Dec. 23: Fair Oaks Drive-In Theatre, Middletown NY

It’s Day 357 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. Driving through the rain, I was glad the temperature was on the liquid side of freezing. It took me two hours to cross the border, going from the Laurel Drive-in in Hazleton PA to the Fair Oaks Drive-In Theatre north of Middletown NY.

The story of the Fair Oaks is vague and unusual from its very beginning. Both a 2001 article in the Times Herald-Record of Middletown and an October 2017 post on the drive-in’s official Facebook page say that opening was in 1967. The trouble is that Historic Aerials happens to have a photo of that location from 1968, and there’s no drive-in. Other online sources agree with the New York Drive-Ins web site, which has “Gala Opening” newspaper ads of the “All New – All Weather” Fair Oaks for May 15, 1970.

The Fair Oaks opened as a single screen, and the only owner info I’ve found for its early years was the Taylor family. The only personal glimpse I could find was in August 1976, when owner E.J. Taylor became an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church and planned to seek a tax exemption “as soon as I can do it.” By all accounts, the drive-in closed after the 1981 season.

In that 2001 Times Herald-Record article that got the opening date wrong, it was accurate in stating that Ron Mege “took on the ruins of Fair Oaks” in 1990. “Mege started with nothing but bare walls. He built the projection equipment, rewired the place, even built one of the screens himself.” That second screen went up after 1994, based on aerial photos.

(In an ironic counterpoint to Taylor’s 1976 suggestion of holding ULC services at the drive-in, landowner Pravin Patel donated 10 acres of the drive-in field for the Bharatiya Mandir Hindu temple, which was built in 1998.)

Mege and the Fair Oaks rolled along until 2013, when things got weird. In September 2013, the Times Herald-Record wrote that local man John Grimaldi planned to take over the drive-in and invest in an upgrade to digital projection. Then-current film projectionist Tanner Mege was to be hired as the manager. That didn’t happen. Instead, the Fair Oaks sat dark for all of 2014, which Ron Mege later blamed “on a divorce that tied up his assets.”

Then Regina Franz and husband Adam Gerhard entered the picture. They took over the lease in March 2015 and reopened the Fair Oaks in May that year. Newspaper accounts suggest that the digital projector they were using had been partly paid for by a Kickstarter campaign at the Randall Drive-In in Bethel VT. In May 2016, according to another Times Herald-Record article, Gerhard posted on Facebook that “actions have been taken against us” and that the couple had been “forced to seek legal recourse.” They said the Fair Oaks would remain closed.

Ron Mege and girlfriend Kelly Boland took over and began refurbishing the Fair Oaks with a new digital projector within days of Gerhard’s post. The drive-in reopened in July 2016, and they added a digital projector for the second screen in June 2017. Meanwhile, according to the West Lebanon NH Valley News, Franz and Gerhard were sued by the Vermont Attorney General’s Office in October 2016 for allegedly “making deceptive representations in connection with a fundraiser.” Through their lawyer, they denied any wrongdoing, and I don’t know the status of that lawsuit.

It looks like the Fair Oaks has settled down with good seasons of improvements, fun shows, and grilled onions. It closed for the season in late September, then began replacing its marquee sign, apparently the original. I look forward to a successful, uneventful 2018.

Miles Today / Total: 127 / 39615 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 200

Nearby Restaurant: I found another nice regional restaurant chain. Cosimo’s Brick Oven has four locations, and I wonder whether they’re all as good as the one in Middletown. I started with the garlic bread fresh out of that oven, then had a formaggi five-cheese pizza. With a glass of malbec to wash it down, I left with a warm, full belly on a cool, cloudy evening.

Where I Virtually Stayed: I had been denying myself for days, but in Middletown I relented and chose my old favorite chain, the Hampton Inn. There were cookies and coffee waiting at check-in. My large, comfortable room had all the modern amenities. Breakfast was the usual strong Hampton standard. I might get sick of them later, but right now I wish there was a Hampton Inn next to every drive-in.

Only in Middletown: Just south of Middletown in Goshen in the Harness Racing Museum & Hall of Fame. It’s built on an actual historic stables and track, and its interactive exhibits show what it’s like to buy a horse at auction, train it and race it. The museum is free, and you can take a virtual tour of the place on YouTube.

Next stop: Hyde Park Drive In Theatre, Hyde Park NY.