“Christmas at the Drive-In” is coming

A scene from Christmas at the Drive-In, copied from the Great American Family channel web site. The outdoor concession stand pictured in the background doesn’t fill me with hope for an accurate ozoner depiction.

Christmas is a time where there typically isn’t a whole lot of drive-in theater news to report. There are scattered holiday markets or expanded flea markets, but that seems mundane. I found something else that sounds odd, but at least it might be interesting.

The Great American Family channel premiered an original movie, Christmas at the Drive-In, on Thanksgiving weekend this year. (It’s showing again on Thursday, Dec. 8, and probably again later in the season.) The synopsis says the movie is about a woman who returns to her home town, Chesterfield NY, to save its drive-in theater by helping it acquire historic preservation status or something like that. She becomes frenemies with the new owner, who just inherited the Chesterfield Drive-In from his late father. Could there be holiday romance brewing? Will they need to work together to save the beloved drive-in?

Update: Despite the “Chesterfield”s in the original synopsis, the movie wisely switched to the fictional McCarthy Drive-In in Brenington. More details in the next post.

(I confess that I don’t understand the allure of this kind of Christmas movie, and I especially don’t understand why dozens of them flood the airwaves every holiday season. Is there some special factor about them, or are they strictly for folks who enjoy reading lots of romance novels? Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I digress.)

I was surprised at the amount of detail I could find about its shooting locations at The Cinemaholic site, though it left me with more questions than answers. All of the photography took place in northern Ontario in September 2022. Most of it was at North Bay, on the shore of Lake Nipissing, with some scenes shot in Sudbury. Those are great places to get cold in early autumn, but what’s missing from those locations is anything that would look like a potentially historic drive-in theater. The Horizon Drive-In travels northern Ontario with a pop-up screen that it inflates at various locations, but surely they wouldn’t use that, would they?

I haven’t seen the movie. I saw a 30-second trailer on YouTube; there are issues. From glimpses in the background of the small viewing field, it looks like they really are using that inflatable screen. A photo at the official movie web site shows the protagonists in front of an outdoor concession stand. I know that such outdoor stands used to exist, but it’s much more common for even historic drive-ins to serve up their snacks indoors.

What I find ironic is that, although the real town of Chesterfield NY never had a drive-in, right across Lake Champlain in Colchester VT, the Sunset Drive-In has been active since 1948 and is still open. That would have been the perfect stand-in for a fictional historic drive-in; too bad it’s more expensive to film in Vermont than in Ontario.

Anyway, if you want to see a modern-day depiction of what someone thinks drive-ins are like, feel free to tune in this season.

Sept. 26: Bethel Drive-In, Bethel VT

It’s Day 269 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. Driving through twisty mountain roads, I averaged less than 40 mph as I went from the Fairlee Motel & Drive-in Theater in Fairlee VT of course to the Bethel Drive-In in Bethel VT of course.

The Bethel opened in 1954 as the Randall Drive-In, owned by Harry Hudson. Then as now, it was a small drive-in even by small-town standards with room for just 150 cars. Beginning in 1982, my reference books list the owner as “Ostenberg”, who probably bought the place in the 1970s.

A May 2006 article in The Herald of Randolph VT said Scott Corse bought the Randall “11 years ago”. His crew of teenagers were moving away, so he was looking for someone to operate the drive-in. Corse rented it to Larry and Laurie Girard later in 2006 (through at least 2008), and to Lorena Miller and family in 2012.

Adam Gerhard and Regina Franz leased the Randall from Corse in 2013. Through community appeals including a Kickstarter, which completed in June 2014, they raised enough money for a down payment on a digital projector. That season continued uneventfully, then the couple left, taking the projector with them to a drive-in in New York. They said that Corse had surprised them by not renewing their lease, but according to The Herald, Corse had told them in February 2014 that he did not want them back in 2015.

Some donors were unhappy that their contributions didn’t go towards a long-term solution for their local drive-in. That led to the civil suit filed by the state of Vermont “for making deceptive representations in connection with a fundraiser.” The defendants have maintained their innocence, saying the suit includes erroneous, unsubstantiated by any evidence, and in many cases outright false statements.

David and Tammy Tomaszewski stepped up in 2015 to take over the drive-in, renaming it the Bethel. Corse signed a “yearly renewable lease” with the Tomaszewskis, who also run the local indoor theater. They kept the Bethel going with the last movies available on 35mm film, replaced the original screen before the 2016 season, and installed another digital projector this year. There’s a great interview all about it in the Valley News.

The Bethel’s last movies of this season were on Labor Day Weekend, leaving me in the dark on this Tuesday night in late September. At least I can expect to find this drive-in alive again next spring.

