Opened: Friday May 4 1956
Location: 115 South Gippsland Hwy, Dandenong, Victoria
Operator: Lunar Drive-in Theatre Dandenong Pty Ltd
Closed: 1984 Re-opened 19 September 2002
The Lunar Dandenong drive-in is Australia’s largest drive-in theatre and second oldest still in operation. All four screens operate 7 nights per week. For details on what’s showing now go to the Lunar Drive-in Theatre website www.lunardrive-in.com.au
For more on its fascinating history, read on………..
One night in 1954 builder (and horse trainer) Jim Houlahan received a call from friend, and well known bookie, Jack Corry. He said he was coming to meet him that evening in North Rd. When he arrived Jack told him, “We’re going to the pictures”. Jim replied that he did not feel like watching pictures and Jack said, “Don’t worry, you won’t be!” They then proceeded to the brand new Skyline Burwood drive-in theatre. Once there Jack explained that he wanted Jim to provide him with a price to build a drive-in. They wished to construct a new drive-in theatre in Rosamond Rd, Maribyrnong.
Jim wandered around the new drive-in and whilst the families watched the images on the giant screen towering above them, he took notes and measurements. Soon he had covered all areas of the theatre with the exception of the women’s toilets. Several attempts to go inside were thwarted with women coming in and interrupting him. He finally told a lady, who was on her way in, that he was from the health department and needed to know details of the toilets including the number of stalls, hand basins, etc. The woman gave an excellent description and armed with this information, Jim was now able to provide a quote to Jack to build a drive-in. Surprised when presented with the quote Jack asked if Jim was certain he could build the drive-in for this amount. Jim rechecked his figures and said, yes he could indeed build it for the sum provided. Jack explained that he had had a previous quote and that Jim’s quote was substantially less and that he and his brother Kevin had the job. J and K Houlahan constructed all buildings at the new Sunset Drive-in theatre, including the screen and ramps and were able to make a profit in doing so.
Jim was approached shortly after the opening of the Maribyrnong Sunset by a syndicate of Dandenong businessmen including Frank James and Kevin Donnelly, a land owner and grazier, who owned land on Cranbourne Rd, (now South Gippsland Hwy) Dandenong. He wanted to build a drive-in theatre on his property. Dandenong was in the grip of an industrial boom and consequently housing for the new workers and families was booming as well. The International Harvester truck plant had opened in 1952 on the corner of Princes Hwy and Cranbourne Rd (South Gippsland Hwy), General Motors – Holden were constructing a giant car assembly plant on Princes Hwy, and Standard Motor Cars, Heinz and others were all planning factories in the area. These plants were all close to the proposed drive-in site. Television was yet to commence and Melbourne was caught up in Olympic fever. (A set of coloured Olympic rings once hung on a wall at the drive-in until 2003.)
The 20 acre site lent itself to a drive-in in that it sloped gently down to the Dandenong Creek that formed the southern boundary of the site. It bordered Hallam Valley road on the Southern boundary. The slight fall assisted the drainage that is required to drain the ramps of water after rain and also helped with site-lines. The drive-in theatre was constructed by J and K Houlahan from plans drawn up by Baily and Tilley. Jim Houlahan gave instruction on most of the designs aided by the experience gained with the construction of the Sunset at Maribyrnong. Running from Cranbourne Rd was to be a 6 lane entry driveway leading up to the ticket box. Original capacity was to be for 400 cars however this was redesigned to accommodate 600 cars. The Panoramic was finally registered for a capacity of 634 cars at opening with a four lane entry, the registration being to J.J. Houlahan of 7 Stradbroke St, Oakleigh for Panoramic Drive-in Theatres. A large, illuminated Panoramic highway sign was constructed next to the entrance driveway. The buildings were all fibro cement sheet construction. A separate walk-in and steak bar/fish grill building was built away from the main snack bar.
The original screen was constructed of wooden poles and the surface covered with galvanized iron sheets. The surface area was 30 x 80 feet. The far south east corner of the drive-in consisted of a 130 ft x 110 ft effluent soakage area to assist the septic waste system installed. The projection installation was a typical RCA affair with Super Standard projectors in the projection room, which sat alongside the café kitchen. The Panoramic Dandenong opened on Friday May 4, 1956 with the action film Assignment Paris. This 1952 B & W thriller from Columbia was typical of the films screened in early independent drive-ins, which often struggled to obtain recent quality film product. The Panoramic ran films from Columbia, Paramount and Universal in this early period. The film was delivered by train to the Dandenong railway station where it was collected by the projectionist or assistant projectionist. Sessions consisted of either double features or feature and supporting short subjects including newsreel and cartoon. Manager Jim Carol, projectionist Graff Kossell and snack bar manager Jim Greenwell supervised proceedings in their respective areas.
