The Fairlee Drive-In Movie Theater continues to offer summer fun in the Upper Valley

Owner Peter Trapp reflects on the drive-in’s 73-year history, while Dartmouth students remain excited about the future of the drive-in.

by Ramsey Ash | 8/11/23 2:00am

Photo by Aarushi Jain ’25

The Fairlee Drive-in Theater has been a staple of the arts and culture scene in the Upper Valley since its opening in 1950. Started by a Florida-based contractor looking for summer employment, the business model soon adjusted to include a motel in 1960 — meant to accommodate travelers looking for lodging along the newly built I-91 interstate, according to current owner Peter Trapp. 

Trapp said he and his wife purchased the drive-in theater in 2003, with hopes to bring the business — which had then been closed since 1982 — back to life. Now marking 21 summers at the theater, Trapp said the two are proud of the community that the drive-in has built. 

Unlike many other arts businesses, Trapp said the theater saw an increase in engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“During COVID, we ran [the theater] until Halloween because the weather was nice, and it was really the only thing you could do during COVID,” Trapp said. “Social distancing was easily accomplished from the cars being spread out, and everything worked out [really] well.”

Although Trapp said turnout is now “waning every year,” he said he and his wife remain thankful for their loyal customers, travelers who stop by and groups who take advantage of the drive-in experience.

He added that recently, more groups have begun to organize movie nights at the drive-in.

“[The drive-in] has become much more of a group activity in recent years, mainly because of the ability to chat and catch up with friends without disturbing other visitors,” he said.

For example, a group of third year students at the Geisel School of Medicine connected with incoming first year Geisel students at the theater this summer, according to Michelle Dong ’MED, a third year student who attended the event. 

“It was so nice to be together with everyone in person,” Dong said. “Being outdoors and under the stars added to the experience, and it was an overall great time.”

Dong said that, although this was her first time at the drive-in, she is excited to return soon. She added that she may organize Geisel student events at the drive-in in the future through her position on the Geisel Wellness Committee. 

Trapp encouraged Dartmouth students to come to a movie at the drive-in, especially if they do not live near a drive-in theater or have “never experienced a drive-in.” Trapp said that students should engage with the drive-in before it closes on Labor Day, adding that the summer term is a great time to attend.

Elizabeth Lee ’24 said the theater gave her an opportunity to try something new this summer. 

“This was my first experience [with a drive-in], and I’ve never been to the [drive-in] near my hometown, so this was such an exciting experience,” Lee said.“I have been three times now, and people have been so friendly there. The concessions are delicious. I love that they do a double feature and the pre-show montage of ’50s advertisements makes the whole evening such a worthwhile experience.”

Trapp said that he hopes for increased engagement in coming years, especially as streaming services rise in popularity. He added that the Fairlee Drive-in remains committed to showing films that “everyone can enjoy,” expressing gratitude for the new Barbie movie.

“We need more movies like the Barbie movie — a movie that attracts everyone,” he said.

Trapp added that he would be happy to know that loyal customers are not giving in to streaming services just yet. 

“The experience of going to the drive-in is so much better than [a streaming service] because you get the experience of sharing the drive to and from with your friends, often debriefing the film after it has finished,” Lee said. “[Going to the Fairlee Drive-in] gets you out of Hanover — out of Dartmouth — and you get to support a family-owned business that’s been going on for ages. There’s something so special about that.”