Rockbrat Remembers: Drive-Ins in Sydney & Canberra – From Skyline to Starlight

The Starlight in Canberra

Nostalgia is a funny thing. It can manifest itself in many ways. I often wonder what today’s generation will be nostalgic about in years to come. Their I- Pad or some other piece of technoligcal crap that they are viewed into. They live in a time when the best rock n roll has past, the classic TV shows and movies are also gone, the best actors are gone, and in my opinion, the halcyon days of sport (including both cricket and rugby league) have seen better days. Amongst other things, I fondly remember the days of pinball, milk bars and corner stores, and when rugby league was Sydney’s game alone – played in suburban grounds. Who are the rugby league ‘greats’ of today that today’s kids will lament? The overhyped mute that is SBW ? Ben Baba ? Fuifui Moi Moi ? Please. How can these compare with the Fulton’s, Randall’s, McCarthy’s, Langlangs, and Hamiltons (Hi Bear) of my era as a kid. They can’t – simple as that.

I worked with a guy in the late 80s whom I used to talk rock with. He loved The Who and Brit Invasion stuff. He used to point out to me, “It’s MY generation – not yours”. Though he did respect my willingness to soak up all he knew about rock n roll. He was nostalgic for it – he had lived through it – and it was his youth. I get that (though he also used to have a liking for Dr. Dimento as well).

Which brings me (in a roundabout kind of way) to today’s post – Nostalgia and Drive-In cinemas. Whilst I am not overly nostalgic about drive-ins, I was talking to someone the other day who shared many fond memories of going to the Starlight Drive-In in the late 70’s, and it kind of got me thinking about Drive Ins.

Before VHS and video rentals really took off in the early 80s, when people took the movie into their home – you had to go out to the movie – either to the cinema, or to the Drive-In. Growing up in Sydney in the 70’s, I have some memory of going to both the Skyline Drive-In at Frenchs Forest, and also the Warriewood Drive-In at Macpherson Street, Warriewood, where as kids we’d be told to lie under the blanket in the back of the car and keep quiet – to save my Father the cost of admission for us kids. I attended the site of Warriewood Drve-In in the mid 90’s for work – (a business was operating a nursery or plant growing operation on the site, and utilised the projector room as their office). From memory – the big screen as still there, and the car parks and speaker frames were also still intact. Nowadays ? Who knows, like everywhere else, apartments probably sit on these sites and there’s millions in property and land value – not an old parking lot site right.

The heyday of the Sydney drive-in was the ’60s to the early ’80s. Drive-In theatres experienced a surge in popularity during the 1950s and 1960s, particularly among young families and teenagers of driving age. The main drive-in theatre markets were in America, Canada and Australia, peaking from the 1950s till the 1970s. Australia’s first drive-in theatre opened in 1954 in Melbourne. When the Frenchs Forest site opened in 1956, it is believed that some locals turned up on horseback. Social changes certainly killed off the Drive-In – the arrival of colour television, home video and multiplexes, the popularity of smaller cars with bucket seats, stick shifts and head-rests, the introduction of random breath testing and more recently, the popularity of DVDs, downloading and home cinema. It all killed it off. Also contributing to the downturn was the demand for the land, especially for building shopping centres (Chullora), markets (Parklea) and medium-density housing (Dundas, Frenchs Forest and Matraville).

Warriewood Drive In – Still standing in 1995

The Starlight Drive-In Theatre Sign at Watson in the ACT is thought to be the only original drive-in theatre sign in Australia which still stands in its original location. The Starlight Drive-in Theatre was opened in Canberra in 1957 by George Kimlin, as the ACTs first Drive-in theatre. It was also one of the first drive-ins in Australia. The screen was claimed to be one of the largest in Australia at the time. In-car speakers for every car ensured that those parked at the back could hear just as well as those at the front. The Starlight Drive-in operated from 1956 till 1993. During these 37 years, the Drive-In saw over six million visitors. At one time, Australia had over 330

In 1982 Starlight Drive-In owner, George Kimlin of Canberra Enterprises Pty Ltd, stated that ‘while the video-film industry and cable television might threaten the theatre industry, patrons could still see two toplisting feature films for $4.75’ (The Canberra Times, 17 October 1982). With this in mind, Canberra Enterprises sought a $200,000 expansion program, including a second screen at the Starlight site. In 1987 the Starlight Drive-In was sold by Canberra Enterprises to IM and M Investments and was closed six years later in 1993. Residential apartments were built on the site, ready for occupation by 2003. The 1987 sale came about due to the lack of economic viability of the Drive-In after the advent of video and a variety of other entertainment media.

