Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 1, No. 1, 1987
Australian Film in the 1950s
Edited by Tom O'Regan

Movies under the stars: drive-ins and modernity

John Richardson

Editor's Note

In an issue principally concerned with Australian films it is appropriate that some consideration should be given to the exhibition of films - and, in particular, to the change in cinema exhibition in Australia that occurred in the 1950s with the arrival of the drive-in. What follows is a short article which addresses the discourse of the drive-in in the late 1950s as represented in newspaper stories and ads. Its focus is upon the drive-in's arrival to the most isolated capital city in Australia - Perth, Western Australia. A history of the drive-ins as cultural phenomena, as popular memory, as cultural form is yet to be written. This piece by John Richardson works to reveal the first, powerful, moment of the drive-in in the 1950s - a moment in which the drive-in functioned as a veritable index of modernity. Since their Australian inception in the 1950s the "drives" have been an important part of the social experience of the cinema: not only did they offset the decline in hard-top cinemas in the 1950s and 1960s but they became. for many people, their experience of cinema. The "drives" have been particularly important in regional and northern Australia and those "hotter" metropolitan capitals so based upon the suburbs: Perth and Brisbane. I, for one, first saw and heard Woodstock at a drive-in. It was the sort of movie that came to that particular Rockhampton, central Queensland, drive-in. This article suggests the need to recover those other, later, moments of the "drives".


Through the October of 1955 while Menzies and Evatt argued about "the Petrov affair", the residents of Perth were debating a far more important issue the opening of West Australia's first drive-in theatre, the Highway of Bentley. Drive-ins were not a new concept, they had made their American debut back in 1933 and by 1955 they were already well established in Victoria; here in WA they were an instant success with both the Highway and the Skyline (which opened one month later in Floreat) playing to packed houses. In 1957 Perth's fifth drive-in, the Metro of Innaloo, opened with considerable fanfare. Three hundred members of parliament, civic leaders, heads of commerce and of industry were invited to the gala opening and, appropriately enough, the screening of High Society.

Drive-ins had arrived in style, in less than two years they reached a combined capacity of 6000 cars, more than doubling the city's cinema accommodation. 3 Although drive-in managers reported that "the first wild enthusiasm of unhooking the speaker had slowed" they were nevertheless full on Friday and Saturday nights with two thirds to half capacity houses during the week, no mean achievement at the standard two sessions per night.

Who were the drive-in patrons of the 50s? According to The West Australian2 they were: "Parents with young children", and the Highway stressed that "motion picture programs will be selected from the most outstanding features of the year and no film will be screened which is unsuitable for children", rather, programs were selected for their "family interest". Also they were - "invalids or old people who do not like climbing stairs; young people who wanted to swim, play tennis or golf until a late hour, then have a leisurely dinner and go to the 9.30 session instead of racing to be ready by 8.00; people who did not want to go straight home after a cocktail or dinner party"; or finally "the wife whose husband tries to get out of taking her to the pictures with the excuse that he is wearing his dirty garden clothes and has no time to change".

Once at the drive-in "the man in his dirty garden clothes" could expect much more than a mere motion picture programme. A trip to "the drives" meant a variety of dining options, the patron could select from restaurant, BBQ or snack bar facilities, then, while the kids romped in the fully equipped playground under the watchful eye of the staff matron, the adults could, if they chose, engage in "that very popular Eastern States sport - crazy golf". 3

The emphasis throughout was on creature comfort. The drive-in's well drilled staff of between twenty and thirty; car hops, marshals, guides, waiters, chefs, children's nurses and mechanics were there to minister to the patron's slightest whim. Diners could remain in the comfort of their car if they so desired, car to car waiters could be summoned by activating a flashing red light on the speaker pole. In the event of rain, car hops were on hand to treat wind-screens with a water repellent solution which prevented the adhesion of raindrops. Attendants were on the look out for dirty screens at all times. A fully equipped "nappy station" was provided, with nappy washing and drying nooks and facilities for heating baby foods to the optimum temperatures. Patrons were, of course, free to smoke at will.

There was no need for formality at "the drives"; slacks, open necked shirts and, for the kids, PJ's were the order of the day. The most formally dressed people were likely to be the attendants themselves, outfitted by Cecil Gould or Boans of Perth in hand-tailored uniforms which, for the convenience of the patrons, were coded according to their function. The Highway car marshals, for instance, were "smart in tailored white drill sports shirts and trousers, with navy blue berets, polka dot ties and belts". 4

All of this points towards the secret of "the drives" remarkable success during those heady days of the fifties. What I would like to suggest is that the drive-in, with its twin imperatives of consumption and creature comfort, entered the public imagination as a signifier of modernity. I would contend that the drive-in prefigured and overlapped with television as modernity's "quintessential image". 5

It may well be argued that in Western countries as a whole, capitalist over-production, with its demands on the consumption of an excess of labour saving devices, created a popular fetish for creature comfort. But here in Western Australia, this had, as Hartley and O'Regan point out, been one feature of our life style for many decades. 6 What the drive-in did was to take on board the American stylistic features which provided a "vocabulary" for the modernist "comfort culture" which was already a part of the Western Australian scene.

