BY: JASON TOGYER
source: TribLive.com

Moths were banging their heads against the porch light on a steamy summer night as Gary Salada fumbled with his key ring. He found the right key, inserted it into the lock and turned the knob.

‘This is a year-and-a-half of my life in here,’ Salada said, flipping the light switch on.

About a half-mile from the Pennsylvania Turnpike exit, across the street from Burger King and Long John Silver’s, Salada has re-created a little bit of a Pocono Mountains resort inside Rooms 49 and 50 at the Penn-Irwin Motel.

Real knotty-pine paneling graces the walls; antique 1940s furniture serves the guests. At the center of the room sits a heart-shaped Jacuzzi. Salada began demolition of Room 49 in January 1999, started in Room 50 that November, and opened the new double room for occupancy in November 2000.

‘I hadn’t done any carpentry except with my dad, when I was 15 or 16 years old, and that was 30 years ago,’ he said.

Surely the original owners of the Penn-Irwin didn’t envision this decor when they built the motor lodge in June 1946. The Macauley family, which also owned the Royal Plaza and Penn State motels across the street, was capitalizing on the rush of travelers – newly liberated from wartime gasoline and tire rationing – who exited the turnpike’s western end at Irwin.

They also didn’t count on Salada and his wife, Deb, who live on the North Huntingdon Township property and see it less as a motel than a bed-and-breakfast – sans breakfast, of course.

‘I’ve got a house with 16 bedrooms and 16 bathrooms, that’s all,’ Deb Salada said.

The office, which bears the Penn-Irwin’s landmark pink neon sign, doubles as the couple’s living room and the stomping ground for their cats, Velvet and Ralph. They live in an efficiency apartment above the motel; out back, Deb Salada tends a flower garden and hangs wash up to dry.

Some of those flowers – mums, lilies, peonies, Sweet William – end up in bud vases in the rooms.

With its semi-secluded location, high above Route 30 and screened from the road by pine trees, it almost could be a resort in the Poconos.

Except for the tract houses in Irwin visible from the motel’s back yard.

There are cheaper motels along the turnpike, but few as well-kept. And though small motels have had a bad rep since before Alfred Hitchcock asked Janet Leigh to take a shower, the Saladas take pride in running a clean operation.

A scrapbook in the office preserves the evidence, in the form of letters sent to the motel in recent years:

‘Excellent housekeeping,’ one couple wrote.

‘Thank you for a wonderful setting for our perfect wedding night,’ wrote a newlywed couple, who also thanked the Saladas ‘for the bubble bath!’

‘The towels could not have been folded more carefully if they were done by a machine,’ wrote another guest in an e-mail to a Tribune-Review reporter. ‘Run by a friendly couple, talkative and very informative. We will definitely be back!’

Both Deb and Gary Salada recently completed the North Huntingdon Township citizen’s police academy, where a few participants teased them about their occupation.

‘I told them, the last time the cops were up here, we caught a bad guy,’ Gary said. The crook had robbed Hills Department Store across Route 30 and escaped into Tinkers Run Creek. Salada spotted the dripping-wet thief making a call at the pay telephone, and called police.

Part of the Penn-Irwin’s clean record over the past 15 years comes from the couple’s no-nonsense demeanor. Gary Salada is not above confronting guests over their behavior. Deb Salada has refused to rent to people who planned to use their room as Party Central.

The Saladas also have priced the motel to discourage what they delicately call ‘the afternoon delight trade.’

‘It saves a lot of wear-and-tear on the rooms,’ Gary said.

It was a strange road to motel proprietorship. Before purchasing the business, Gary Salada, who has a master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh, was a teacher with 18 years of service in Pittsburgh Public Schools; while Deb Salada owned a successful beauty parlor in the Monroeville Medical Arts Building.

Yet both were miserable.

‘On my list of things I wanted to do, teaching school was about No. 1,000,000,’ said Gary, who was frustrated by the bureaucracy.

Brainstorming possible business ideas, they checked out travel agencies, mailbox rentals and apartment buildings before deciding to look for a motel.

And they looked at some real dumps – Gary grits his teeth at the memory – before discovering the Penn-Irwin, then owned by local businessman Herbert ‘Buzzy’ Mayer.

Knowing the Saladas weren’t flush with cash, he offered to sell them the business, but lease the land to them for 10 years. Mayer also agreed to hold the mortgage. He even stuck around for two weeks to show them the ropes after the Saladas took ownership in June 1985.

