“I need all my white babies,” said a visitor rounding up her costumed friends for a group photo near the sign Kellerman’s Mountain House, the fictional summer retreat featured in the 1980s film. , you’re next.”
During “Dirty Dancing” weekends at the station, Baby takes center stage, along with the rest of the cast who have worked their way into the hearts and hips of millions of moviegoers. The film was partly shot at the 86-year-old lodge in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which, after Hollywood waved its wand, became Kellerman’s in the Catskills around 1963. (Other scenes were shot at a camp scouts in North Carolina which is no longer standing.) The Sylvan estate on a 2,600-acre nature preserve has hosted the tribute since 1988, a year after the film was released. The themed event, held five or six times a year, sells out months in advance.
“It’s an iconic movie. It takes you back to when you were a teenager and all those good feelings you had. Your first love, your first date, all that fun stuff,” said Heidi Stone, President and general manager of the hotel, “I don’t think that’s going to go away anytime soon. The love just continues through the generations.”
To prepare for the weekend, Heidi recommends showing the film in advance and paying particular attention to the sets: the arrival area outside the main lodge, the Houseman family cabin and the entrance to the staff quarters, where the watermelon came into the picture.
“Watch the movie before you come, so when you’re driving you’re like, ‘Oh my word! It’s really Kellerman’s,” Heidi said from a table at Harvest, the restaurant where the Housemans dined and discussed deep issues. (It was the 60s, after all.)
The movie studio made little change to the resort that Texas businessman William Lewis Moody built in 1936 as a cool mountain escape for overheated city dwellers. He added a few flourishes, such as striped awnings over Harvest’s windows and white bollards with chains lining the driveway. The filmmakers, however, did not fill the lake: the body of water was swimmable in the 1980s but dried up more than two decades later. (The lake level rises and falls; in 2020 it was two-thirds full, the highest point since 2008.)
When I pulled up in front of the majestic sandstone pavilion, I idled the engine, hoping the specter of Max Kellerman would materialize. This was not the case. So I drove to the back of the building, accidentally re-enacting the scene in which Johnny, after breaking into his own car, steers his Chevrolet Bel Air the wrong way down the driveway. Obviously, Patrick Swayze was my co-pilot.
Mountain Lake Lodge offers a range of accommodations, including rooms in the main lodge and cabins named after the families who built and owned the getaways before handing them over to ownership. Every other day of the week a room is just a room. But this weekend, Virginia Cottage was a celebrity in its own right: the three-bedroom with the green roof and wraparound porch was the baby cabin. Room 232 also has a “Dirty Dancing” connection: Swayze slept here during filming. Scrolling through a printout of the hotel’s register from September 1, 1986, I noticed the name of another famous guest who occupied the same floor: Cynthia Rhodes, Johnny de Swayze’s Penny.
Before dinner, I popped into the bar, where two older men with a small dog knew their audience. They yelled at me, “Google He-Man and Skeletor are dancing.” I watched the commercial parodying the film’s finale while downing a glass of Lisa’s strawberry lemonade, which was spiked with vodka. At Harvest, the host led me to the most coveted table in the dining room. Behind my shoulder, a sign on a pillar showed a photo of the Housemans sitting at the same oven and noted that the sconces, stone interior and tables had not changed in 35 years. Chef Michael Porterfield also deserved a plaque, and not just for feeding over 300 diners a night. Word around the station was that he had given Swayze a ride on the back of his motorcycle.
I had to chew fast to make the evening costume contest, which explained the inordinate number of petal-pink dresses, cut-off denim shorts, and watermelon accessories at dinner. “I need all the supporting actors, including the watermelons. Lisa, where are you? called Debbi Sheldon Richey, the dance instructor who was serving as a judge. “I need all the world except Baby and Johnny.” (Lisa was Baby’s older sister.)
Debbi approached each contestant with a simple question: “Who – or what – are you?” “We are the Schumachers. We have wallets,” said a couple dressed as elderly kleptomaniacs. “I’m the corner,” said an angle. “I’m watermelon and I’m from Scotland,” said the transatlantic fruit. There were several Pennys in leotards and tights, a Lunchtime Lisa and other Schumachers, including the winner: Finale Baby’s mother, a guest from San Francisco who was celebrating her 40th birthday with her own cast of nearly three dozen friends and family members.
