Nov. 27: Central Drive-In Theatre, Norton VA

It’s Day 331 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. After watching movies for five nights straight, I had a long drive before an evening off. It took me 4½ hours to drive from the Auto 25 Drive In in Greenwood SC to the Central Drive-In Theatre, a few miles west of Norton VA.

The Central opened in 1952 in the middle of Jefferson National Forest near Blackwood, a tiny coal town. The Theatre Catalog said its owners were H. Kiser and R. Lodge. The Motion Picture Almanacs listed only Russell Large. Was its first co-owner named Lodge or Large? (Actually, I just heard via the Central’s Facebook page that it was Large. Thanks!)

That’s the last we’ll hear of Russell Large, for the next half-century of the Central’s history is the Kiser family. The Kingsport Times-News wrote that “Buddy and Paula (Herron) 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.” They live in a house adjacent to the drive-in, which is also where the Kisers used to live.

In 2013, the Herrons turned to social media to try to win enough votes to win a free digital projector from Honda’s Project Drive-In contest. “We are a family-run business,” buddy told the Bristol Herald Courier. “We got into drive-ins because it was part of our childhood, part of something we thought would be a good, economical night out for a family. But if you talk about getting a loan for a digital projector and other equipment, a bank might look at you funny, and they’re not lending much these days.”

The Central was not one of the contest winners, yet they must have found a way to acquire a digital projector. Their subsequent GoFundMe page raised less than $7000, but somehow it worked out.

So the Herrons are the latest to run this little jewel, which holds probably fewer than 200 cars. The remote setting is great for reducing ambient light; it only comes from cars on the road and trains that pass across the street from the screen. And the stars, of course.

The Central also has a very nice arcade with a plethora of machines and good burgers at the concession stand. So they tell me. This evening was quite pleasant, but there was no way the Central was going to be open on the Monday after Thanksgiving. It closed for the season almost a month ago.

The embedded YouTube video of the day was uploaded earlier this year by Raven Aerial Imaging. It includes nice drone footage of the misty forest surrounding the Central, plus enough ground-level info to put it in perspective. For a news report from 2013 about the need for a digital projector, you might try this video.

Miles Today / Total: 259 / 38205 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 199

Nearby Restaurant: Who knew there were so many regional restaurant chains? In Norton, I was attracted by the name to visit Pal’s Sudden Service. The cuisine is fast-food basic, not that there’s anything wrong with that, with interesting extensions such as the grilled cheese sandwich on inverted buns. Add “frenchie” fries and a large iced tea, and by the end of the meal I felt like a local.

Where I Virtually Stayed: Norton is one of those towns where, according to TripAdvisor, the best hotel in town is a Super 8. Thank goodness that this again meant that the Super 8 was especially good. There was coffee in the lobby. My comfortable room had all the modern amenities. Breakfast was free and enough to get me back on the road. Best of all, the price was great.

Only in Norton: Just a half hour south of town is an amazing sight at Natural Tunnel State Park. The name gives it away; more than 850 feet long and as tall as a 10-story building, Natural Tunnel was naturally carved through a limestone ridge over thousands of years. William Jennings Bryan called it the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” They’ll be adding Christmas lights again this weekend.

Next stop: Twin City Drive-in, Bristol TN.

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