Pandemic presents new opportunities for Mount Airy’s Earle Theatre

Buckley Report

MOUNT AIRY, N.C. — If parts of rural America are struggling, maybe they should look to their past. That’s what Mt. Airy has been successfully doing for decades.

The town welcomes the nickname, “Mayberry,” since much of its economy is based on being the hometown of Andy Griffith. Right there on Main Street, you can see the “Mayberry Souvenirs,” store and a replica of Andy and Barney’s sheriff’s cruiser, complete with a life-sized photo of the Andy Griffith Show characters in it.

But downtown needed more so in 1990, when the Surry Arts Council had a chance to take over the historic Earle Theatre, they know that had a gem.

“This is a very, very important part of Surry County history,” Arts Council Executive Director Tanya Jones said.

It was once the town theater – typical of its era, built in 1937 – one screen, a balcony. But, as multiplexes became the rage in the 1980s and on, the theater needed a new purpose. Now it has one as something of a Swiss Army knife of buildings. They have a heritage center there that keeps alive the memory of what they call around here, “Old Time Music.” That’s the kind of fiddle-based music played by legends like Tommy Jarrell and Benton Flippen, whose bigger-than-life photos adorn the walls of the theater.

But, there’s more.

“We’ve been opened since the early ‘90s as a movie theater and we still have folks go, ‘Do you show real movies, in there?’” Jones said.

They sure do. When the pandemic shut down all the multiplexes, that opened the door for The Earle to show first-run movies like Wonder Woman 1984 and News of the World.

All of this put together has made the Earle relevant again.

“It very much helped downtown to become a tourist destination,” Jones said. “Through the pandemic, ‘re’ has been the word. We have reassessed, we have rethought things.”

See the Earle Theatre in this edition of the Buckley Report.

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