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Owners Take an Unassuming Motel in Oklahoma
 and Turn it into a Portal to the 1950s
By Julie Bisbee, The Daily OklahomanMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

Jan. 15, 2006 --MCALESTER -- For some, a night with Elvis Presley is hard to resist. If it includes a stay at the Happy Days Hotel, it's harder to pass up.

Beth and Larry Bernhardt have taken an unassuming motel off U.S. 69 and turned it into a portal to the 1950s.

Walking into the hotel lobby, a flashing Wurlitzer clicks as it changes records from Elvis to Fats Domino.

Come back after dark, and you might catch guests with their shoes off in an impromptu sock hop, dancing on the black and white tile floor.

Walk across the parking lot to the bright pink diner run by the Bernhardts' daughter Angel, and you might catch a waitress singing and dancing as she delivers burgers, fries and chocolate malts to customers nestled into black and aqua booths or saddled up on bar stools.

Book a room, and you might be sleeping under the smoldering gaze of Marilyn Monroe or the surly stare of James Dean.

For Beth Bernhardt, 62, the 1950s were some of the best years of her life, and there are plenty of people who agree with her.

The Happy Days Hotel stands out along the Highway 69 corridor, a popular route for trucks and retirees fleeing the cold winters of the Midwest for the warmth of south Texas.

"The '50s just represent a good time in life," Beth Bernhardt said. "People were neighborly, and it was just soft and easy, and I've always been in love with Elvis Presley, so there you go."

A life-sized cardboard cutout of Elvis stands next the jukebox in the lobby. He's dancing on the shower curtains in the Elvis Presley suite, complete with a black leather couch and a bright red bedspread.

Beth Bernhardt has a keen eye for 1950s memorabilia. It takes months to accumulate enough knick knacks to outfit the "I Love Lucy" or Betty Boop room.

But many of the vintage collectables come from guests.

"One couple sent us a box of 45s (records) after they stayed here," Bernhardt said.

Classic car enthusiasts have offered pictures of their cars and awards won at car shows. An antique dealer in McAlester always has an eye out for anything 1950s, and there's always the Internet.

Larry Bernhardt bought a pink Cadillac on eBay from a New Orleans man. It now sits in front of the hotel.

The Bernhardts bought into the Microtel franchise, but in 2005 they dropped the corporate backing and went with the '50s theme.

Successful venture

"It was pretty scary when we first took the plunge," Beth Bernhardt said.

"There were plenty of people who told us we were going to fail, but these have been some of our best years," she said.

Success has meant expanding for the Bernhardt's hotel business. In February, a second wing of rooms will be completed, giving the hotel a total of 61 rooms and suites. Late last year, the Bernhardts' daughter got involved in the business when she opened Angel's Diner.

Behind the counter, Angel is a blur as she gets plates ready for customers.

When the diner opened in October, they had hoped to fill the booths in the front of the restaurant. A conference room in the back would give them space for meetings and conferences. That plan changed a few hours after the restaurant opened.

"Customers were lined up out the door," Angel Bernhardt said. "I was scared to death."

Angel Bernhardt, 36, spent 13 years working for the shipper UPS. She had worked as a waitress through school, but had never taken on the task of running a restaurant.

Six months later, customers are steady for lunch and dinner, and the menu always is changing.

"I love it," Angel Bernhardt said. "It's been my lifelong dream to run a restaurant."

Like the hotel, the restaurant, with replica Wurlitzer lit up out front, is hard to miss. Hot pink paint outlines the parking spaces in the lot and a sign near the entrance reads, "Lost in the '50s."

In the hotel and restaurant business, attention to detail pays off, the Bernhardts say.

"We just try to treat everybody like they're special," Beth Bernhardt said. "Just like you'd want to be treated."

It's paid off. The regular guests at the Happy Days Hotel know the staff by first name. Sometimes they're even greeted with a hug.

Nicole Galloway, a contractor for an oil and gas company, spends days at a time in McAlester searching through land records and always stays at the Happy Days Hotel.

"It's like a second home to me," Galloway said. "It gives me something to look forward to when I work in McAlester."

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Daily Oklahoman

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