The YouTube video of the day is someone’s capture of the report by WVNY (Burlington’s News Leader) about the 2014 Kickstarter campaign. You can see a clearer version on that Kickstarter page, though the bits of film in the lower corners of this video are a nice touch.

Miles Today / Total: 45 / 31459 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 169

Nearby Restaurant: The Bethel Village Sandwich Shop in the heart of town is a great place for breakfast or lunch. Since there’s that “sandwich” in the name, I figured they had to be good. I ordered the Gilead, which might have been a simple ham and swiss before adding apple maple chutney sauce. That and plenty of coffee made a good sandwich great.

Where I Virtually Stayed: The closest hotel to the Bethel is the Maple Leaf Inn in Barnard. You know the kind of Victorian-era bed and breakfast set in the middle of Vermont woods, the kind you see in postcards? This is that B&B. My room didn’t have a fridge, but it did have a wood-burning fireplace, which is much better. Breakfast was wonderful with freshly baked scones, pumpkin pancakes with true maple syrup, and everything else you would expect from that postcard.

Only in Bethel: Just east of Bethel in South Royalton is a monument to the birthplace of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. As Roadside America reports, Smith was born on the town line between Sharon and Royalton on December 23, 1805. The LDS Church owns 350 acres of landscaped forest and hilltop leading up to a memorial 52-foot-high granite pillar. Smith lived in Vermont until he was ten years old.

Next stop: Four Brothers Drive In, Amenia NY.

Sept. 25: Fairlee Motel & Drive-in Theater, Fairlee VT

It’s Day 268 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. Even though most of my travel was on I-89, it took almost two hours to drive 83 miles from Colchester VT to the Fairlee Motel & Drive-in Theater in Fairlee VT of course.

The Fairlee opened in 1950 as the Holiday Park, built and owned by Reginald and Terri Drowns. In 1960, they added six motel rooms and renamed it the Hi Way 5. It was the first time anyone had combined a drive-in with a motel.

Before I continue, I must refer you to a superb article in the August 2015 issue of Southwest: The Magazine. It’s what I would write about the Fairlee if I gave myself more space, and if I were a better writer. However, that article and one by blogger Larry Coffin (who says he was present at opening night) are the only mentions of “Drowns”; directories of the period refer to the owner as Reginald Drown or Brown.

In 1966, the Drowns added another block of six motel rooms. An old NBC News article said there used to be a washing machine next to the projectors, where they presumably did laundry between reel changes.

By the mid-80s, something happened because in 1987 the Hi Way 5 “had fallen into neglect after being shuttered for a few years.” That’s when Ray and Elaine Herb revived the motel and drive-in, and it was also probably when it was renamed the Fairlee, since a 1992 newspaper roundup included it that way.

Peter and Erika Trapp bought the Fairlee in 2003. (You can check out how it looked on DocRebuild.) He upgraded the projector with a platter system and added FM sound, although they also kept the in-car speakers. When they needed to upgrade to digital a decade later, a successful Kickstarter campaign brought in enough money for a down payment on the new projector, and the Fairlee kept on running. Along the way, they even got the attention of the BBC and the Denver Post.

The Trapps have a cattle farm across the river in New Hampshire, and the burgers at the Fairlee are made from that beef. It’s too bad that they’re closed for the season, especially since the high temperature was 90 degrees on the day I arrived.

The YouTube video of the day is a simple 360-degree view of what the Fairlee looked like before a show in 2008. I love seeing all those speakers!

Miles Today / Total: 83 / 31414 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 169

Nearby Restaurant: I’ve sure been finding a lot of good old diners in New England, and the Fairlee Diner is another good example. I made it in time for breakfast, where I took advantage of huge blueberry pancakes with true Vermont maple syrup.

Where I Virtually Stayed: Well of course I had to stay at the Fairlee Motel overlooking the drive-in. My room was clean and had the full set of modern amenities. I could see the speaker in the wall, much like the times I’ve stayed at the Movie Manor in Monte Vista CO, and I was a little sad that there was no movie to watch this night.

Only in Fairlee: Just west of Fairlee at the Post Mills Airport in the town of Thetford is Vermontasaurus, a 25-foot-tall, 122-foot-long folk art representation of a dinosaur. According to Wikipedia, retired teacher Brian Boland built the original in 2010. Part of it collapsed in October 2011 but was rebuilt as a “baby Vermontasaurus” the following year. In 2017, Boland unveiled an “adolescent” version at the Orford-Fairlee Fourth of July Parade.

Next stop: Bethel Drive-In, Bethel VT.