The Burwood Skyline Drive-in (1954-1983)
When in lockdown, I consider my car part of my home. To me, the car is like a ship out on the high seas – the little bubble of territory that belongs to me, allows me to be technically outside, and I don’t have to wear a facemask.
I was thinking this today as I walked along the pretty path past the former location of the Burwood Skyline Drive-in on my two-hour-maximum-within-the-5-km-radius walk.
How awesome would it be right now if you could just drive in your car to the cinema and see a film on a really really big screen? The sound could be broadcast through the radio. You could bring take-away and wouldn’t even care when the car smells of pizza for the next three days because you are OUT OF THE HOUSE. Heck - everyone could come in their pyjamas! You wouldn’t even have to try and fit into your jeans! The kids could play in the playground when they got bored!
Wait a sec...
Premier Dan would never let us do that. Someone will probably get out of the car to go to the toilet and ruin it for everyone. However, there was a time just down the road and nearly 30 years ago now, that you could do exactly that.
The first Drive-in Australia
The Burwood Skyline Drive-in was the first drive-in in Australia. It was the brainchild of George Griffith Jnr, the Southern Division manager of Hoyts, the Melbourne-based film distributor. On a visit to the United States, Griffiths marvelled at how drive-in cinemas had sprung up to cash in on the sky-rocketing popularity of cars. These drive-ins were creating a mobile extension of the family living room. The informal nature of them was also contributing to a trend for less formal dress and behaviour in public.
When Griffiths returned from America, he formed a financial syndicate, found the site in Burwood, and commissioned a design from architects A C Leith Bartlett & Partners.
Construction began in 1953 and the Burwood Skyline Drive-in opened on 17 February 1954 with a screening of the Danny Kaye and Gene Tierney comedy-musical, ‘On the Riviera’.
An Instant Success
The Burwood Skyline Drive-in was an instant success.
The site was a natural amphitheatre and the carpark accommodated 652 cars. Each car parked next to a speaker that was fed in through the driver’s window.
The Skyline Drive-in was very family focused. A small shed-like building in the centre housed a diner. This gave mothers and wives a precious night off from cooking and, for the first few years, car-hops would take orders and deliver food to the cars. If Dad was too cheap for the diner, there were also barbecue facilities on the southern boundary. For the younger kids, there was a large playground in front of the screen. According to the author of the blog Drive-ins Downunder, the Skyline owner planted a row of cacti strategically near the screen to stop the kids from making shadow puppet animals in the projector’s light.
For local teenagers, it provided an opportunity to socialise with their friends away from their parents. When a boy decided to take liberties with his girlfriend within the confines of the car, she could storm off and then he could sit on the swings in the playground and sing a mournful song dedicated to her, like the boy pictured here.
The high quality of films of the 1950s and 1960s ensured the Skyline Drive-in’s continued prosperity. Popular films at Burwood included many of the early cinemascope offerings: Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, westerns, James Bond and, of course, The Sound Of Music.
Skyline Drive-in also hosted many film promotion events. A regular Western-themed night with a merry-go-round and pony-rides proved highly popular. The barbecue area was also decorated with cacti and wagon wheels.
The 1960s gave way to the blockbusters of the 1970s: Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Jaws ensuring the prosperity of the Drive-in for the decade.
At some point, Hoyts changed the Skyline to the ‘Hoyts Drive-ins’ and the Skyline Sam stick figure used in advertising began to disappear.
There were two sessions per night. In the early days, the absence of suitable pre-programme parking meant cars were banked up along Burwood Highway in both directions and down McComas Grove (original entrance pictured here today). The constant traffic created significant amounts of dust.
After a few years, in an attempt to deal with the dust problem, the Drive-in was expanded to accommodate 700 cars.
Hoyts also built a steakhouse and enlarged the snack bar to include a chicken and fish bar behind it. Walk-in patrons coming in on the Burwood Highway tram could be accommodated with undercover seating. And finally – my children’s ultimate dream - a miniature Mobil service station with a mini go-kart course.
Gradually, the suburban sprawl of Burwood began to encroach on the Skyline Drive-in. In an effort to accommodate the complaints of the new residents of McComas Grove behind the screen, they were provided with speakers to enjoy the audio of the films.
In the 1980s, changing demographics in the local area sounded the death knell of the Skyline Drive-in. Children grew up and moved away while parents still interested in films gravitated towards the peace and tranquillity of new cinema complexes.
The Burwood Skyline Drive-in closed on 22 June 1983 with around 100 cars watching a double feature of We of the Never Never and Local Hero.
The area today
Today, most of the site is now owned by Zinfra Construction Company. However, In honour of the Drive-in's significant role in the local social and cultural history of the area, Whitehorse Council created the Burwood Skyline Drive-in Playground on the remainder of the land.
Today you can still walk along the rise built to house the screen and get a sense of the expanse of the Drive-in. The original barbecue area is partially intact and still contains barbecues, although thankfully not from the 1950s.
The nearby Local History Park also pays homage to the Drive-In (as pictured here).
So next time you are walking the Gardiner’s Creek Trail between Highbury Road and Burwood Highway, have a look out for the site of the Burwood Skyline Drive-in and remember, there was a time when people could go out, have fun, and interact with each other.
That time will come again!