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COVID In Appalachia: How Nostalgic Entertainment Thrived During The Pandemic

Courtesy of Tiger Drive-In
This photo shows an aerial view of the drive-in before the pandemic. This summer, cars had to remain 15 feet apart for COVID-19 restriction guidelines.

Businesses in Appalachia - like the rest of the country - have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. But some have found themselves uniquely suited to thrive over the last year. This week for BPR and Foxfire Museum's COVID-19 oral history project, we hear from a business owner who was able to carry on with a nostalgic outdoor entertainment that brought people together - safely - during the pandemic.

Tom Major, owner of Tiger Drive In Theater was interviewed by Foxfire Museum fellow and Rabun County high schooler Zain Harding in July 2020.

Learn how you can share your experiences during the pandemic with BPR & Foxfire’s oral history guide. The following is an edited excerpt of Major’s oral history. Click above to listen to BPR’s audio version. 

Zain Harding: For starters I want to thank you for your time today, for letting us have this interview. State your name and a little bit about yourself. That would be where we can start off and then we’ll go from there.

Tom Major: My name is Tom Major. I have some businesses in Tiger Georgia. I’ve got a drive-in movie theater and right next door I’ve got an assisted living facility. I’m a busy guy.  (Major runs CannonWood Village in Tiger. As of March 17th, the facility has reported zero resident COVID-19 cases and 1 staff case.)   

Zain Harding: Now could you tell us a little about the drive-in?

Credit Courtesy of Tom Major
Tom Major is the owner of Tiger Drive-In. He re-opened the business in 2004.

Tom Major: The drive in was built by my wife’s father in 1954 and they shut it down in 1984.  And in 2004 she said she wanted it back and I begged her not to do it and she said, “I want it back” and I said, “Sweetheart there are only 300 people that live here and that is not the highway anymore, there’s a new highway.” “I want my theater,”[she said.] So I had to build a theater. Didn’t know anything about the business, and that was 17 years ago. And they told me then, Mr. Major they will never work and, those are fightin words. It’s doing very well.

Zain Harding: Now, regarding the pandemic, how has it affected your operations of the drive-in? 

Tom Major: Well, a couple things. On one hand, we don’t get first run movies anymore because the studios are pushing them back to when, you know, Covid is over with and they can open up the real theaters.  There’s only 300 of us [drive-ins] and there’s thousands of regular theaters. 

And then we had to fight Covid regulations because we’re an outdoor theater. I had to get [Governor] Kemp’s Staff to agree that being an outdoor theater ­- even though real theaters had to be shut down - that we could be open. He agreed to do it about two months ago.

But agreeing to it was not as easy as agreeing to open it up. We normally hold 220 [cars] - with Covid regulations we hold 70. 

All of our staff wears masks and gloves. They don’t actually interact with the customers.  The people that come order food, they come out of the car comes to the window, they order their food and we call them when it’s done. They don’t actually come into the restaurant. 

And we have to go through all kinds of sanitation. Sanitizing the bathrooms and having all the products that you need. We put out markers to keep people six feet apart when they are standing in line for their food. So it’s a different feel. 

Overall because we are about the only thing that’s open for families to go to, we’re doing very well. We sell out almost every night.

Zain Harding: What kind of movies are you currently showing?

Tom Major: It’s kind of interesting. I went on my Facebook page and said, “Folks, can you think of some of your favorite movies? Please let me know what they are.” I had 8000 responses. People wanted us to show their most favorite movies. So going back as far as, “Dirty Dancing,” “Ghostbusters,” and “Ferris Buller’s Day Off.” Those are great movies to begin with, but our customers just want to be out. If I put the worst movie in the world I think they’d still come.

Zain Harding: Have you seen an increase or decrease in ticket sales?

Tom Major: That’s an interesting question because our food sales are way up, even though we are restricted to 70 or 80 cars instead of 200.  Because we sell out every night our overall ticket sales are -  compared to last year - it’s strong. It’s got to be close.  Plus our ability to do other things like concerts and dance recitals. I had the North Georgia Democratic Party want to get together and watch the returns on the Tuesday voting and I put it on the screen. I mean, so it’s more than just ticket sales.  We’re doing very well this year.

Zain Harding: Could you tell us a little bit about how the concerts have been doing?  

Tom Major: Typically, when we have a concert, like on Sunday we do the concert at 1:00 p.m. or 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon.  Then we turn around and allow people to come in and watch the movies at 6:30 p.m. So it’s a double dip.  We have our concert revenue earlier in the day and our movie revenue later on in the day.

Zain Harding: Well, I believe that’s all the questions that I have today. Is there anything that you would like to add regarding how your business has been affected?

Tom Major: No, I just feel like I’m a very fortunate guy.

Lilly Knoepp serves as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina. She is a native of Franklin, NC who returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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