The very fibres from which the drive-in was constructed spoke the language of modernity: "The Highway drive-in has installed a most modern fluorescent sign... this uses, for the first time in Western Australia, a new type of white lighting recently developed in the United States." 7 "A modern neon sign obviates any necessity to disfigure the highway with advertising matter which is not in keeping with the surroundings." 8 "The screen is 116 ft x 51 ft and made of asbestos cement sheeting painted with special Poly-vinyl acetate paint." 9 "Formica has been used extensively in the decorative scheme." 10 "The(restaurant) floor is paved with gay vinyl tiles." 11" There is a modern tiled kitchen fitted with stainless steel work surfaces and all-electric equipment." 12

In keeping with the laws of consumption, modernity came to be measured in terms of sheer quantity. Drive-ins had: "no less than 10 miles of (termite resistant) low tension PVC cable" 13, "14 inch mirrors using 120 amps in each arc" 14, "25 gallon plated water boilers" 15 "the largest operating box in the state". 16

Screens were huge, enormous or gigantic, they soared into the sky, they were "the biggest in the Southern hemisphere", one of the two biggest in Australia" or merely "the biggest in Western Australia". Their footings (incidentally) "took no less than 240 tons of reinforced concrete to complete". "Nearly 20,000 tons of fill plus 8,000 tons of gravel and about 3,000 tons of blue metal were needed... as it was essential that each motor car, no matter where positioned upon the ramps, should give its passengers a full view of the screen without any necessity to sit uncomfortably or to crane their necks." 17

Perth drive-in patrons would, of course, be expected to travel the ten or so miles from home in the family car, a V8 Customline, or at the very least, an FJ with bench seats, but for those who still clung to the old imperialist ideology, the Hillman Minx or Morris 1000. The "U-Drive-U" car hire ad was pointedly juxtaposed with the Starline promo in the pages of The West. The preoccupation of all Australians with the sanctity of the car and its unique delineation of personal space complemented the drive-ins' appeal to instincts of modernity. As The West Australian proudly announced in August 1955: "within a few weeks West Australian motorists will be able to enjoy films from the comfort and seclusion of their cars." 18

As competition with Perth's garden cinemas intensified, ownership of an appropriate style of car, or indeed any car at all, became less of a pre-requisite for viewing pleasure, both the small car owner and the walk-in local could avail themselves of one of the hundred or more deck chairs positioned around the projection box. The drive-in, now poised for a rapid expansion into country towns, was the "end of the road" for both the garden cinema and most of the suburban hard tops.

The drive-in was not adversely affected by the introduction of TV in 1959- indeed its popularity grew throughout the 1960s. But with changes in car design making it difficult to watch from the back seat; with the advent of colour TV in the mid-1970s; with the rise in property values of now centrally located sites; with increases in ambient light and noise; city drive-ins went into decline. A decline that was exacerbated by the advent of video and its extensive library structure. Video has put city and country drive-ins alike under severe pressure - time will tell whether or not they can rise to this new challenge of modernity.

Notes

  1. In 1954 Perth's hard top accommodation stood at approximately 13,000 seats (see Jack Honniball "Cinemas 1896-1985" in T. O'Regan & B. Shoesmith The Moving Image (Perth: History and Film Association of Australia, WA, 1985).

  2. "Drive-ins are Big Business" The West Australian 28/4157.

  3. "Perth's First Drive-in Opens in Bentley Park Tonight" in The West Australian 24/10/55.

  4. "The Highway has Modern Equipment" in The West Australian 24/10/55.

  5. See J. Hartley and T. O'Regan "Quoting Science not Sideboards" in The Moving Image 1985, p.68

  6. Ibid. p.63.

  7. "The Highway has Modern Equipment".

  8. Ibid.

  9. The West Australian 18/4/57.

  10. "The Highway has Modern Equipment".

  11. "Dress Circle View for Eating Fans" in The West Australian 18/4/57.

  12. Ibid.

  13. "The Highway has Modem Equipment".

  14. Ibid.

  15. "Congratulations from S.W. Hart & Co. Pty. Ltd." in The West Australian

  16. "The Highway has Modern Equipment".

  17. "The Highway is Planned and Built on a Grand Scale" in The West Australian

  18. "Car Theatre Opens Soon" in The West Australian, 18/8/55.


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