Movie Manor Motor Inn
Monte Vista, Colorado
Watching a movie at a vintage drive-in -- through a bug-splattered windshield, with sound from a tinny speaker -- is almost aggressively anti-21st century. There's no 4-D, no hi-def Imax overload, no subwoofer THX infrasound.
Now imagine seeing the same movie on the same outdoor screen through the window of an indoor motel room, hundreds of yards away. That gives some sense of the low fidelity mind warp going on every warm night at the Movie Manor Motor Inn. Although the movie may be forgettable, you'll always remember where you watched it.
While other drive-ins were bulldozed years ago, Movie Manor Motor Inn has survived in a remote valley surrounded by 14,000-foot mountains, miles outside the nearest town. As the sun sets behind the majestic Rockies, patrons of the Movie Manor ignore nature, sit in their rooms, and stare in the opposite direction at a drive-in movie screen.
The Movie Manor grew from the Star Drive-In, built by George Kelloff in 1955. George and his family actually lived in the middle of the drive-in, in a building attached to the snack bar. "It was normal for me," said George Jr., born the same year the drive-in opened. "I didn't know anything else." George Jr., who now runs the business, said that the family's unique home inspired the creation of the motel. "Dad had a big picture window so he could look out over the drive-in, and he decided to pipe in the sound so he could watch the movie. That's how he got the idea for the drive-in motel."
The Movie Manor Motor Inn opened in 1964. Its 14 original rooms are angled so that overnighters can lie in bed, flip the in-room switch to "Movie: ON," and watch the drive-in screen through their own personal picture windows. Soundtrack audio and snack bar announcements are piped directly in through suitably lo-fi mono speakers.
As the motel expanded, more rooms were added. Overnighters in these rooms can still watch and hear the movie, just not while lying in bed. "You might be lucky enough to get one of those original rooms," said George Jr., "but it's nothing that we can guarantee." Continued success prompted the Kelloffs to add a second screen for another movie, facing rooms where the sound isn't piped in at all. Occupants of those rooms can get back in their cars, drive a hundred feet to the drive-in, and watch the movie with the locals.
None of the rooms have microwave ovens, discouraging store-bought popcorn. "We'd rather you have it the way popcorn's meant to be made," said George Jr., meaning popcorn purchased from the Movie Manor's original snack bar popcorn machine, its workings gunked with six decades of buttery goodness. Nearly as old is the drive-in playground, directly underneath the original screen, its metal pipe swing set and teeter-totter a puzzle to those who only know of more modern, soft-edged play pits.
Movie Manor gives each of its rooms a nameplate of a movie star, so that visitors can fantasize that their motel room might also be the dressing room of a celebrity. The Movie Manor is under no pressure to be up-to-the-minute, so the stars seem to twinkle out circa 1992 (The ice machine room is named for Ice-T). A later effort, according to George Jr., are the celebrity signatures scrawled into the cement outside the motel office, a la Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Although whoever was responsible got Matthew McConaughey right, several of the stars have euphonic spellings such as "Schwartzennager" and "Tarzen." Reading dozens of these names can be a real challenge; just how do you spell Rene Zellweger anyway?
The Movie Manor Motor Inn is a pilgrimage destination, a place that people veer out of their way to include in their travel itineraries. One group conspicuous by their absence, however, are the movie stars themselves, who have never made any personal appearances. "I don't think Monte Vista is a movie star destination," explained George Jr., although he guessed that over the years one or two stars may have spent the night, incognito, perhaps watching themselves.