The Central opened in 1952, Buddy Herron said, and survived a fallen projection screen in 1977 to keep running every year until he and his wife bought it and an indoor theater in Coeburn in 2005. While moving the indoor operation to Norton, the Herrons wanted to keep the Central going as the spring-summer-fall destination it has been for five decades.
“I asked my attorney to talk with the Commonwealth’s Attorney about whether we could keep the Central open after the governor’s emergency declaration,” Buddy Herron said. “We knew we couldn’t keep Cinema City open because of the 10-person limit and social distancing, but the Central is out in the open, cars can park several feet apart and people could stay in their cars.”
Wise County and Norton Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp III found himself holding the area’s cinematic future in his legal hands.
“My initial reaction was, it’s a theater and the governor had ordered theaters closed,” Slemp said. “But I looked at how moviegoers could self-isolate, and I reached out to experts in Richmond. Because people going there were capable of self-isolating in their cars in groups of less than 10, it looked like they were in compliance with the ban against gatherings of more than ten people and with social distancing.”
The Herrons opened on Thursday night, and visitors noticed some things had changed from previous seasons at the Central.
“We had to close the concession stand, so no cheeseburgers, popcorn or apple sticks,” Paula Herron said. “But we have asked people to support their local restaurants by ordering pickup there and bringing it to the Central.”
If a group comes in two cars, they can park next to each other, Buddy Herron said, but they are still limited to 10 or fewer in the group.
Paula Herron said people who are concerned about human contact at the ticket booth can pay via PayPal information at the Central’s Facebook page - www.facebook.com/centraldrivein/ — where they can receive a passcode and just tell it to the attendant. Other posts on the page have information about restroom use and other safety procedures for visitors.
Buddy Herron, who grew up in the Dunbar community a few miles away and spent much of his childhood and teens watching movies at the Central, said going to the movies is still important to people.
“There’s only so much you can watch on cable,” he said. “People just have to get out of the house sometimes and this is a safe way to do it. We’ve got digital projection now, and the picture and sound quality is great.”
“There’s been a resurgence of drive-ins because of the coronavirus,” Paula Herron said.