Moviemaking at the Drive-in: Documentary Filmmaker Focuses on a Piece of Roadside Americana in Fairlee
John Paquette III is interviewed by film maker David Gewertz, of Dayton, Ohio, middle, and his documentary film crew Mike King and Jessalyn Laure, as the light fades at the Fairlee Drive-In in Fairlee, Vt., on May 16, 2014. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Jessalyn Laureshoots b-roll while a trailer for the new Planet of the Apes movie plays at the Fairlee Drive-In in Fairlee, Vt., on May 16, 2014. It was the first public showing using the new digital projector at the theater. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Camera operator Jessalyn Laure films owner Erika Trapp as she takes admission at the gate of the Fairlee Drive-In on May 16, 2014. The drive-in theater is family owned and operated, and struggling to remain a healthy business during the transition from film to digital projection. "I'm the projectionist, my wife's the cook, and my kids are the labor," said Trapp's husband Peter. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
David Gewertz of Dayton, Ohio prepares a stack of release forms in his Fairlee Motel and Drive-In room before stepping out to film in Fairlee, Vt. Friday, May 16, 2014. Gewertz and his two person crew traveled from Ohio to document the Fairlee Drive-In's first shows with new digital projection equipment.
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The overcast sky was a disappointing sign for David Gewertz of Dayton, Ohio as he prepared to film the first movie projected with new digital equipment at the Fairlee Drive-In movie theater in Fairlee, Vt. Friday, May 16, 2014. Gewertz works as a cast wrangler and production assistant on larger film productions and spent the majority of his earnings from his last job to make the trip to Vermont for his film on the two remaining drive in movie theaters in the country that are attached to motels. The second of his subjects in in Colorado.
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Not quite night. Sky between blue and black. Peepers singing close by. Children running across a wide expanse of green lawn. The light from a ticket booth casts an Edward Hopper-like glow into the darkness. A scattering of cars, pulled up to audio speakers, face a giant white screen. From the speakers comes a hokey, but not-out-of-place country song: “I miss Mayberry sitting on the porch drinking ice-cold cherry Coke,” twangs a male voice. The lights around the field flare up and die back.
“Showtime!” says a happy voice nearby in the darkness.
Almost summer at the Fairlee Drive-in, and the star attraction is Godzilla.
The drive-in, built in 1950, was originally called the Hi-way 5 Drive-in, because there was no Interstate 91 then, and U.S. Route 5 was the big road. The motel next to it, built in the 1960s, sits behind a wall of trees that hides it from the road. Unless you’re looking for it, or know where it is, it’s possible to drive right by without noticing its existence.
Out on Route 5 it’s 2014, but at the drive-in it’s forever 1967. Or 1955. Or 1986. Or 1999 or 2005. Or whatever year you associate with your youth, and summer, and piling into a car and watching a big, boffo Hollywood entertainment and staying for the second feature and falling asleep in the back seat on the way home.
Film maker David Gewertz, who’s driven from Ohio to shoot a documentary at the drive-in, has been fascinated by drive-ins since he was growing up in Dayton, when there were three or four on the city’s outskirts, and it cost $5 for a carload of kids and parents to park and watch a movie for the evening. He looks around the Fairlee
Drive-in’s expansive lawn admiringly.
“It’s definitely a throwback,” Gewertz said. Drive-ins used to be a lifeline of sorts for “rural communities where there’s nothing to do,” he added.
Gewertz graduated with a B.F.A. from the film program at Wright State University in Ohio in 1995 and works on Hollywood film shoots in his home state. In the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction department, he was also, for a time, a stand-in for the actor and comedian Jack Black during scene blocking and lighting on several films.
Gewertz collects drive-in memorabilia, signs and audio speakers and is now making a documentary about the only two drive-ins in the U.S. where you can also check into a motel and watch the movie from the comfort of your room.
Fairlee’s one, and the other is in Monte Vista, Colo.At the height of the drive-in phenomenon, in the 1950s and 1960s, there were five places like this in the U.S., but now it’s down to the two.
“I think that both of them thought they were the only ones who had them still operating,” Gewertz said.
Big picture windows in the motel’s 12 rooms look out onto the field and the screen, and a speaker in the wall pipes in the sound. While the motel exterior has that low-slung, ’6 0s look, the interiors are spruce and up-to-date, said owner Peter Trapp.
“I wan t a nice pillow, I want a nice mattress,” Trapp said, showing off the beds. “We spent more money in making the place be good, not just look good.”
Owning a drive-in, if you hadn’t already guessed, is not a money-making operation. Although the season is from mid-May to mid-September, the peak time is from mid-June through Labor Day. Still, despite the financial precariousness, Trapp has no intention of giving up.
“You do it because a drive-in is a drive-in,” he said.
Trapp grew up in New Jersey but he spent summers at a camp in West Fairlee when he was a teenager, and one of the rituals was to hop in the back of a truck and go to the drive-in. He and his family moved to the Upper Valley in 1997 and started Thunder Ridge Farm, where they raise Black Angus cattle. They bought the drive-in from the previous owners in 2003. This year they have made the switch to digital projection and a new sound system.
“The picture is phenomenal now,” Trapp said. But the cost of installing the new equipment is around $80,000, and they are in the process of raising money through a Kickstarter campaign to pay for it. (The campaign ends this weekend and as of Thursday had raised more than its set goal of nearly $28,000. The Trapps hope to raise much more, and the Kickstarter page encourages people to continue to pledge.)
The projection booth is the original one dating from 1950. Made from cement and painted a light green, it sits in the middle of the field. While poking around to install the new equipment Trapp discovered an empty bottle of Duke white grape wine, probably akin to Nightrain or Thunderbird, and dating from when the booth was built, on top of a concrete block.
There are about 400 parking spaces at the Fairlee Drive-in, which is, said Gewertz, a pretty good size. The crowd on this Friday night hasn’t swelled to what you’d expect to see on a hot mid-summer evening, but it’s respectable for a cool night.
While in town, Gewertz and his small crew canvassed opinion in Fairlee about the drive-in. “A lot of first dates happened here at the drive-in. It was a rite of passage,” he said.
Gewertz sniffs the air. The oily smell of popcorn and the charred scent of hamburgers on a grill — the Trapps use their own Black Angus beef — waft outward from the food truck. “That I love, that’s the smell I love,” he said.
“Everybody goes to the box theater and it’s a box theater,” said Kirk Morrison, who drove from Bradford with his wife, Kim Morrison. “This is a family event and you remember it as a family. We try to support it as much as we can.”
Teri and Tim Gaston moved north from Fort Worth to Monroe, N.H., for a slower pace of life, which includes a night out at the drive-in.
“We’re from Texas where they don’t have drive-ins anymore,” said Teri Gaston. “This is a blast from the past that we love.”
Cass Paulos is there with her newphew Damari Pritchett, visiting from Dorchester, Mass. Paulos grew up in Weymouth, Mass., and moved to Fairlee in 2008. “It reminds me of when I was a kid growing up,” she said. “I’d hate to see this place shut down.”
The Fairlee Drive-in is in no imminent danger; Trapp said he hopes his three sons will want to keep it going when he retires.
And Gewertz plans to shoot at the other motel drive-in in Colorado later this summer, and complete a half-hour documentary that will encourage people to keep drive-ins going, even as people retreat to the isolation of Netflix, on-line streaming and the home entertainment industrial complex — and drive-ins disappear from the American landscape.
For information about the Fairlee Drive-in and its Kickstarter campaign, go to fairleedrivein.com/home.html.
Nicola Smith can be reached at email@example.com.