For the Baby division, all outfits and scenes were represented, including Baby dressed as a baby. (The prequel?) Debbi declared Magic Show Baby, who wore a stuffed chicken prop, the winner. “In my 16 or 17 years of judging, this is the first time I’ve seen the chicken,” Debbi said after the contest. I asked about her most memorable baby. “Mother was the corner and daughter was the sulky girl,” she said, still amazed at the girl’s acting skills, assuming she was acting.
Although the event clearly attracted more women than men, we had enough Johnnys to constitute a quorum. “What really made Johnny was the dancing,” Debbi said, raising the competitive bar.
An outdoor screening of the film followed. But before the lights went out, I introduced myself to Baby wearing a watermelon from England (Lucy Fellows) and her mother, 50th Birthday Baby (Louise). I thanked Louise for the vegan birthday cake that the waitress had served me a slice of. The next day, I joined their family in the grand ballroom for trivia. Between the questions – “Which ‘Seinfeld’ actor played Stan?” “What was baby going to do after college?” “What was the first song Baby and Johnny danced to? — I asked Louise how she heard about Mountain Lake Lodge.
“A quiz show in England,” said the longtime “Dirty Dancing” fan.
During the game show, Louise told me, the host asked the contestant how she planned to spend her winnings. She said she was going to a “Dirty Dancing” weekend in Virginia. Months later, they packed up their stuffed watermelon and flew to North America. During the anecdotes, I noticed that Louise and Lucy answered most of the questions. “Martin, are you a fan of the film? I whispered out loud to Louise’s husband. “As a guy, I don’t really care about that, but I appreciate that,” he replied. “I’m more of a ‘Pretty Woman’ guy.”
Next Fellows family trip: Beverly Hills, California. And the next “Dirty Dancing” activity: treasure hunt.
We joined forces and completed all eight challenges together, grabbing a mint from where Baby’s dad said his daughter would change the world (Harvest Hostess Booth) and bunny-hopping across the green lawn and elastic. Martin valiantly embodied all the male roles.
“I’m sorry I lied to you, but you lied too,” Lucy said to her pretend father, Jake Houseman, imaginary tears streaming down her cheeks. Fake Jake rubbed his eyes.
In the lake, we walked through the overgrowth to find the cinder blocks that Swayze had used as a pedestal during the elevator training scene. Louise raised her arms like Superman ready to take off while Martin crouched down and faked an attempt to lift his wife by the hips. No knees popped, no lips took on the tinge of hypothermia. “Because the water was so cold during filming, there are no close-ups of this scene in the film,” one plaque said. “Baby’s lips were blue!”
During the afternoon dance lesson, Debbi made an important announcement, probably written by a team of lawyers: “We don’t do elevators.” Instead, we learned several flightless dances, including merengue, salsa solo, and swing. “Hitchhike, hitchhike, hitchhike, toe, heel, flick, step, right, flip, retrieve, step, hold,” Debbi directed. “Now do this twice.”
I had my moves down for the dance party. However, a torrential downpour threatened to cancel the party. I was chatting with Dennis Williams, a dance instructor, in the lobby when he was taken to test the dance floor’s water levels. The open-air nightclub was deemed safe, and after dinner guests began to flock.
The dance felt a bit like a prom that only wallflowers and parent attendants attended, but then the 40th birthday celebrants arrived and brought the party to life. A cardboard cutout of a little Johnny appeared. He danced in slow motion with a few guests and surfed several times. When the DJ played the last song from the movie, Johnny was pushed aside and we all got into position on the dance floor. Many of us had been training for this moment, this time in our lives, for 35 years.
115 Hotel Cir., Pembroke, Va.
The lodge, where the 1987 film was partly filmed, hosts “Dirty Dancing” weekends several times a year. The dates for 2023 are April 28-30, June 23-25, July 28-30, August 25-27, September 15-17, and October 27-29. Theme packages start at $599 per person based on double occupancy and include accommodation for two nights, breakfast, lunch and dinner, and all activities, such as a film screening, dance lessons and a dance party.
Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advisories can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s travel health advisories webpage.