Remember your first motel stay? Compact, serviceable, retro accommodation for the weary traveller? Chances are you were a kid, that first time. Even families who were avid campers or stay-at-home sticklers would have cause to head up some highway for a holiday, relocation or family event. Checking out the place on arrival took about five minutes. Is there a pool? Who’s bed faces the telly secured to the wall? Are Variety Pack Coco Pops on the brekkie menu? How old do you reckon those ice cubes are in the freezer? Who the hell orders prunes over a ‘compote of fruit’?
Comedian, broadcaster and aficionado of architecture Tim Ross recalls his initiation into the ‘dreamy, idyllic’ cacoon of motel world.
“I would’ve been five when we stayed in Mildura. It’s so vivid. The brick walls, the bedspread, the door going out to the grass, the TV in a sort of cabinet on the wall. The glasses in the fridge, breakfast magically appearing through the little door.” Sadly the buffet breakfast now means changing out of PJs for bacon and eggs.
“It felt like we’d gone somewhere so exotic. When motels came to Australia in the 1950s, it was like this burst of Americana had dropped in our suburbs with an air of Vegas about them. Like ‘The Sands’ in Adelaide. It was like stepping into an Elvis movie. It’s stayed with us for generations. People are searching for that again, the simplicity for their families.”
In 2019, Ross was awarded the National President’s Prize from the Australian Institute of Architects for advocacy, activism and outstanding contribution to the profession. He describes the evolution of Aussie ‘motor inns’.
“Some of the funkier American-style ones popped up on the Gold Coast. People would literally take a photo or picture out of a magazine to their builder and say, ‘Can you build this?’ So the proportions might be a bit out. Then Robin Boyd, the great Melbourne architect, designed ‘The Black Dolphin’ in Merimbula. He used the colour of the bush, local timber and bricks to make a sophisticated motel for the 1960s. It tells a great story about presenting an Australian front in our holiday accommodation. It comes quite naturally for us; even cabins in a caravan park tend to have some sort of bush vernacular – the use of corrugated iron or some reference.”
The ‘Rosso’ half of comedy duo Merrick & Rosso created and presents Motel with musician Kit Warhurst as an homage in stories and song. It follows their award-winning live show Man About the House. The friends have worked together sporadically over two decades.
Ross says, “We were in a band together when we were at uni. Then we always had a little project together here and there [between individual projects].”
Like Warhurst (Rocket Science), Ross spent years touring with bands.
“We’d get to a motel, six of us crammed in; heating up potato cakes in the toaster, making toasted sandwiches with the iron. You generally didn’t spend a long time at a motel, so not a lot happens. Nothing much could go wrong. Even if they were shit they were good.”
The family road trip has changed.
“You had vinyl seats, no a/c, no Maccas to stop for. My mother was a great economist so there were always sandwiches and stuff packed. The idea of spending money on a cup of coffee…!”
Between chants of ‘Are we there yet?’, “Kids were punching each other, Dad driving from wherever to Queensland without stopping, geared up on Codral. Maybe stopping to see a Big Thing. One [thing] to come out of the bushfires is a real desire and engagement to travel within our country again, connecting with the bush, the landscape. Unless we spend time travelling within our country, we don’t have empathy for other parts of it – whether rural, city or Indigenous culture.”
Ross likens Motel to ‘old fashioned variety’ that people really respond to.
“It’ll be nice to come back and get on stage at WOMADelaide. I went to Laneway [Festival] last year. I hadn’t been to a kids’ festival for a while and I’d gone from being recognised, to people thinking I was an undercover cop.”
WOMADelaide 2020 will be held from 6-9 March in Adelaide, South Australia. Tickets can be purchased www.womadelaide.com.au
Written by Chris Lambie.