- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2006

FAIRLEE, Vt. — Who needs a car at the drive-in theater? Just go straight to bed. The Fairlee Motel & Drive-In Theater combines the best of roadside America. Drive in, and you have your classic outdoor experience. Check in, and a picture window and NuTone speaker give you the same show from your king-size bed — with air conditioning and no mosquitoes. Please don’t wipe popcorn butter on the sheets.

Someone taller than about 5-foot-8 even can watch the movie from the shower, through the tiny bathroom window.

The Fairlee is one of at least two drive-in motels in the United States. Another is the Best Western Movie Manor in Monte Vista, Colo. The Movie Manor says it’s unique, but according to the motels’ histories, the Fairlee’s combination came first, in 1960.

The Fairlee sits along Route 5 in a pretty stretch of eastern Vermont, just across the Connecticut River from New Hampshire. The short drive off Interstate 91 brings rolling green hills, starched white wooden churches and wilting red barns.

At dusk, the fireflies come out. Groups of young campers arrive in vans from nearby Lake Fairlee and spread blankets near the screen. The Fairlee has daily shows after July 4 and double features on weekends, attracting 100 to 400 cars on Fridays and Saturdays. The movie season lasts from May 1 to Columbus Day.

It’s a family business. One young son works the gate and watches for extra people being smuggled in under blankets. Another son helps in the concession stand with his mother, Erika Trapp, dispensing Creamsicles and $2 popcorn.

The hamburgers are made with Angus beef from the family’s New Hampshire farm. Also for sale: Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and bug repellent.

Motel guests who need a snack must make the short walk outside. The concession stand does not deliver. However, rooms come with minirefrigerators and microwaves.

The Fairlee aims for family entertainment. It rarely includes an R-rated movie in its second-run lineup. On weekends, between the double-feature movies, it shows the famous 1957 animated short “Let’s All Go to the Lobby,” perhaps best known for the dancing hot dogs.

The short has become a tradition. “When the hot dog jumps into the hot dog roll, everyone honks,” Mrs. Trapp says, smiling. “It’s stupid, but they do it every single time.” By now, the neighbors understand.

Not everybody watches from a blanket on the ground or from inside the motel. Drivers also haul in old sofas, porch swings and inflatable pools. The Trapps send a chaperone around the field from time to time. Sometimes, by the end, people must be awakened and told to go.

Down the field, Peter Trapp works the projector. He talks about a recent weekend when the Fairlee had its worst fog ever. Still, when it lifted, the field had about 30 cars. “What do 30 carloads of teenagers do here? I don’t wanna know,” he says.

Mr. Trapp was drawn to the Fairlee by nostalgia. He went to camp at Lake Fairlee while growing up in New Jersey. The camp brought the children to the drive-in every Saturday night, and he and his wife later decided the area was a good place to spend the summer. If the business breaks even, they’re happy, he says.

The history of the Fairlee remains a bit of a mystery. Mr. Trapp turns around and points to an old enameled washing machine next to old film containers. The family doesn’t know why the original owner decided to merge a drive-in with a motel, but they do know that he used the time during films to wash clothes.

Mr. Trapp moves outside to check the sky. The scattered speakers play oldies music. The humid air is scented with cow manure. Behind us, at the motel, the line of low-slung rooms shows a television going in one.

The novelty of watching a drive-in movie from a motel room is worth a look for most people, but just a look, Mr. Trapp says. “It’s like going to New York City: ‘Oh, there’s the Empire State Building; that’s nice.’”

Most people, he adds, “don’t watch the movie, they just watch the people when they come. Then they watch the 100-plus channels on TV.”

Finally, the night is dark enough. The lights switch off, and the screen goes on. From the cars and the blankets, people applaud. From the rooms, you can’t really tell.

• • •

Fairlee Motel & Drive-in Theater, 1809 Route 5 North, Fairlee, Vt.; 802/333-9192. Rooms, $69.95 plus tax. Room rate includes movie.

Room rate jumps to $99 on three weekends: Dartmouth College’s graduation weekend, the local camp weekend, and the local triathlon weekend. Dates vary. Movies shown May 1 to Columbus Day. Entrance fee for the drive-in is $7 for adults and $4 for children ages 5 to 11.

Best Western Movie Manor, 2830 W. U.S. Highway 160, Monte Vista, Colo.; 719/852-5921. One-bed rooms, $82 plus tax; two-bed rooms $89 plus tax. Room rate includes movie. Movies shown early May to late September.

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