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Starlite Motel was first home for Rochester starlet Lea Thompson

Award winning actor and director's grandmother ran the iconic motel which was demolished 10 years ago this year.

Starlite postcard.jpg
A vintage postcard depicting the Starlite Motel in Rochester.
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ROCHESTER — Lea Thompson’s acting career has taken her to 46 states, but that’s not why she says she feels at home in a hotel or motel.

Thompson’s first home was the Starlite Motel in Rochester. She, her parents, and her four siblings lived there. Thompson’s grandmother owned and operated it and was later shot in an attempted robbery there. Even after Thompson’s family moved into their own home, the hotel was a reassuring place to visit, she recalled.

“To this day, I love motels,” Thompson said.

Lea Thompson Starlite.jpg
Lea Thompson stands on her older brother Andrew Thompson's shoulders outside the Starlite Motel in Rochester in 1968.
Photo contributed by Lea Thompson

Thompson, an award winning actor and director widely known for her role as Lorraine McFly in the “Back to the Future” movie trilogy, was born in Rochester in 1961.

Her grandmother Reva Thompson owned and operated the Starlite Motel, formerly at the 1900 block of Broadway Avenue South. Thompson, her four older siblings, Barry, Andrew, Shannon and Colleen lived at the motel along with their parents.

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“My grandma was awfully nice to take us all in,” said Thompson, who now lives in California.

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The family later moved to a home in Southwest Rochester and later to Minneapolis when Thompson was in grade school. However, the motel remained a central place for the family until Thompson’s grandmother sold it in the late 1970s.

People checking into the hotel would stop by the front desk, which was in the front part of the home where Reva lived.

“The people who walked in, it was like they were walking into a living room,” Thompson recalled.

Even after the family had their own home, they gathered for Sunday meals at the Starlite and to watch the Wonderful World of Disney, Thompson said.

“We didn’t have a TV,” Thompson said.

In 2012, the motel was demolished to clear space for a Kwik Trip and car wash.

The news came as a disappointment, she said.

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Lea Thompson.jpg
Lea Thompson

“It really should have become a boutique motel,” Thompson mused, noting that the mid-century modern aesthetic of the motel became a chic look around the time it was demolished.

Thompson recalled the motel was made of thick cinder blocks.

“It must’ve been tough to knock down,” she said.

Thompson recalled her grandmother keeping a flower garden at the motel, the mid-century decor, the lighted sign along what was U.S. Highway 63.

“It was so beautiful and cool,” she said.

Her mom had one of the motel rooms to herself to use as an art studio, she recalled.

Thompson said some details elude her because she was young when she lived in Rochester and joked that her profession requisitioned her memory.

“I think I dedicated it to remembering lines,” she said. “That’s where I use my memory.”

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Thompson's older sister, Shannon Katona, recalled details about the hotel and memories around it.

“There were 17 units,” Katona said. “My favorite was number eight,” she said. “Whenever we had a slumber party or us kids would stay over, that’s where we would stay.”

Room 3 was where the kids’ mom set up an art studio. Her work was used to decorate the other rooms, Katona said.

Katona was about 4 years old when her family moved into the motel and recalls being lonely while her older brothers and sister were in school during the day. She remembers following around a maintenance worker and handyman named Cy in hopes he would share dessert from the lunch his wife packed him every day.

Starlite Motel.jpg
In 2012, the 17-room Starlite Motel at at 1921 S. Broadway was purchased from Ash Patel and demolished by the adjacent Kwik Trip C-store to make room to build a carwash. It was built by Howard and Edna Welch in 1954. Its claim to fame was that movie and TV actress Lea Thompson once lived there with her four older siblings.
Post Bulletin file photo

When Katona was older, she helped her grandmother Reva bake cookies for guests, delivered newspapers to the occupied rooms and helped her grandmother with other chores and cleaning.

“I still fold towels the way she taught me to so they would fit on the racks in the motel bathrooms,” Katona said.

Katona said Reva had finished three years of school toward a college degree from the University of Wisconsin before she got married and later moved to Minnesota. After Reva’s husband had a stroke, the couple moved to Rochester. They traded their house in Minneapolis for the motel to have a source of income and an opportunity to care for him as he rehabilitated and recovered.

“It was also her chance to shine and put what she had learned and her business knowledge to use,” Katona said.

In 1976, Reva was shot in the chest during an attempted robbery at the motel.

According to a Feb. 2, 1976 Post Bulletin report, Reva and a staff member, Pauline Sowa, were shot when two men attempted to rob the hotel.

Katona said her grandmother recounted the men demanding money.

“She looked at them and thought, they’re going to shoot me no matter what,” Katona said.

Reva was shot in her chest, Sowa was struck in her face after the bullet deflected from her hand.

“They both came very close to being killed,” Katona said.

Katona’s parents ran the motel while Reva recovered, she said.

Lea Thompson said her family still remarks on how they learned of the shooting from radio reports. With the demolition of the Starlite in September 2012, a big part of her Rochester memories are gone, she said. Thompson added she was glad to learn the corn water tower has been preserved.

Thompson said she is currently working on a television series concept called Starlite. Although the title was inspired by the old motel, that’s about where the inspiration ends.

“It’s not about a motel,” she said.

John Molseed joined the Post Bulletin in 2018. He covers arts, culture, entertainment, nature and other fun stories he's surprised he gets paid to cover. When he's not writing articles about Southeast Minnesota artists and musicians, he's either picking banjo, brewing beer, biking or looking for other hobbies that begin with the letter "b." Readers can reach John at 507-285-7713 or jmolseed@postbulletin.com.
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