Sydney's sole surviving drive-in cinema reopens for business

words - Jeremy Bass
High-tech Happy Days: Blacktown Skyline drive-in presents a new take on how parents and grandparents once spent Friday and Saturday nights

This week marks a milestone in Sydney’s heritage development: the city’s last remaining drive-in cinema opens for business after a major makeover marrying old with new.

For those who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, it was never far to the nearest drive-in cinema. And it wasn’t hard to find them, with no fewer than 330 lighting up the surrounding night sky with their huge screens at some stage.

Australia’s first American-style drive-in opened in 1954 in the Melbourne suburb of Burwood, and some even say the concept was born here with evidence of patrons attending outdoor cinemas in West Australia in their cars as early as 1938.

In their heyday, drive-ins provided Friday and Saturday night entertainment for a diversity of social groups, from parents with pyjama-swathed kids to canoodling couples and carloads of noisy teens sneaking mates in inside the boot.

That’s the baby-boomer version. Mention a drive-in to an early gen-Xer and you’ll likely hear more tawdry tales of imbibing, losing virginity amid clouds of marijuana smoke and the like.

By the early 1980s, the drive-in’s popularity as family entertainment was on the wane, thanks in no small part to the advent of the VHS video player. Popular blockbusters gave way to B-“classics” and low-rent horror double bills.

By the turn of the century, the industry was all but dead as once-cheap land rose in value with rising demand for residential and commercial development. While there are many open-air theatres now operating around the nation, today only a dozen or so actual drive-ins survive.

Australia’s oldest continually operating traditional drive-in theatre in the Sydney suburb of Bass Hill closed its doors in 2007 – 50 years after it opened in 1957 – and was demolished the following year, leaving Australia’s largest city with just one drive-in.

Apart from a blow-up drive-in screen at Randwick Racecourse and proper drive-ins at Lightning Ridge and Tibooburra, there’s just one other in NSW -- the Heddon Greta two hours from Sydney on the edge of the Hunter Valley.

Melbourne has Coburg’s Village Triple Drive-in Theatre, the former Dandenong drive-in – Australia’s largest drive-in, with four screens -- and, an hour away, the National Trust-listed Dromana Twin Drive-In.

Queensland had more than 50 drive-ins at one stage and still has the Yatala drive-in south of Brisbane, the Tivoli near Ipswich, the Rodeo at Mareeba near Cairns and others at Charters Towers, Ayr and Jericho.

Perth has only one drive-in left, the Galaxy at Kingsley, but there up to eight others still going in rural areas out west. While Adelaide also has one – the Wallis Mainline at Gepps Cross – there are none left in the Tasmania, the NT or ACT.

Somehow, Blacktown’s Greater Union Skyline Drive-In slipped through the developers’ fingers and survived. From a corner of Sydney’s western suburbs, the faintest flicker lives on.

Now, after several years on death’s doorstep, its owner, Event Cinemas (the former Greater Union), has given the old twin a million-dollar refurbishment evoking the era when the drive-ins ruled Friday and Saturday nights.

“The Skyline Drive-In represents a distinct part of Sydney’s history,” said David Seargeant, the managing director of AHL Group, Event’s parent and the company behind the idea. AHL also runs the outdoor Moonlight Cinemas.

“Being Sydney’s only remaining drive-in, we saw a duty to preserve this part of history and develop it even further to create a truly unique and nostalgic experience for our cinema customers.”

What they’ve come up with is all the good bits of the old, with none of the shortcomings. The projection and screen technologies are state-of-the-art digital and conform to all the industry standards used by the major indoor cinemas, meaning Skyline is as ready for the latest blockbusters as any.

And the days of driving away with your ground-wired speaker still attached to your wing mirror remain a thing of the past, too. The audio signal comes via the FM band on your car radio.

For the hungry, Event has installed a new ‘Happy Days’-inspired 1950s diner serving all the old favourites including burgers, fries (round here, we call them chips) and hot-dogs and shakes in an atmosphere spiced up by memorabilia and period furniture imported from the States.

Event has said it will divide the facility’s twin screens between new releases and popular oldies. The Skyline Drive-In Blacktown opens tonight (Friday, October 25).

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Published : Friday, 25 October 2013
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