A! Magazine for the Arts

Crumbling Motel Wins Movie Role

June 29, 2008

***This column, Tennis Anyone?, was published Thursday, June 26, 2008 in the Bristol Herald Courier. ***

Karen Sabo wanted to know more about the Robert E. Lee Motel after reading last week's column.

And Lily Wells - the widow of the motel's former operator, Woodrow Wells - wanted to make sure everybody knows just what a stately place this weed-ridden relic once was.

Both women contacted the newspaper, interested in telling more.

Sabo, 38, has more than a passing interest. Originally from upstate New York, this former Barter Theatre actress is now producing a movie that makes references to the motel.

And Wells?

Well, at 86, she's still looking back ? with fondness ? about spending more than 20 years taking care of guests with her beloved husband at the 1940s-era motel, standing about halfway between Abingdon and Bristol on Lee Highway.

The couple operated the hotel until 1996.

"It was an extraordinary place," said Wells, who bragged about the tiles in the bathrooms and the real wood paneling on the guest room walls.

Unfortunately, for the past decade, the Robert E. Lee Motel has simply fallen into ruin.

It's been closed for several years and now looks simply rotten, with trees growing all over the property.

Enter Sabo.

"It has a big part in our movie," she said. "The Robert E. Lee is all over this film."

With her husband, Derek Davidson, on board as the screenwriter, the couple's newly-formed Slaughterhouse Films is making "This Is Not the South" in July at various locations in Abingdon and Bristol ? including a roadside glimpse of the Robert E. Lee Motel.

Along the way, Sabo is earning credit for making the film in a graduate-level class at East Tennessee State University.

"We're treating it as an independent film," Sabo said. "This film, even though it's fiction, it's a pseudo documentary."It's going to run 90 minutes - a full-length feature - and be shopped around "to every bloody film festival that will give it the time of day," Sabo said.

How does the Robert E. Lee fit in to all of this?

"It's this really interesting symbol on Lee Highway," Sabo said. "You think of Robert E. Lee, this Civil War general ...

And yet, you look at this hotel and it's crumbling and it's being reclaimed by nature - it's changing. And part of the point of the movie is that what we think of as the South is also changing."