AUSTRALIA’S largest and busiest drive-in, the Lunar Drive-in at Dandenong has not yet closed, as incorrectly stated in this article published in the The News, 16/1/2023. It has been sold for development, but will be open every night until at least later in 2023, according to drive-in directors Katherine and David Kilderry.
ONE of the Mornington Peninsula’s most recognisable assets, the Dromana 3 Drive-in, recently notched up 60 years of providing access to a world of cinematic adventure.
As part of the birthday celebrations, owner Paul Whitaker reflected on his 47-year connection to the drive-in, starting in 1975 when as a 14-year-old he stacked fridges, sneaking looks at the big screen.
At that stage Whitaker, whose family owned the drive-in and lived behind the property, foresaw his future in the industry, but not the turbulence that was to come over the next few decades that would almost force its closure.
Stacking fridges didn’t last long for the passionate film lover, and a burning desire to get “into the engine room” saw him obtain his assistant projectionist’s licence at just 16.
Since those early days of hands-on work and nurturing his love of movies and the big screen, the drive-in has become Whitaker’s own family’s passion, with his four now-adult children all having stints in the industry and one of his sons still in the film industry as a sound recordist.
Drive-ins came to Australia in the 1950s, and by the 1960s and 1970s were a common sight in the suburban landscape, further cemented in pop culture via American TV programs like Happy Days. The giant outdoor screens represented a less complicated era, where families could take a carload of kids to enjoy a night out for less than the cost of an indoor theatre ticket, and couples could canoodle away from prying eyes but under the respectable guise of being in a public space.
Whitaker says the drive-in experience is still unique, giving entire families the affordable opportunity to see the world while sitting under the stars. But as land prices rise and technology advances, drive-ins globally have been on the edge of extinction. By the time Whittaker took over from his father Frank in 1989, dozens of screens across the Melbourne area had already folded amid the pressures of dwindling patronage and high costs.
Knowing this, Whitaker has focussed on constantly re-tuning the business to meet consumer demand, bringing in a Disneyland-style diner with a commercial kitchen where food is cooked to order and delivered to cars and, over time, increasing the number of screens from one to four.
When COVID threw another spanner in the works, Whitaker accepted it as a challenge and developed a successful digital projection service to enable schools to show their end-of-year presentations.
“That has become very popular and we have had over 35 school graduations here, as well as screened school plays and even church group sessions,” he said. “We can fit 1500 to 2000 people in, so it’s a great way to get things seen by a lot of people.”
There were hard times during lockdown when the drive-in was banned from opening, which seemed ludicrous considering people were confined to their cars, but Whitaker says the community support was always there.
“We had a full house with the first re-opening when we screened the football game of St Kilda versus Hawthorn – even the police turned up to keep an eye on things and stayed to watch,” he said.
Now one of only two drive-ins left in Victoria, after Dandenong’s Luna Drive-in recently closed, Whitaker says he hopes the drive-in will always have a place in entertainment culture and is both “archaic and relevant”.
While he knows developers are always at the door, hoping to get their hands on the prime site in one of the peninsula’s most burgeoning locations, he says he has no plans to retire any time soon.
Posting on Facebook recently in response to a customer’s thank-you note, he wrote, “Operating a drive-in theatre is what we do, it’s a passion, not because we will become millionaires … we have given up ‘our’ family time to allow families of many generations to create the best memories”.
“Please come and support us so our lights continue to flicker in the night sky.”