Driving to distraction
WHEN the American concept of the drive-in theatre hit our shores 65 years ago, punters didn’t need much persuading to pile into their cars and “take the highways to the Highway”.
On October 24, 1955, traffic jammed the streets as people flocked to Bentley for a first look at what was pitched as Perth’s newest and friendliest entertainment centre.
Allowing customers to “dress as you please” while enjoying “first-class family entertainment under the stars”, the Highway drive-in proved a much bigger drawcard than the screening of Cecil B DeMille’s drama The Greatest Show on Earth on opening night.
Launched by the late John Pye, who went on to build the Ace entertainment and hospitality group, it was planned and constructed on a grand scale.
Across a 6ha site backing on to Albany Highway that was readied using almost 31,000 tonnes of materials, it featured a towering 13m-high 15m-wide outdoor movie screen on 240-tonne concrete footings (it had to withstand the stormiest nights, after all), a projection booth, and 650 viewing ramps and stands with speaker boxes, along with 16km of cable.
There were also 500 bays to hold vehicles attending the second nightly session, a kids’ playground, mini golf course, cafeteria and as many as 30 uniformed staff, including car marshals, cashiers, car hops and children’s attendants.
City of Canning heritage officer Geoff Moor said the area was all dairy farms and small rural holdings when the Highway kicked off 22 years after the earliest US version.
“It was a whole new venture and on land that was originally part of the Liddlelow dairy farm,” he said.
“Today we think nothing of going somewhere that
has burgers and chips, but cafeteria-style dining was a new experience too.
“The Highway was an instant hit and took over from the old open-air picture theatres, causing the Melody and Queens Park Gardens to close.”
The Highway’s success sparked a drive-in craze that swept across Perth, fuelled by growing car ownership and our love of the great outdoors, not to mention a sheer lack of places to go after dark.
A further eight theatres — the Skyline in Floreat, Lakeway in Swanbourne, Metro in Innaloo and Melway in Melville to name a few — sprung up before the end of the decade and another nine dotted the suburbs during the ’60s.
The format of the “drives” was simple: A news reel or cartoon followed by coming attractions, the B film, an interval to stock up on snacks then the main movie, with car-side service available at the touch of a speaker stand button.
It wasn’t just the big-screen action but the patrons who made them fun; drivers smuggling in passengers by the boot load, pyjama-clad kids mucking around on rear seats, courting couples canoodling behind fogged windows, vehicle lights flashing at rude scenes and many movie-goers getting lost making the long dark trek back from the loo.
Mr Moor said people would park outside the grounds to watch shows despite having no sound, and midnight horror films on long weekends were quite a big thing.
Apart from rowdy groups sitting on bonnets, flat batteries and drivers leaving with speakers still attached to car windows, there was generally no trouble.
“There were also no noise complaints because the sound was contained to your car,” Mr Moor said.
“The only one I know that had big loud speakers behind the screen was the Panorama in Roleystone and they reckon on a clear night you could hear the movies down in Kelmscott quite clearly.”
Five drive-ins were built during the 1970s and the Aceway in Morley started up in the 1980s as the rise of colour television, home video, suburban cinema complexes and other entertainment venues had an impact.
Increasing land prices also made it attractive for owners to sell.
The Highway closed its gates for the last time on June 19, 1994, and is today the site of a housing estate.
It left only the Galaxy Drive-in Theatre standing in the metro area, where the tradition has been kept alive by the Basso family since its launch on November 1, 1973.
After part of the carpark was subdivided and sold to a developer during the mid-1990s, it now spans 15,500sqm in Kingsley, has a 200-vehicle capacity, one screen and plays a mix of new and classic movies four nights a week.
It was converted to digital projection just over 12 years ago, making speaker boxes a thing of the past after being replaced by an audio signal to the car radio.
Galaxy operations manager Kymberly Hambley said the theatre occasionally fills during summer, with mainly families in the crowd.
“These days, people just sit at a screen, and I know we’re a screen, but it’s a bit different when you’re in a car as you can enjoy each other’s company,” she said.
“We’re seeing more and more customers coming in with tents that can be attached securely to 4WD roof racks and watching the film from inside their tents or even on mattresses in the back of their utes,” she said.
Mrs Hambley said the screening of action film The Fast and the Furious was one of the most popular, while patrons cheering at the end of musical drama The Greatest Showman was a rare sight.
“We’d love for people to come down and experience the joy of spending quality time with family and friends in a relaxing environment under the stars,” she said.
Left: The area was all dairy farms and small rural holdings when the Highway kicked off. Above: A snack bar attendant provides car-side service to theatre patrons.
(Top): An evening under the stars at the Galaxy Drive-in Theatre back in 1994, and (above) an advertisement in The West Australian promoting the Galaxy Drive-in Theatre’s opening on November 1, 1973.