Canberra’s other Drive-In Theatre, the Sundown at Narrabundah, opened in 1969 and closed two years prior to the Starlight, in 1991 due to a lack of business. It’s now a caravan park. Despite the large-scale construction work undertaken on the Starlight site during the building of the apartments, the original sign was left in its original location. It was the first neon sign in Canberra, used to mark the entry to the Drive-In from the Federal Highway. In 2010 four drive-ins remained open in New South Wales, three in Victoria, six in Queensland, five in Western Australia, two in south Australia, and none in either Tasmania or the Northern Territory (Kilderry, 2010).

Many Sydney siders also remember the The Skyline in Bass Hill. This was the first drive-in theatre in New South Wales. It opened in November 1956, with a 724 car capacity and until it’s closure in September 2007 was Australia’s oldest continually operating drive-in theatre.

So whats the point of this piece ? Not sure – maybe Im just feeling nostalgic for a time when technology wasn’t so in your face – people used the public phone box, pinball was the game of choice, people bought records and listened to AM radio, Fonzie was cool, Life Savers still made Thirst flavour – and Graham Olling was the only rugby league player who had tatts!

Some of the context of this article is taken from here. By the way – there was a great doco that came out in 2006 about Drive-Ins called Drive In Movie Memories – check that out here

5 thoughts on “Rockbrat Remembers: Drive-Ins in Sydney & Canberra – From Skyline to Starlight

  1. Great read, however, being a Queenslander, just thought I’d remind you that before the boring Broncos, there was a very good Rugby League Competition in QLD, for which I remember fondly seeing the greats of the time playing in grand finals pre-broncos, fights in the outer at Lang Park (better than the corporatised Suncorp Stadium) and kids being allowed to run on the ground post the final whistle. I am sure you remember fondly your early years of watching Rugby league, but Rugby league is not Sydney’s own. It was brought to Australia from England, and the Sydney comp started in 1908, the very same year a breakaway comp called Rugby League started in Brisbane.
    I state the above with a wry smile, not to antagonise you as I thoroughly enjoyed your article and lament the very same things you do, but simply to say that Rugby League is followed just as fervently in QLD and for as long as those in NSW. Without the two states, the wouldn’t be as great as it is, or once was.
    Today as you point out, we have so many things to make our life easier, but our kids are getting lazier, they don’t know how to entertain themselves, are bored without a screen. Boredom in our day lead to imagination and creativity. Now it is greeted with a “Can I play the Xbox?” Aaagh..the good ole days.

    1. Thanks for your comment chew-bacca.I enjoyed your insight from a north of the border perspective. I remember being in Qld in the early 80s and checking out all the Brisbane team merchndise in the local stores – Past Brothers, Souths Magpies (home of Mal, Belcher and Jacko (RIP). Much in the way I recall subruban Sydney grounds, you no doubt share the same memory of Brisbane RL grounds. Agreed, it certainly was a fertile RL ground, even well before State of origin took hold in 1980. Cheers again.

  2. Thankyou Cowboy Col and Rockbrat.

    Enjoyed the article. Stumbled across it by browsing. I used to be a Projectionist for Greater Union from 1976 to 1985 in Sydney. Partly City Cinemas and mainly North Ryde Drive-In. Miss it of course. Hey, everybody I know is either Retired, Old or Deceased. Thankyou


  3. Hi mate I grew up in Canberra & I spent my youth in both drive ins. My love of Horror, Sci-Fi & Exploitation films was born there
    . The Sundown showed the really bad films that the Star light wouldn’t. Man From Deep River, Dawn of the Dead & The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. They also made the best fish & chips ever. When I die & go to heaven it will be the Sundown Drive In.

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