EAST MIDDLEBURY, Vt. — An autographed publicity photo of Bob Newhart hangs among others over the guest book at the Waybury Inn here, but the man who made it quintessential won't visit.
Is he afraid to fly? Does he think a one-time visit to New Hampshire is enough to make him an honorary New Englander? Only his agent knows for sure.
It is a much prettier inn than it appears to be on TV. When it was serendipitously chosen to model as the Stratford Inn nearly four years ago, it was still white with black shutters, a 1930s holdover.
Now the clapboards are a light yellowed green and the shutters dark green; a trim awning cuts the glare in the dining room and another shelters guests coming in from the parking lot. Hanging baskets of flowers spice up the porch. In line with the trend to accurate historical restoration, the house has been taken back to approximately the original colors.
Once a Tavern
The Waybury was a tavern when it opened in 1810, a stage-coach stop known as Glen House where rooms were rented to women workers in the nearby glass factory. It once had a ballroom and served midnight suppers that must have been the talk of East Middlebury (population 500 today).
In 1944 it was acquired by a man named Chester Way who renamed it after himself. Then, under a succession of owners, the building slipped into gradual decline until it was something less than a handyman special when Jim and Betty Riley saw it listed in a real estate magazine.
"There were four inns advertised," Jim Riley remembers. "When we called, this was the only one left."
But a funny thing happened while the Rileys were in the process of purchase. Barry Kemp, executive producer of "The Newhart Show," came to the Northeast looking for an inn to be the "Stratford Inn" in a new situation comedy. The exterior was videotaped; the Rileys received a $300 "inconvenience fee," and national recognition was on the way.
Looking for George
Almost as soon as the show aired, stations were getting calls from people who wanted to visit the inn. TV Guide and other publications did puffery for the show, mentioning and identifying the inn.
"People calling for reservations seemed to think the Loudons would greet them at the door," Betty Riley says. "They look around for George and Stefanie. They think the show is shot here instead of on a stage set in Hollywood, and tell us the registration desk is on the wrong side of the room."
In fact, the Rileys are typical of Vermont innkeepers, as are the fictitious Loudons. That is, they are not Vermonters at all but "flatlanders" drawn to New England by a romantic notion of what inn keeping is all about and no experience in kind.
They are Midwesterners--he a former director of operations for the Indianapolis region of McDonald's, she a former junior high guidance counselor from St. Louis. Unlike the Loudons, they have children from other marriages (his sons, her daughters).
Life at the Inn
Life at the real inn includes a staff with four daughters of the local Green family, two as cooks, one manager and one waitress. Guests tend to be an international crowd, due largely to Middlebury College, which draws students from all over the world and has an outstanding foreign language school.
Also, unlike the Newhart version, the Waybury has its own pub and a restaurant open to the public. Breakfast is a guests-only proposition included in the room rate. It is served buffet style, and the morning we were there included juices, melon and strawberries, cereals, blueberry pancakes, eggs Benedict, coffee and a variety of teas.
The inn has no swimming pool, but everyone in town knows about the swimming hole under the bridge only 100 yards from the inn. The Rileys have no plans to go beyond that.
The late poet Robert Frost used to be a regular at dinner. His cabin at Ripton is a few miles away next to the Breadloaf Writer's Conference headquarters. There is a walking trail marked with quotations from his poems and spectacular views, although the cabin is closed to the public.
Also in the area is the University of Vermont's Morgan Horse Farm where the state's official animal is bred and shown. ("Californians come and impulse-buy," we were told.)
Vermont's "Long Trail" hiking path comes in nearby. There is downhill and cross-country skiing, sport fishing in summer, ice-fishing in winter.
Middlebury is the perfect college town, full of vintage houses turned shops, an 1829 house-museum, the Vermont State Craft Center in an old mill at Frog Hollow, with juried works for sale and a gallery overlooking Otter Creek Falls. An endless series of concerts, lectures, theatricals and special events emanate from the campus.
No Mention of Newhart
The Rileys don't mention the Newhart association on their mailer, preferring to note that the Waybury is officially a National Historic Place and giving a roundup of its 176-year past. Nor is there any steak au Newhart on the dinner menu. California is given a nod only on the wine list.