The syndicate was new to the cinema game and whilst business was steady in the early days, they had nearby competition with the openning of the Village Dandenong North Drive-in on Stud Road when it opened 6 months later. A little further away was Skyline (Hoyts) Oakleigh and, from 1957, the giant Metro Twin at Clayton which both proved formidable opposition. The Panoramic had a loyal following especially from Cranbourne and the surrounding areas. Jim Greenwell, the snack bar manager, admitted his food prices were too low initially. On these early winter nights 44 gallon drums of coal were burnt on the ramps in an effort to keep away the fog and add some warmth. The walk-in located to the right front of the field featured seating for approx 40 people indoors. It consisted of large glass sliding doors and typical indoor theatre seating. Speakers relayed the sound to the patrons who arrived on bike, foot or caught the train or bus. The steak and fish grill kitchen and food serving window was located on the side of the walk-in as an alternative to the main café building. Tables and chairs sat on a patio area in front of the walk-in in the warmer months. Capacity was expanded to 725 cars around this time.
In 1961 a 1,330ft long Go Kart track was built beside the northern boundary for the Dandenong Go Kart Club. It was restricted to daylight hours use only and was surrounded by a 3ft high fence. A brick sound barrier wall was constructed between the track and ticket box. It was very popular and hosted Australian championship events. In 1963 Village Drive-in Theatres bought out the Panoramic drive-in from Kevin Donnelly and his partners. This resulted in a name change for the Village Dandenong Drive-in on Stud Road to Village Dande North, and finally Village Rowville to more correctly reflect its location. The Panoramic became the Village Dandenong Drive-in however the large Panoramic sign at the front of the theatre remained until it blew down. Jim Greenwell was appointed drive-in manager around this time and was offered accommodation in the house that sat on site alongside the driveway for his family. The Greenwell’s lived in this house, and the one that he built to replace it, for 20 years
Business improved once Village took over with their combined circuit strength, improved film product, marketing and operational abilities. The ramps were expanded further to fit 782 cars. Extension speakers could be attached along the rear boundary fence and cars would regularly park in these positions and on the go-kart track. The theatre filled to capacity on many Saturday nights and the cars lining up to gain admission regularly extended 1km to the railway crossing along Cranbourne Rd (Sth Gippsland Hwy). The drive-in snack bar was expanded in 1967 with the addition of an enlarged seating area at the front. The front wall was simply moved forwards and a new outdoor seating area added. The snack bar was converted to a self serve style. Decorative, circular patterned Besser brick replaced the fibro cement sheet construction on the exterior of the building. Popular films during this period were Paint Your Wagon and Mary Poppins filling the drive-in to capacity regularly. In 1973, a new steel screen measuring 88ft x 38 ft replaced the original wooden structure. Eight concrete pads were placed between the wooden poles as supports for the new steel tower. The screen was erected with little interruption and the wooden screen simply removed from behind.
During the 1970’s “R” certificate films became very popular and these were programmed along with many of the biggest blockbusters and genre favourites, comedies, Disney and westerns. Some of the popoular films that ran at Village dandenong Drive-in included: What’s Up Doc, Bullitt, Bonnie & Clyde, Once Upon A Time In The West, The Wild Angels, Count Yorga Vampire, Dirty Harry, Bedroom Mazurka, American Graffiti, The Getaway, Smokey & The Bandit, Grease, Superman The Movie, The Amittyville Horror, Flesh Gordon, Flying High, Cheech & Chongs Next Movie etc etc Long term staffers at Village Dandenong had become a family as had most staff members in drive-ins all over the world. Projection staff included Graf Cassal, Harry Glennie, Rex Trewin and Steve Buckingham.
