The magic of an outdoor cinema

Watching films under the stars is a special experience.  Some people may remember watching films in one of the many drive-in cinemas that used to exist in city and country towns across Australia.

The first drive-in cinema in Australia opened in February 1954 in the Melbourne suburb of Burwood, with the second opening 10 months later in the Adelaide suburb of West Beach.

The first outdoor cinema at Woomera West

The first outdoor cinema at Woomera West, in 1948. This one was located outside the camp for the No. 2 Airfield Construction Company, RAAF, who were engaged in construction of the airfield for the rocket range. Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial P01984.002.

Long before the first drive-in cinemas were built however, Australia had a walk-in outdoor cinema – similar to a drive-in cinema but without the cars.  A walk-in cinema was built in Woomera by 1948 to provide entertainment for RAAF personnel who were building the new Woomera rocket range.  When Woomera village was in its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, watching films at the Woomera West outdoor cinema was very popular.  By this time there was a larger screen, and a larger building that housed the ticket booth, projection room, and a canteen.

Susan Gibbs spent her childhood in Woomera, and when I interviewed her she recalled the Woomera West outdoor cinema:

And then there was this other outdoor theatre that we called the walk-in, and that was out at Woomera West.  And it was just a high corrugated iron fence, around it.  It had a screen – a proper screen, movie screen, like a drive-in screen, big – and these big corrugated iron shutters would come across it.  And at the back, basically you walked in and there was a little kiosky thing.  There were some seats that were just like canvas beach chairs, I guess you would describe them, just canvasy sorts of seats and there were some benches at the back, I think.  But most – – –  most people with kids anyway – would take like a banana lounge, or some sort of outdoor chair and your sleeping bag and sit there watching the movie, or fall asleep watching the movie.  It was quite an event going to – – – . Everyone enjoyed the outdoor walk-in cinema.  It was a good thing to go to.”

Jo Adams also spent her teenage years in Woomera, and enjoyed the outdoor cinema.

The one at Woomera West was the outdoor one, and that’s where they had garden seats, and you had to take a pillow to sit on to see it.  And I remember seeing Lawrence of Arabia out there.  They had the highest number of soft drinks sold.  And it must have been 32 degrees that night (laughs).  And we were sitting watching this guy go across the desert.  Apparently they ran out of soft drink (laughs).  And you know the screen would be waving with the wind.  It was lovely.”

Taking the whole family

Joan Zajicek lived in Woomera with her two children, and remembers the experience of taking them to the outdoor cinema:

Yes, you use to get the children into pyjamas, and take our folding chairs that we were comfortable in.  And we’d go and find a place.  They used to provide chairs, but we could take our own.  And we thoroughly enjoyed it, you know, especially on a hot night.  Sometimes it used to be a bit windy and we had a bit of sand but it didn’t stop us.”

Do you remember watching films at Woomera West? Do you have a photo of the outdoor cinema? It would be wonderful to add one to this post!


Reference: Drive in cinemas in South Australia


Quotes from oral history interviews with Susan Gibbs, Jo Adams and Joan Zajicek undertaken as part of the Life in Woomera Oral History Project and used courtesy of the State Library of South Australia  and Susan Gibbs.

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