First, I have to confess that I am a huge “Dirty Dancing” fan. Despite being born seven years after the movie’s premiere on this day in 1987, I have loved the movie for as long as I can remember.
Thanks to my mum, I know most of the classic lines (“I carried a watermelon”), can sing all of the songs (“She’s Like the Wind” and “Hungry Eyes”) and have even re-enacted the iconic lift.
On a recent road trip through Virginia with my family, my mum and I decided to stop at the Mountain Lake Lodge, the Pembroke hotel where the movie was filmed.
Mountain Lake Lodge is proud of its 15 minutes of fame as Kellerman’s, from the spot where “nobody puts Baby in a corner” to the specific cabin where Baby and her family stay. But one pivotal part of that fame is now missing: the lake. Due to a naturally occurring phenomenon, the lake is now completely dry.
Mountain Lake Lodge still has several “Dirty Dancing”-themed weekends throughout the year. The next one is August 25-27, the weekend of its 30-year anniversary. The weekend includes a walking movie tour (like the one my family and I did), dancing lessons, a scavenger hunt, and a Saturday night party. Thousands of fans make a pilgrimage to the set to see remnants of the ’80s movie that became a cult classic.
Despite our excitement on the seven-mile drive up the side of a mountain, the “Dirty Dancing” set was something of a letdown. Here’s what it was like to walk back in time to the “Dirty Dancing” set:
At first glance on the drive in, Mountain Lake Lodge makes you feel like you're back in 1987, pulling up to the Kellerman's of 'Dirty Dancing.'
Aside from having fewer people and the addition of a screen around the porch, Mountain Lake Lodge looks almost exactly the same as it did for filming.
Next to the visitor parking lot, a small cabin is filled with newspaper clippings, memorabilia, and a guided map for 'Dirty Dancing' fans to take a walking tour of the grounds.
The first stop was the front of the hotel, which we saw as we drove in -- the same view the Houseman family sees from their car in the movie. By the second stop, it already felt like Mountain Lake Lodge was scrounging for memories.
The chains the movie production company had installed for the movie still stand today. You can see them in the part of the movie when Baby, Johnny, and Billy go to find Penny.
The chain fence is a seemingly minute detail in the movie -- so small that my mum and I were at first confused about when the detail had even taken place in the film.
Stop number three looked exactly the same as it had in the movie. The porch that overlooks the lake is now closed in with a screen, and it still serves as a seating area the way it did for the movie.
The stop was so underwhelming, we forgot to take a picture. We did, however, enjoy a snack there at the end of the tour.
The dining room, stop number four, still serves as the primary spot for food at the lodge. The farm-to-table restaurant serves brunch, lunch, and dinner.
The food is a bit different from what the Housemans ate in the movie. The movie was meant to take place in the Catskills of New York, so the farm-to-table fare the current restaurant, Harvest, serves would be too local to Virginia to feature in the movie.
Stop number five is another fence, this time behind the hotel. The stop is right before where Baby encounters Johnny's cousin Billy and helps him carry the watermelons to the party.
The rest of the scene that led to the famous line 'I carried a watermelon' and that shows the bridge Baby later dances on, was filmed in Lake Lure, North Carolina. Again, the part where Baby passes the fence is easily forgettable.
The bone-dry lake is practically post-apocalyptic. The body of water that once served as the spot where Baby and Johnny practiced for their lift leaks, seals itself up, and then eventually replenishes itself.
The last time the lake was full was in 2003, after water levels had dropped in 1999 and then replenished. According to the scientists who study the lake, it's an important cleansing process that is unique and healthy for the area. But for movie buffs, it just shows that the magic of Mountain Lake Lodge isn't what it was 30 years ago.
Here is a video that explains why the lake drains.
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At stop number seven, the gazebo was another sad sight. The structure used to overlook the lake at its fullest. Now, it overlooks the dried-up space that is more reminiscent of a field than a lake.
Next to the lake is a stone memorial for Patrick Swayze, who played Johnny Castle in the movie. Swayze died of pancreatic cancer in 2009. After his role in 'Dirty Dancing,' Swayze starred in 'Ghost,' 'Point Break,' and 'Donnie Darko.'
The gazebo was used for filming several scenes, like when Baby tells Billy and Johnny that she saw Penny crying in the kitchen, and when Baby confronts her father after she told him she stayed in Johnny's cabin overnight.
The next stop was the Virginia Cottage where Baby and her family stayed while vacationing at Kellerman's.
The cottage still stands but has been refurbished for current guests. Mountain Lake Lodge advertises it as 'Baby's Cottage.' It is a three-bedroom cottage with one king and two queen bedrooms, plus three private bathrooms.
It also boasts a large living room with vaulted ceilings, a wood-burning fireplace, and a sleeper sofa. According to the hotel, the cabin can accommodate up to 10 guests.
Today, the lawn has a few games, like volleyball, chess, and tetherball, plus a small pool. It's not much compared to all the people seen flooding the Kellerman's lawn in the movie.
Even less exciting was the hotel gift shop, which was filled with t-shirts, mugs, and posters with Baby and Johnny silhouettes and famous quotes.
As much as Mountain Lake Lodge attempts to keep the Hollywood magic of 'Dirty Dancing' alive, it is a depressing reminder that a lot has changed in 30 years.
While my visit to Mountain Lake Lodge won't ruin my love for 'Dirty Dancing,' seeing the dried-out lake and the rundown hotel did make the '80s classic a little less magical.
Now that the lake is dry, the hotel has shifted its focus to activities like hiking, zip-lining, and bubble ball. Fire pit s'mores, farm-to-table food, and visits to downtown Blacksburg, Virginia, are more of a priority.
Like the now-defunct Catskills hotel that was the inspiration for the movie, Mountain Lake Lodge has an opportunity to shift its identity. The Grossinger's Catskill Resort Hotel hopes to spend millions refurbishing its once-lively resort.
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