Buddy and Paula Herron are hoping to win one of the digital projectors that will be given away by Honda. Stephen Igo photo.
NORTON — Tucked away in a secluded, scenic valley about halfway between Norton and Appalachia is the setting of a classic blast from the past, one of the last remaining vestiges of another era: the Central Drive-In Theater.
Once common across the U.S. landscape, these iconic slices of yesteryear enjoyed a peak in popularity in the 1950s and ‘60s, accounting for fully a quarter of the nation’s movie screens. Since then the drive-in industry, largely a mom-and-pop kind of business, has been under a relentless assault from a variety of factors, including color television, real estate economics, VCRs and video rentals and DVDs.
There are only 380-plus drive-in movie theaters left in all of America, and the Central is one of only eight remaining in Virginia.
“They eventually lapsed into a quasi-novelty status with the remaining handful catering to a generally nostalgic audience,” reads Wikipedia’s take on the history of drive-ins, “though many drive-ins continue to successfully operate in some areas.”
Started in 1952 by the Kiser family of Wise County and now in the midst of its 61st season, the Central has always been proud to serve one of those areas. But now a new threat looms over the drive-in industry: the digital age.
Drive-ins must convert to digital projectors before next year or else because Hollywood has gone digital, at least when it comes to distributing its products to indoor and outdoor theaters. At a cost of roughly $80,000 for digital, theater-worthy projection equipment, mom-and-pop drive-ins face conversion or closure.
For Buddy and Paula Herron, and doubtless most other remaining drive-in theater operators, the cost is daunting. However, there is a chance, a way for fans of the Central to ensure it will still be showing movies next summer.
Honda, the automaker with an apparent affinity for drive-in movie theaters, has launched Project Drive-In to equip at least five of the nation’s remaining drive-in theaters with free digital projection equipment.
Honda’s footing the bill for the lucky five and is collecting donations to help even more, but it doesn’t cost a dime to try and help the Central.
The Herrons are hoping the Central is one of the five lucky winners. To be one of those five, patrons and/or fans must cast online votes for their favorite drive-in (projectdrivein.com).
Buddy and Paula bought the Central in 2005 from Jeff Kiser following the death of his mother, Agnes Kiser Lay, the Kiser family’s much loved drive-in darling who operated the Central for many if not most of those years since it opened in 1952.
The couple also opened the Cinema City indoor multiplex in Norton in 2008, but the Herrons’ first love is the Central. They love it so much their home is right next to the theater grounds and did, in fact, come with the place, being a former Kiser abode as well.
“Our boys are 12 and 9, and the Central is the ultimate playground for them,” said Paula, But for their parents, it’s even much more besides. “This is their heritage. This, when they grow up, is going to be theirs.”
Since acquiring the Central, the Herrons have already made substantial investments to the drive-in, including a game room next to the giant screen at the entrance to the drive-in. Besides the prospect of seeking a loan for around $80,000 for digital projection equipment, Buddy figures another $20,000 or so would be needed to modify the original projection building as well as provide buried conduit.
An added investment of around $100,000 is going to be a serious challenge. To be one of the five lucky winners of Honda’s Project Drive-In, Buddy said, “would be a godsend,” and the couple is pleading with all their Wise County and regional patrons and fans to go to the Project Drive-In website and vote, and vote often.
“You can vote every day on every device and every browser on that device,” said Paula. “You can also text a vote. The contest goes through Sept. 9, so we’re begging everyone we know to get the word out and vote, vote, vote!”
“We hope we won’t have to close. We don’t think we will, not if we can help it. But the contest is dire,” Buddy said.
“If we don’t win (the Honda contest), to stay open — if we could even stay open — we would have to raise prices, and we don’t want to do that. This has always been a place for affordable family entertainment, and we want to keep it as affordable as possible. So if everybody can help us win, it’s a win-win for everybody. Where else can you spend $6 and get four to five hours of entertainment? Kids are $3 and kids under 4 are free. We always have double features, and sometimes we have triple features.”
For the Herrons, it’s not just about the bottom line, though. They know they are caretakers of a family legacy when it comes to the Central. Buddy, a 1986 graduate of Appalachia High School, grew up in the coal camp community of Dunbar and spent loads of summery nights at the Central.
“I believe in the history and (the Kiser family) owned it, so they will always be a part of it. They are the history of it and built the legacy,” Paula said.
“Just the fact we can have and take care of something that is truly Americana iconic is not something you can find in any town or on any corner. Something that’s been open as long as this has, with the heritage this has, is something to pass on to your children and to keep for your community.”
She reached out and up with one arm and motioned toward the heavily forested mountains all around.
“Just look around,” she said. “You are just in awe some days because this place truly is a piece of heaven here on earth. We have been blessed. Who wouldn’t want to save this?”
Even the old 35mm projector that has been on duty and displayed countless films over the last 61 years will be saved if Paula Herron has a say. And, she does.
“This projector is not just going to go away. It’s been here since 1952, and it’s not going to wind up on some trash heap,” she said. “I can’t imagine a piece like this going into storage forever or for junk. It’s not junk. It’s a classic! It’s every bit as classic as this drive-in itself.”
Should the Herrons manage to get a new digital projector, — and winning one thanks to the votes cast by the Central’s fans and patrons would be a dream come true — Paula’s plan is to install and display the old projector at the couple’s Cinema City multiplex in Norton.
Families have enjoyed the Central’s spacious 400-car capacity accommodations over the years, and Paula said that’s how she and Buddy have come to regard their patrons.
“Meeting all the customers on a regular basis is just a wonderful part of operating not just any drive-in, but this drive-in,” she said. “You see ’em so much they’re like family. They become your family, almost. Heck, they are family. There’s just something about this place, you know? And it deserves to be here.”