Q&A with Beth Lennon, a.k.a. Mod Betty
One of Needham native Beth Lennon’s first projects for her art degree at University of Massachusetts Boston in the late 1980s was to photograph drive-in theaters around the eastern part of the state. With her interest in vintage never waning, Lennon, a.k.a. “Mod Betty,” started retroroadmap.com in 2009, a travel site that guides readers to lunch counters, old-time amusement parks, mom-and-pop motels, and other American retro road-tripping destinations. Since then, Lennon, who lives in Pennsylvania and works in online marketing for small businesses, has added a video series, occasional meetups, and this fall is launching a state-by-state book series.
Q. How did growing up in New England draw you to all things vintage?
A. It’s funny because there’s so much older history in New England that you don’t see a lot of evidence of the Art Deco and midcentury eras, so when you do see them, they really stand out, like drive-ins and diners. When I would see stuff like that, it triggered something. History doesn’t have to be boring or brown, it can also be a bright, shiny thing.
Q. What compelled you to start your site seven years ago and keep at it?
A. The travel part is something I would mostly be doing anyway — always exploring. The work part is the sharing, where basically I say, “Oh my God, look what I found. You should go, too.” I also believe that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. If I’m lamenting that these cool vintage places are being knocked down because no one went, what did I do to make it better?
Q. Beyond the novelty appeal, why should we care about vintage destinations?
A. Well, for one thing, once they’re gone, they’re not coming back. People aren’t opening mom and pop stores that are expected to be open for 50 years anymore. They’re really a testament to a certain era, a work ethic. But also, they are a part of our collective US history, and they’re being replaced by cookie-cutter businesses thanks to franchising and blandification. We recently took an exit in New Jersey filled with chains and it was like Mod Betty hell — we could have been in Indiana or South Carolina or anywhere.
Q. What are some of your favorite Boston-area and New England spots?
A. Definitely the legacy businesses on Route 1 around Saugus. Kowloon is the East Coast tiki temple. And Prince restaurant and Putnam Pantry are still there, but others sadly are gone, like Hilltop Steakhouse and Weylu’s. I also love small vintage diners — they were made in Worcester. And I’m kind of obsessed with those adorable motor-court motels that you find in New Hampshire and Maine. And of course candlepin bowling.
Q. What about the rest of the country?
A. I don’t really like to play favorites. The things I get most excited about are the ones you wouldn’t expect. That said, California is great because I’m interested in mostly the ’20s to the ’60s and ’70s, and that state was being built up around then, unlike the East Coast. Palm Springs is pretty amazing. On the East Coast, Wildwood, N.J., has the highest concentration of mid-century motels of any place. But in general, I say just open your eyes and you’ll find things.
Q. You ran a Kickstarter campaign in 2014 to fund a video series and raised $8,850, more than your goal of $6,000. How is the series going?
A. We’ve done 12 episodes and are still doing the last couple now. I did it because I wanted to see what it would be like to have the TV show that I wanted. I couldn’t believe people kept on giving money even after we met the goal. It’s been really fun.
Q. You even have a catchy theme song, “Turn Up the Fun.” How did that come to be?
A. My husband, Cliff Hillis, is a musician. I know, how convenient is that? It’s a song he’d created before but had never put on an album. We did a bonus video episode with it, done like a music video, of all the places we’d gone. For the Wildwood episode, he custom-wrote a ’60s surf song for the background.
Q. You’ve accessorized, as well. Tell us about that.
A. We bought an adorable 1964 Serro Scotty camper from a neighbor. She’s white with a turquoise stripe. Also, the videos gave me the perfect excuse to experiment with vintage shift dresses, which I love. I came up with a template and had someone make some up and I’m hoping to do a limited edition for sale.
Q. You’re about to launch a Retro Roadmap book series. Why books?
A. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for so long, state-by-state guides. Everyone says that nobody needs to buy a book nowadays, but I’m giving them a reason. It’s divided into categories, like things to do, where to eat, where to stay, where to shop. I’m wicked excited about it. What makes it different is each book is like a combination guide and travel journal, with places to check off what you did and also add things like where you ate, what you saw and your own finds. I’m starting with Delaware because it’s a small state and more manageable, but the New England states are a priority, too. It’s a lot of work, but what I say is I’ll do my part if you do yours — which is to go out and visit these places while they’re still there.