Remembering Australia’s Drive-ins

Metro-Twin drive-in in the Sydney suburb of Chullora in 1956. MAAS Collection, 2007/191/1-2/7/2.
Metro-Twin drive-in patrons in the Sydney suburb of Chullora, 1956, MAAS Collection 2007/191/1-2/7/1

Open-air cinemas are popping up all around Sydney as our famed summer weather rolls on. An earlier form of open-air cinema, the drive-in theatre, originally became popular in the 1950s as car ownership in Australia soared.

Aerial view of the Metro-Twin drive-in at Clayton, Victoria, in 1957. MAAS Collection, 2007/191/1-2/7/6.
Aerial view of the Metro-Twin drive-in at Clayton, Victoria, 1957, MAAS Collection, 2007/191/1-2/7/6

Australia’s first drive-in
Australia’s first drive-in was the Skyline which opened in the Melbourne suburb of Burwood on 18 February 1954 showing the musical comedy On the Riviera staring Danny Kaye. On the first night there was traffic chaos as 2,000 cars competed for the 600 spaces. After paying at the entrance you drove into the parking area and pulled up next to one of the many posts in rows all over the site. This post housed a pair of speakers with volume control which you’d attach to your car window.

Not so romantic during the daytime, the Chullora drive-in in about 1956. Image Phil Ward Studios, Sydney. MAAS Collection, 2007/191/1-2/7/4.
The Chullora drive-in – not so romantic during the daytime, photograph by Phil Ward Studios, Sydney, about 1956, MAAS Collection, 2007/191/1-2/7/4

Based on the drive-ins from the USA, families were encouraged to come early at 6.30 pm for a meal at the American-style snack bar complete with a juke box and let the kids loose in the playground in front of the big screen before the films started.

Speaker from the Twilight drive-in at Shepparton in Victoria. MAAS Collection, 98/125/1-1/1/12.
Speaker from the Twilight drive-in at Shepparton, Victoria, MAAS Collection, 98/125/1-1/1/12

At the Burwood Skyline you could order hot dogs, hamburgers, soft drinks and lollies just by pushing a button on the post. It lit up to alert an attendant to take your order and was delivered to your car from the snack bar by boys on bicycles. If rain threatened to spoil the evening, the car’s windscreen was coated with glycerine to stop raindrops from sticking to the glass. On cold misty nights the drive-in provided portable braziers around the site to clear away the fog.

Metro Dine-inn at the Metro-Twin drive-in, Chullora, in 1956. MAAS Collection, 2007/191/1-2/7/2.
Metro-Twin dine-inn at the Metro-Twin drive-in, Chullora, 1956, MAAS Collection, 2007/191/1-2/7/2

A team of mechanics or ‘car hops’ were on hand to help cars with mechanical problems to leave at the end of the night, especially those whose batteries might’ve gone flat. The Burwood Skyline’s policy was to admit all vehicles on wheels including motorcycles, utes, vans or even horses and carts but not patrons on bicycles or scooters.

Not everyone loved the new drive-in. Local residents at Burwood wanted to take up a petition against it complaining about the ‘raucous noise and traffic congestion’.

Sydney’s drive-ins
During the 1950s, drive-in theatres began popping up all over Sydney. 60 years ago two Skyline drive-ins opened at the suburbs of Frenchs Forest and Dundas. The El Rancho drive-in at Fairfield opened a year later in 1957 with a Wild West theme complete with a chuck wagon for quick service meals, a ‘kiddies korral’ and brightly-costumed cowboys and cowgirls directing cars and providing service to patrons. By the mid-1960s Sydney also had Skylines at Bass Hill, Caringbah and North Ryde, a Metro-Twin at Chullora and the Star at Matraville.

Drive-ins were especially popular with courting couples and those on first dates, providing much more privacy that the cinema. For families it was a fairly inexpensive night out. The kids would come out in their pyjamas and would pile into the back seat on a mountain of pillows and blankets while parents didn’t have to go to the effort of dressing up. Cars full of teenagers would smuggle in a few extra friends for free by hiding them in the boot.

In 1956 some of the patrons still wore ties and gloves on that special date to the drive-in at Chullora. MAAS Collection detail, 2007/191/1-2/7/2.
In 1956 some of the patrons still wore ties and gloves on that special date to the drive-in at Chullora, MAAS Collection, 2007/191/1-2/7/2

Why did the drive-ins close?
Drive-ins were at their most popular in Australia during the 1950s and 1960s and it’s believed, at their peak, there were around 330 of them. By the 1970s colour TV and later videos saw the popularity of drive-ins wane. This may have been accentuated by the oil crisis and the introduction of daylight saving which meant the drive-in had to start too late for most families. Finally, the large expanse of land they occupied became too valuable and was sold off for car parks, shopping centres, housing estates and apartments.

