February 1954 was a busy time. Recently crowned Queen Elizabeth, the first reigning monarch to visit our shores, had arrived in Australia, to a tumultuous reception.

Things were also getting hectic around Burwood and Warrigal Roads, for the opening of Australia’s first drive-in, the Burwood Skyline.

On 17 February an invited audience viewed the documentary Conquest of Everest. The next night the drive-in opened for the general public. A lucky 654 cars got in to watch Danny Kaye in On the Riviera.1

The gates opened at 6:30 and the film, with selected shorts, started at 7:30. The program was repeated at 9:45. 2,000 cars, more than 3 times the theatres capacity, had turned up, causing traffic chaos.

Plan of Skyline Drive In Burwood
Plan of Skyline Drive-In Burwood, Film Weekly, 25 February 1954, p15

Frank Walker in The Herald summed up the advantages of drive-ins:

You don’t have to dress up. You can wriggle and squirm without making everybody for 20 rows back wriggle and squirm. You can say nasty things to the actors without being glared at.  You can make your loud-speaker speak loud or whisper or shut up. You press a button and the peanuts-lollies-or-chocs man appears at your elbow. In short, you’re the boss.

Advertising for the Skyline Drive In
Newspaper advertisements for the Burwood Skyline Drive-In from the Herald, 18, 20, 27 February, 1954

The advertising reminded patrons to “Forget the babysitter – baby can sleep in comfort on the back seat of your car” (Herald 20 February 1954). Apparently there was even a bottle warming service for babies. And never mind the weather,

at the first sign of rain your car’s wind-screen will be coated with a special glycerine preparation to make raindrops run off the glass without blurring your view. Even a thick fog won’t mar the show. Heat from portable braziers standing inside the theatre’s fence will clear away all but the most dense “pea souper”. (Argus 17 February 1954)

Drive-ins started to appear in the United States during the 1930s. After World War 2, with higher car ownership and the post-war baby boom, the convenience of a drive-in for a cheap family night out meant big business.

In Australia, after the success of Burwood, drive-ins proliferated, offering a much different experience to an indoor theatre. For example, at Croydon Drive-In, opened in 1955, patrons could swim in the pool or cut a rug on the dance floor while waiting for the feature to start.

Skyline Drive In Preston
Site for LaTrobe [i.e. La Trobe] University, [1965]. Photo by Wolfgang Sievers. This work is in copyright; H2004.49/280. This is the Preston Drive-In, off Plenty Road and adjacent to Summerhill Road, Reservoir. Opened in late December 1954, it closed in 1984. Despite the image title it is actually south of La Trobe University.
Clayton Drive-In, 1961. Photo by Wolfgang Sievers. This work is in copyright; H2003.100/404. Corner Blackburn and Wellington Roads, opened 1957, closed 1984. 2

Drive-ins boomed right through to the 1970s but by the early 1980s most city drive-ins had closed. Land values meant that the 15-20 acres taken up by a drive-in that only operated of an evening seemed an extravagance.

Perhaps the most notable example was Toorak Drive-In, high on the hill at the corner of Toorak and Tooronga Roads, East Hawthorn, occupying prime real estate in one of Melbourne’s most affluent suburbs.3

Coles New World supermarket and carpark at Tooronga with the Toorak drive-in picture screen in the background (1968). This work is in copyright; 9939751973307636

You can still experience movies at the drive-in, with a few surviving the closures, at Coburg, Dromana and Dandenong.4

The informality and convenience of drive-ins – go out without leaving your car – were often outweighed by tinny sound, inclement weather, and traffic jams entering and leaving.

But the drive-in experience could also be uniquely memorable. A friend recalled his first viewing of Star Wars as a boy at Stawell Drive-In, where the ‘galaxy far far away’ merged into the endless starry night sky… and as a bonus the viewing coincided with a meteor shower. No indoor theatre could ever compete with a screen as big as the universe.

Playground at site of Burwood Skyline Drive In

United Energy now on Burwood Drive-In site, a sculpture of Drive-In is in the adjacent park
United Energy now occupy the majority of the site of Australia’s first drive-in at Burwood, but the drive-in is remembered in the adjacent children’s playground and the nearby park.


  1. ‘Ins and outs of Australia’s first big-scale drive-in Theatre’, Film Weekly, 25 February, 1954, p 15 – gives full details of the drive-in
  2. See the website Drive-Ins Downunder for a list of Drive-Ins in Victoria
  3. The site is currently occupied by Coles HQ and Tooronga Village
  4. As of writing, Dandenong Drive-In was being sold and likely not to continue as a drive-in. Which Car website lists 15 drive-ins still operating around Australia, Which Car, Hunt A & Hickey J, 2023, ‘Melbourne’s Lunar Drive-In Cinema to close in mid-2023, viewed 8 January 2023, <https://www.whichcar.com.au/news/melbourne-s-lunar-drive-in-set-to-close-following-sale>

This article has 1 comment

  1. Very interesting. I attended the Toorak Drive In to see “What’s up Doc” with Barbra Streisand and, earlier, Croydon Drive In to see Sean Connery in the first James Bond movie Dr No. Never went to Burwood Drive In; Bulleen was very popular however , being near Balwyn.The remains were still there not that long ago.

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