Opened: March 10 1955
Location: Old Dandenong Road Oakleigh
Screens: One, later two
Operator: Hoyts Skyline
The Skyline Oakleigh became the fourth drive-in in Victoria when it opened in 1955. After the enormous success of Burwood, even in the cooler months, Hoyts/Skyline quickly launched Preston and Oakleigh. Television was yet to be seen in Australia and these drive-ins were among the few new cinema constructions in 15 years.
Oakleigh was situated on a long narrow block as a freeway reservation cut through it, the front half of which was taken up with landscaped gardens. The huge Skyline sign featured illuminated 5 foot high letters, the white rock lined gardens below featured manicured shrubs. The buildings were very similar to those at Burwood, snack bar/projection, ticket box and Hub Hut (steak house); the site featured a much larger maintenance shed however. The screen was clad with marine ply (wood), this was a common treatment until flat steel or corrugated iron became more popular later. Screen area was 102 feet wide by 48 feet in height. Oakleigh was also the first Australian drive-in to have a black mask on the screen – at the bottom. This was common in the USA, but I suggest it was only employed at Oakleigh to have cinemascope width achieved without adding extra width (& cost) to the existing screen.
A railway was installed under the screen, the train was called the “Skyline Express” and of course the station was Oakleigh South. Next to this was the Chair-o-plane and slides and swings. The BBQ area encouraged families to select a steak and have it grilled to their liking in the Steak Wagon. This area was decorated to resemble the wild west with wagon wheels, kerosene lamps and even steer skulls nailed to the posts. Westerns were very popular at the time and the drive-in regularly held ranch nights where two westerns would screen and all the staff dress as cowboys and cowgirls!
The snack bar was classic 1950’s and sported checked vinyl floor plenty of chrome and a jukebox. The jukebox originally played 78’s but was later converted to play 45’s. The projection room had a viewing window so all the patrons could see the projectionist and assistant go about their duties. Hot and cold food vendors roamed the ramps with specially made carts.
Even with the success of the first three Skyline drive-ins Hoyts were cautious about expansion. Next was Broadmeadows, but then followed a break of almost 10 years until the aquisition of Coburg and Oakleigh and the building of Bulleen, Wantirna and Altona. In 1968 Oakleigh added ramps to bring capacity up to 791 cars (originally 635 cars). The verandah was enclosed in front of the snack bar and this area later housed pinball machines. In 1975 the screen was resurfaced with galvanised steel. The 1970’s brought Panel vans and Chargers to the ramps where Volkswagons and FJ Holdens once parked. Films like “The Seven Year Itch” gave way to “Vigilante Force” and “R” rated sex films. Families disappeared and the boom days were over.
Oakleigh was always a strong trading drive-in and while Burwood and Toorak were closing, a new drive-in was being built! The snack bar and projection box were completely demolished and replaced with a modern snack bar that was topped with a twin projection room. An extra field and screen were added at the front of the site and Oakleigh was brand new. Kinoton (Philips) FP20 projectors and xenons replaced the old Super Standards and carbons. This new projection room was a dream for those of us used to facilities 30 years old. The only negative was that the exhaust fans and water pipes for the snack bar and toilets below were so loud, you could not hear your show or even talk on the phone! In later years the front three ramps of field one had the speakers switched off, as a Jaguar had lost its exhaust system driving over the front ramp and sued the theatre! Sometimes a car would sit there half the night with no sound and not complain – I wonder what they were doing! Dusk-to-dawns dragged in large houses at Oakleigh as always at drive-ins, the last one I witnessed had “Hunt For Red October” in the line-up. I recall this print being so dark that the only thing I could make out were the white subtitles and Oakleigh had 5,000 watt xenon lamps!
Oakleigh’s trade continued very strongly right up until closure in 1990. Word was that in the last year of operation profit was around half a million dollars! The temptation for Hoyts to sell was too great, a disastrous share float and a market screaming for more multiplexes, forced the sale and realised over 5 million dollars. Today a retirement village and housing occupy the site after a few visits by a circus before the site was cleared. At the time, I did not appreciate my nights at Oakleigh in the projection room as anything really special, enjoyable work with good colleagues, but those days were gone before I realised and an era was over. Oakleigh was the last drive-in that Hoyts operated anywhere in the world.
Images here from the Curtis James collection, David Kilderry and Eric White.