In 2016 there are only about a dozen drive-ins left in Australia with the largest one being the Luna at Dandenong in Victoria. It’s the oldest still in operation and now has four screens. Gone are the old speakers on posts. Movie soundtracks are delivered to your car by FM transmitters. Sydney’s last drive-in is the Skyline at Blacktown which underwent a makeover in 2013 with a new sound system and a 1950s-style diner. It’s said this venue is popular with both the young, who enjoy its novelty – especially the deckchairs in the ‘gold grass’ area in front of the big screen for walk-ins – and the old who love it for its nostalgia.

Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator

B Byrne, Australia Remember When, NewSouth Publishers, 2015, p.106-7
Its comfort lies in all the things you can do, The Argus, Melbourne, 17 February 1954, p.10
Journo Jack, Give drive-ins another go, North Shore Times, 11 December 2015, p.16

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9 responses to “Remembering Australia’s Drive-ins

  • Dear Margaret,
    Thank you for publishing photos of particularly the Chullora Metro-Twin Drive in. The daylight photo of the drive-in screen was “Field One” with the screen’s back facing the Hume Highway. Behind the fence, under the screen, cars would enter the drive-in via Waterloo Rd. “Field Two”‘s screen was facing Norfolk Road.

    If you observe the two cartoon characters on top of the dine-in’s exhaust fans, they are the characters “Jerry” (tall character) and “Nibbles” (small character) from the MGM “Tom and Jerry” cartoon “The Two Musketeers” (1952) , ref “Tom and Jerry’s Greatest Chases, Volume 3”, DVD ASIN no B002DY9KRU. The two characters from the cartoon and featured on the exhaust fan’s cover help themselves to a banquet. In the cartoon, Tom failing to capture and apprehend Jerry and Nibbles met his demise.

    There is an advertorial/article from the SMH of the 23-10-1956, page 7 about the forthcoming inauguration of the drive-in by the Premier of NSW, The Hon. JJ Cahill. Each field could accommodate 620 cars and each screen was 115 feet by 49 feet giving it an aspect ratio of 2.20:1. Interestingly, according to the article the screen was made of asbestos sheeting. One can speculate how the screen’s asbestos material was handled when the screens were assembled during construction and how they were dismantled during its demolition in 1979.

    I went to school in the Strathfield area. In July 1979, our school had a walkathon . Part of the walkathon’s route was to walk along the Hume Highway. As I looked to my left in the direction towards Brunker Rd, I could see the large sign “Metro Twin Drive In” (you should put a photo of the sign up, it was very tall) and the lettering below, “This theatre is closed”. In the middle of “Field 1” you could see a very large bonfire. The screen’s asbestos sheeting was in the process of being removed. You could gradually see that the screen’s tower was nothing but a skeleton of steel tubing. Referring to the photo of “Field One”, the speaker posts and concrete bases were all piled up to the right of the screen for many years until the high school was constructed.

    I live in Belfield and as a child, I could see “Field One”‘s screen from my parents’ house in Belfield.

    Hope you find that interesting,
    Anthony P, LLB(UNSW) of Belfield

  • Hello Margaret, I am researching costume for a biopic on Paul Hogan. Do you have any reference on the uniforms staff wore? Paul’s wife, Noelene worked at Chullora Drive-in during the 1960s. Any leads you could give me would be gratefully received. Thank you, Jean Marashlian

  • Brought back wonderful memories for two newly arrived Poms to NSW.Australia in 1969.
    Caringbah was our local drive in,what excitement on our very first night drive in experience.

  • I remember we lived down the the back and used to climb up on the garage roof and watched silent movies or we would sneak in

  • .. Chullora drive in was my favourite because of the big double brick cafe building with outdoor seating and speakers so you could sit and watch either film while you ate or just hung out there .. I also loved the playground under the screen .. I was 10 when it closed and remember it sat derelict for a couple of years before big W opened on the site .. I still believe it should have been preserved through a heritage listing .. I’ve never seen a double brick snack bar / projection room anywhere else as grand as that one ..

  • I was living in Ermington in the 40’s and 50’s behind where the shopping centre now is on Betty Cuthbert Ave. I can remember seeing the Dundas Drive-In being built. You could clearly see the screen from our front verandah and I have fond memories of sitting ot there with friends and young relatives, watching the movie and trying to make out what the actors were saying. I was a member of the Dundas D/I “Birthday Club and each year the members would get free admission on their birthday and have their name announced before the movie started. Very thrilling!!

  • Just For Trivia.

    For a period of time, circa 1978 – 1982, I use to work at NORTH RYDE Drive-In as a Projectionist. So, So, long ago.

    At that time, circa 1978 – 1982

    Consolidated General Manager: Mr John Merrin
    NORTH RYDE
    Drive In Manager: Mr Bill Bailie
    Relief Manager: Mr Ray Hedges
    Projectionist: Max Weinert.
    2nd Projectionist: Dave Healey
    Assistant Projectionist: Greg McCulkin ME
    Snackbar Manager: Mrs Norma Williams.

    I still miss the the Drive In. 35 years later.

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