The years of 1983 and 1984 were devastating to the cinema industry in Australia as the impact of the VCR took hold. It was doubly so for drive-ins as the value of their land had increased and the fun family days of the drive-in theatre began to wear off. Village made the decision not to proceed with the twinning of Dandenong partly because of their new alliance with Hoyts Drive-in Theatres and the continuing erosion of the drive-in business in general. The “R” rated double “Sweet Savage” plus “Terror Eyes” closed the drive-in on April 18, 1984 and summed up how the films and the patrons had changed over the years. Village immediately removed all equipment from the site and also removed the screen. The site was purchased by a company associated with Trash & Treasure Australia Pty Ltd, who had commenced operating a Sunday market on the site in the early 1970’s. The site continued to operate uneventfully as a market site over the ensuing years. After much planning and lengthy negotiations during the year 2000, planning approval was granted to Anthony Madigan and Matthew Kilderry to once again operate a drive-in theatre on the site.
The Lunar Drive-in opened on September 19, 2002. Two new, massive, steel screens were erected; Screen Two opened on that night with Screen 1 delayed for one week due to freak winds that made it impossible to mount the steel screen panels. The old snack bar was rebuilt as the Lunar Cafe, a brand new projection building was constructed and the entire site refreshed. The former “Village” illuminated highway sign was rebuilt within its frame to display a large “Lunar” sign and below that all films screening were displayed with movable Wagner letters. Solid media attention heralded the opening of Melbourne’s first new drive-in in 30 years. Opening films were “Austin Powers in Goldmember”, “Lilo and Stitch” and “Stuart Little 2”. David Kilderry joined the Lunar Drive-in in June 2003. Screen three opened on September 18, 2003 and in 2004 a third ticket box was added. In 2006 the gravel ramps for screens 1 and 3 were totally rebuilt and sealed. New entrance roads were also constructed. Projection equipment consisted of two Philips EL 4000 (DP70) Todd – AO 70/35mm projectors for Fields One and Three and a Century DAW2 projector for field Two. Lamphouses were Strong X 60 units running 5,000 watt xenon lamps and Philips/Kinoton platter systems supplied film to all projectors. FM transmitters broadcast the high quality FM stereo soundtrack to cars in each field. A fourth Screen was added in 2010 and utilized a Kinoton FP30 projector. Installation and technical works have been carried out Edge Digital Technology (then known as Atlab Image and Sound- formerly GUVT) and by experienced cinema and drive-in engineer Peter Ricketts.
The Lunar Drive-in Dandenong is one of the three drive-ins accessible to Melbourne; these are the only three drive-ins that remain operating in the state of Victoria. The last time Melbourne had three drive-ins was back in 1990. The Lunar runs first release films on all three screens consisting of both double feature and single feature family sessions. It is open seven days per week all year round. On most weekends, outside of daylight saving, up to twelve features are run each night. Total capacity is now around 900 cars. Screen 1 provides accommodation for over 330 cars with Screen 2 and 3 both around 230 car capacity with screen 4 handling just under 80 cars. The walk-in remains today in use as a maintenance shed and is perhaps one of only two surviving walk-ins in the country along with the original one at long closed Skyline Burwood, also used as a maintenance shed. The Go Kart track fell into disuse in the late 1970’s and was covered over with the rebuilding of the ramps for fields 2 and 3. The South Gippsland Hwy carries a large traffic load as one of the main Eastlink feeder roads, the new Dandenong Bypass road, ends just 400 metres from the Lunar Drive-in’s entrance. At the entrance is one of the oldest large neon pylon signs surviving in Melbourne. This 1960’s sign no longer has the VILLAGE letters across the top, but still flashes its colours every night and advises all the films screening at the drive-in with its original 1950’s American designed Wagner-Zip 3D letters.
The drive-in caters for audiences from across South-eastern Melbourne in vehicles ranging from motorbikes to buses and semi trailers. Car clubs are regular attendees and on two weekends each large car shows occur with classic movies screened. Patrons regularly drive for around 30 minutes to attend and tourists arrive from interstate and overseas on a weekly basis. The Lunar Café is under the supervision of experienced chef Matthew Kilderry, and it provides a full range or hamburgers, drinks, donuts, chips and popcorn. Many customers choose to sit outside their vehicles on deck chairs; others enjoy the seating outside the Lunar Café or one of the lawn areas under the screens. Business is steady through-out the year with the affordable family carload tickets providing the lowest priced cinema tickets in Melbourne. Dusk to dawn programmes were popular for many years and car shows also run throughout the year to enthusiastic audiences. Today the Lunar Drive-in Dandenong is the oldest operating drive-in theatre in Australia. Thanks to Jim Houlahan, Peter Ricketts, Jim and Tim Greenwell. Additional information: Public Records office and State Library Victoria
Joint managing Director of Lunar Drive-in, David Kilderry