Dealing with the public wasn’t much of a change, said Deb, who put her experience running the beauty parlor to work at the motel. ‘There isn’t anything like dealing with women and their hair,’ she said. ‘Ninety-nine percent of the time, I enjoy this. The majority of the people are nice.’

Still, they learned some things.

‘The way we thought this would work was, I would keep teaching, and she would quit cutting hair and run this,’ Gary said. Instead, there was enough housekeeping and maintenance around the motel to keep him busy full time. Deb Salada kept running the beauty parlor until three years ago.

The first year, business ‘was bang-up super good until Labor Day,’ Gary said. That’s how they discovered that small-town motels are a cyclical business – and a magnet for hard-luck cases.

‘We lost money because we fell for all of the stories,’ Deb said.

Once, when a fair was in town, an Irish carnival worker took a room at the Penn-Irwin. When it came time to settle the bill, he claimed not to have any money.

‘He could speak really good American English, but when he wanted to, he would put the brogue on real heavy,’ Deb said. ‘He’s giving me a real sad story.’

The Saladas asked for his passport as collateral. The carnie found the money.

Another guest who claimed poverty – a musician – offered his trumpet in trade until he made enough money to pay for his room. The Saladas held it until a maid, unaware of the arrangement, gave it back to the jazzman. He wasn’t seen again.

One older gentleman suffered a heart attack in his room and was rushed to the hospital, near death. That was the last time the Saladas heard from him until he appeared in the office two years later.

‘I’m still alive!’ he said, with a big grin. ‘I didn’t die!’

Then there was the time – in a driving rainstorm on a Friday afternoon – that a gray late-model Cadillac pulled under the canopy. A burly man came into the office.

‘I need to rent a room for about 10 minutes,’ the man said. ‘My cell phone won’t work in a thunderstorm, and I have to call (radio host) Mark Madden to do an interview.’

There aren’t any phones in our rooms, Gary told former Hall of Fame Steeler Jack Ham, but you can use ours instead. The interview complete, Ham offered the couple $50 for their trouble, then went outside and found his keys were locked in the Cadillac.

The Saladas called a locksmith in North Versailles, ‘but he was hemming and hawing because he didn’t want to go out on a Friday afternoon during rush hour,’ Gary said. ‘So Deb said, OK, but it’s Jack Ham.

‘He made it here in nine minutes,’ he said.

Gary Salada keeps a ‘pig file’ under the check-in desk listing the names and license numbers of guests who damaged rooms or stole towels or linens. Rarely does a persona non grata slip past.

‘This guy stole a pillow the last time he was here,’ he said, pointing to one name. ‘He got by me this year.’ The ‘pig’ had been issued a new license tag by the state, and Salada didn’t recognize the number.

The new trend among guests is to ask to see the rooms, where they test the shower, the toilet and the tub, and pull the sheets off the beds. ‘People expect a lot more from a privately run place than they do out of a big chain,’ Gary said.

Then, with the explanation that they need ‘to think about it,’ they promise ‘we’ll be back,’ but rarely return.

‘They don’t want to hurt our feelings,’ Deb said. ‘Or, they want a discount’ – for senior citizens or motor-club members – ‘and they won’t stay because we don’t give one.’

Not everyone is charmed by the Penn-Irwin’s old-fashioned decor, she said. Some guests, raised on the bland sameness of Motel 6 and Red Roof Inn, balk when confronted by the Penn-Irwin’s folksy wall-hangings and down comforters.

‘We’ve had people not stay here because of the knotty pine,’ Deb said. ‘They want white walls.’

Travelers from Europe and Australia are the most accepting of the motel’s idiosyncrasies, Gary said.

‘They like the charm,’ Deb said. ‘It’s more of a country atmosphere.’

The couple’s friends and family were initially wary of their plans to run a motel, she said. ‘My mother said, don’t do it, wait for a better time,’ Deb said.

Seeing how happy the pair is, they’ve accepted the decision, Gary said. ‘I think my father actually approves of this more than when I was a teacher,’ he said. ‘He didn’t have much respect for teachers.’

The Saladas are no fools. They own a stretch of prime commercial real estate on the busiest highway in Westmoreland County. ‘If the right offer came along, I’d sell in a minute,’ Gary said.

But what’s the right offer• He’s not saying. Maybe because Gary and Deb Salada are content for the first time in their lives.

‘If the right offer doesn’t come along, I’d be happy to die here,’ he said.