provide his sons with the sort of idyllic rural childhood he experienced spending summers at the now defunct co-ed Elmwood Farm Camp in Ely, Vt. A key memory: evenings spent rolled in a sleeping bag to take in a show at the Fairlee Drive-In.

The Trapps started farming not far from the site and, in 2003, Peter noticed a classified in the paper. The drive-in was for sale. The previous owners, a couple by the name of Herb who had acquired it in 1987, were then in their eighties and living part-time in Florida; they closed the motel each winter to save on electric heating costs. As Trapp puts it, “They weren’t quite with it.”

So Trapp consulted his young sons. As he sees it, “This is some-thing that you do with your kids. They feel special because they have a drive-in.” Once he bought the place, one of his first moves was installing heaters in each room and opening the motel year round.

Now the Fairlee has a fluctuating stream of overnight guests and as many as 400 movie patrons in a weekend. But, oddly, few take advantage of its dual-purpose setup.

Tonight, the motel is booked up in anticipation of Fourth of July weekend, leaving us with the last room available. When I ask if it has “a view,” Trapp helpfully offers to move the bed so James and I can watch the outdoor screen from there. “Most people watch as the cars come in, then close the curtains,” he says with a shake of his head. True, guests have other entertainment options: Each room has a flatscreen with a full Dish TV lineup.

Trapp apologizes profusely for the room’s nonideal layout, but we don’t notice. The place is spic-and-span, the walls a luminous white. To watch the movie through the picture windows, we draw the silky, striped blackout curtains. The sizable microwave above the mini-fridge offers convection cooking. The bed is comfortable, and even through a curtain of rain, the view of the screen is great. I’m told the movie looks just fine from the shower, too.

The room’s only really off-putting feature is the Twilight poster facing us, making it seem as if we’re squatting in the bedroom of a 12-year-old girl. I fear Kristen Stewart’s dead eyes gazing in my direction will keep me awake all night — along with my efforts to make sense of the tagline When you can live forever, what do you live for?

But we have distractions: It’s sundown, and Trapp is about to start the movie. Unfortunately, the in-room sound system — a decidedly vintage, khaki-painted metal grate — has just shorted out. Before he runs back to the projection booth, the proprietor fiddles with our clock radio to make sure it picks up the frequency that drive-in guests use.

We get audio, and soon animated hot dogs fill the screen — a 1950s short advertising snack-bar fare. Friday through Sunday, this classic divides the halves of the double feature, which is currently Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian followed by X-Men Origins: Wolverine. (Since it’s Thursday, we only get the latter.) Both films came out back in May, but Trapp prefers not to screen new releases — not only are they pricey, but theater owners often have to commit to showing them for multiple weeks. His double bill changes weekly.

But the propaganda has worked — we’re more concerned with the snack bar. When we get there, after a quick, soggy trek, we discover that the quarter-pound burgers are made from Thunder Ridge Ranch’s own Black Angus cattle. Trapp’s teenage son, P.J., works the window of the trailer that houses a tiny kitchen where Erika slings burgers, dogs and fries. Regular spuds are $3, Brew City Fries $4 — “They’re battered and they taste better,” explains P.J.

He’s right. The fries are ultra-crispy and perfectly seasoned. My burger, served on a fluffy roll fresh from a local bakery, is juicy and blanketed in sharp Cabot cheddar. Not surprisingly, Erika discloses that “a lot of people come just for the food.” The drive-in’s previous owners, she speculates, “just thought, Let’s have the cheapest food possible so people will buy it and not bring it themselves.” But the Trapps try to use “the best ingredients possible,” even if it means charging at cost, she says. “We decided that if we weren’t going to allow [our] kids to eat the hamburgers and hot dogs, then we couldn’t serve them.”

After dinner, James can’t resist running back through the rain for some popcorn. The $8 “large” tub is sizable enough to bathe a cat and drenched in sweet-and-salty butter, which Erika later tells me is also from Cabot.

The movie has started, but suddenly the clock radio is being temperamental. James quickly realizes the soundtrack frequency only comes in when he picks it up. So he spends the whole movie watching his childhood mutant hero while shoveling popcorn with one hand and cradling the radio to his chest with the other.

It’s strangely romantic, this mid-century time capsule, but get your mind out of the gutter. Sure, there’s something about both drive-ins and motels that says sex in the American popular imagination, maybe because they’re the traditional resorts of teenagers and illicit lovers. But the Fairlee is a family establishment, where the kids spend summers doing housekeeping, and they don’t charge by the hour. (Forget about drive-in porn: Next weekend’s double feature is Up and Race to Witch Mountain.) When the movie ends, we share the Seven Days crossword puzzle and go to sleep. End of story.

The next morning, as James picks at the remaining three-quarters of his popcorn, I realize we haven’t been given a check-out time. I call Peter Trapp on his cellphone back at the ranch. “Just leave your key in the room when you feel like leaving,” he says.

Pretty laid back for just over $70 a night. Though his establishment is currently packed with tourists spending Independence Day on the Connecticut River, Trapp says that “it can flux from being full to empty.” Though the theater offers more reliable income in the summer, neither half of the place is the family’s bread and butter. The Trapps just love owning an endangered species.

“We do this because we enjoy it,” says Peter Trapp. “I told the kids, ‘As long as you like having a drive-in, we’ll keep it.’ It’s almost like their vacation home.”

And now it’s mine.