The life and times of Australia's Baby Boomer generation

Icons: Drive-In Theatres

In Australia, drive-in theatres were very much a Baby Boomers phenomenon, though the concept had its origins in the US long gefore the Baby Boomer era began. The drive-in theatre was the creation of US chemical company magnate Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr., whose family owned a chemical plant in Camden, New Jersey. In 1932, Hollingshead conducted outdoor theatre tests in his driveway at 212 Thomas Avenue in Camden. After nailing a screen to trees in his backyard, he set a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car and put a radio behind the screen, testing different sound levels with his car windows down and up. Blocks under vehicles in the driveway enabled him to determine the optimum size and spacing of ramps so all automobiles could have a clear view of the screen.

Hollingshead's drive-in opened in New Jersey 6th June 1933. It only operated for three years, but during that time the concept caught on in other states and quickly spread to other countries.

After a visit to the US in the early 1950s Hoyts’ southern division manager, George Griffith Jnr, believed that drive-in theatres would be successful in Australia. The three major ingredients required for successful drive-ins were plentiful land, good weather and high car ownership; Australia now possessed all three with car ownership growing rapidly in the 1950s. Hoyts and Fox however did not share Griffith’s enthusiasm for the establishment of a drive-in theatre, so Griffith subsequently formed a syndicate and the group decided on a site in the Melbourne suburb of Burwood located on the Burwood Hwy in a natural valley for Australia's first drive-in theatre. The area mostly consisted of paddocks, but new housing was spreading throughout the area rapidly.

Construction proceeded through the latter half of 1953 from plans drawn up by AC Leith Bartlett & Partners in conjunction with RCA Australia. On 18th February 1954 the Skyline Burwood opened to the public after a preview screening to an invited audience of “The Conquest Of Everest” the night before. The opening film was Danny Kaye and Gene Tierney in “On the Riviera”, a three year old film from Fox.
The skeptics were proved wrong on that very first night. Traffic jams were caused in both directions along Burwood Hwy. The drive-in’s entrance remained blocked for hours, not just on this first night, but for years afterwards. The 652 car positions within the theatre became the hottest tickets in town. A simple stick figure known as the Skyline man or Skyline Sam welcomed patrons at the ticket box, in newspaper ads, general advertising and in the black and white instructional film run at Burwood. This little 60 second film showed customers how to attach the speaker to their car and how to operate it.

The Drive-In theatre at Port Denison, WA, (above) is still operational

It wasn't long before drive-in theatre screens began dotting the landscape all over Australia. One of the reasons that drive-ins were originally so popular with families is that it allowed the entire family to go to the movies and not have to hire a baby-sitter or worry that their children would disrupt the entire audience. This became a modern pastime; now the entire family for a per-person cost, the same as a sit down theatre, could come and enjoy a movie in the privacy of their own vehicles, children and all.
In the 1960s, teenagers began to afford their own cars and the drive-in theatre audience began to shift from just families to carloads of teens. The influx of teen movie watchers gave drive-ins a reputation as immoral, and they were labelled "passion pits" in the media. By the 1970s, the drive-in was almost exclusively the domain of young people, and the movies screened were often low-budget horror and thrillers.
The Buggles' hit says that video killed the radio star, but in actual fact it was the drive-in theatre that video killed. Unlike their Baby Boomer counterparts, teens of the 1980s began going to the video shop instead of the drive-in theatre. By the turn of the century, most drive-ins had closed down, and those that survived did so for their novelty or nostalgic value only.

The era of the drive-in theatre in Australia is well documented at an Australian website.
Click to go there.

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Baby Boomer Central is published by Australia On CD. © Stephen Yarrow, 2010.