The drive-in theatre, and how it lost it’s allure

The restored Starlight drive in Cinema sign which has been returned to the Federal Highway.The Age – 10 September 2016 – Tony Wright

They are almost all gone now, those sprawling temples to  entertainment, passion and the supremacy of the car – gone beneath weeds on the edge of towns, turned into car parks, developed for apartments or overtaken by industrial estates.

They were simple places invested with magic in the night: neon at the entrance, flickering images on a huge screen, the scent of fried chicken and hot chips fuming from the kiosk, little kids in pyjamas swinging in the playground.

The restored Starlight drive in Cinema sign which has been returned to the Federal Highway.
The restored Starlight drive in Cinema sign which has been returned to the Federal Highway. Photo: Rohan Thomson

I was reminded of this lost period by a flyer that arrived during the week, announcing the Coburg Drive-in was welcoming spring with a food truck festival and a screening of the new Bridget Jones movie.

The drive-in!

The original sign at the old Starlight drive-in.
The original sign at the old Starlight drive-in.

There are but three such places left in Melbourne – at Coburg, Dandenong and down the peninsula at Dromana.

They need quite a lot more than fried chicken and chips in the kiosk to bring in the customers these days, it seems apparent. Food trucks with alluring hipster names like The Little Jeepney and Real Burgers and Fancy Hanks and Manny’s Doughnuts and Simply Vegan Buns and more await spring’s crop of outdoor theatre-goers in Coburg.

Alas, however, no drive-ins at all remain in the Victorian bush.

From the 1950s to the ’80s, every place with the halfway right to call itself a town had a drive-in lurking out there on the edge.
Danny Kaye in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Danny Kaye in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Young tearaways loaded three or four mates in the boot, smuggling them by the ticket-box to save a buck or two. Lotharios in panel vans took their dates for more than the blockbuster. Whole families in Holdens rolled in for a cheap evening out.

There is, surely, a PhD awaiting the thesis that links the beginning of the end of both the Australian-built motorcar and the country drive-in to the demise of the wide bench seat.

There are generations of us who can name the first movie we saw at a drive-in. Mine was The Secret World of Walter Mitty, starring Danny Kaye.

My father drove us in from the farm, and the hot chips and the playground and a bed of blankets on the bench seat were more exotically pleasurable to us than the movie.

It would be many years before I read the original James Thurber short story about Walter Mitty, a nobody who fired up his life with grandiose and wonderfully adventurous daydreams. I came to realise movies lent a lot of us from nowhere places the Mittyesque ability to transcend the everyday, and the vast setting of a drive-in gave the imagination room to move.

Time and social change would eventually put an end to all that. Young people who once had only a car for the business of making out started moving into their own apartments. Cinemas became more comfortable and satisfying environments in which to watch better-made films with high-tech sound. The arrival of video made the home a theatre. The car bench seat was abandoned. The drive-in died, and one day those old temples will be of interest only to archaeologists and social historians.

For me, though, the drive-in lost its allure decades ago, the night I got ants in my pants before the main feature began on a winter’s night in Canberra.

It is unwise to remain stationary in winter in Canberra, where, soon after daylight leaves the sky, the temperature begins its slide, often to a long way below zero.

The operators of the Starlight drive-in on what was then Canberra’s northern outskirts advertised proudly that theatre-goers needn’t fear turning into a block of ice at their drive-in.

They’d installed dinky fan-driven heaters that sat attached to the posts that also held the tinny speakers you needed to hang on your wind-up window if you wanted to hear the movie’s soundtrack.

You’d drive up to your chosen post, wind your window halfway down, sling the speaker and the heater and wind the window back up as far as it would go. This meant the speaker blasted into your ear, the heater’s fan clanked loudly, hot air blew all over your head and, should you wish to leave the car for what used to be called a comfort break, there was a good chance you’d find yourself entangled in cables.

Still, a drive-in with personal heaters – wonderfully exotic – seemed the height of urbanity in the early 1970s.

New to Canberra from the bush, lonely and seeking the sort of entertainment that had enlivened nights in my old home district, I drove in and hooked up to the Starlight’s sound and warming gadgets.

The attraction was a new horror movie called The Exorcist.

As I switched on the heater, horror blew in before the picture had even started.

A nest of ants had taken refuge from winter in the metal box.

The moment the little machine fired up, its fan whirling and its heating element sizzling, a hot gust of enraged ants pumped into my vehicle.

They hit me in the ear, the hair and the face and scurried at speed beneath my collar. As I flailed and yelped and squawked, reaching desperately for the door handle, falling out and getting tangled in cables, the ant army spread everywhere, nipping without mercy.

I can’t recall ever wanting to return to a drive-in after that. Nostalgia has its limits, even in a new world of hipster food vans.

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