The shutting down of a drive-in theater is not usually newsworthy, but Coober Pedy’s drive-in is not your average one. Constructed by volunteers in 1965, it has become a gathering place for the isolated opal mining community, which was featured in popular movies such as The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. For many years, miners would arrive in their pickup trucks, still loaded with mining tools and explosives. However, due to the sale of alcohol at the drive-in, the owners were forced to prohibit patrons from bringing their own explosives.
Unfortunately, South Australia’s final drive-in theater has come to an end due to strong winds of up to 120km/h that swept through the town on November 15th. The powerful gusts caused severe damage to the screen, with over half of the panels and supporting structure being torn away.
The drive-in’s website expresses that we are devastated as a community.
In 1965, the Progress and Miners Association constructed the first drive-in with the assistance of volunteer workers. This was during a period when individuals such as my father were enticed to Coober Pedy in hopes of striking it rich in opal mining. Basic amenities were scarce, with no access to electricity and limited water supply, and the closest pub was a distance of over 200km in Kingoonya.
According to Sue Britt, a member of the Coober Pedy Historical Society and volunteer at the drive-in, the options for entertainment were limited. Miners could only listen to the radio or watch slides at the community center, which was powered by a generator from a local store.
Join us for some entertaining content in our weekly selection of must-reads, popular topics, and weekend recommendations, delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning.
Britt explains that the drive-in theater served as a popular meeting spot for all members of the community. Families would often pack picnics and arrive early to allow their children to play before the movie began.
The initial projection room was a shed made of corrugated iron and had two levels. The projectors were located on the upper level while the lower level served as a canteen. The sound was transmitted through old cone speakers that were attached to the projection booth. Even now, a sign is displayed before each movie reminding patrons that bringing explosives into the theater is not permitted, as stated by the manager.
According to Tina Boyd, a previous volunteer projectionist, the initial drive-in could accommodate 110 vehicles and operated every day of the week. Occasionally, there were mature films shown for male viewers.
The drive-in theater in Coober Pedy was so popular that it became the go-to spot for town announcements. According to Britt, even the arrival of the Flying Doctor plane at night would prompt people to come to the drive-in to request someone to switch on the runway lights at the airport, as that’s where everyone would be.
In 1986, 500 cars filled the drive-in theater to see the movie Crocodile Dundee on the large screen. A man known as Crocodile Harry, who was a peculiar local and former crocodile hunter, had claimed to be the inspiration for the main character (this has been proven false). However, Harry was also famous for other reasons: his underground home was used as a filming location for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and there are rumors that Tina Turner left a pair of her underwear as a decoration in his underground lair.
In the 1980s, Coober Pedy saw the introduction of television and VHS, marking the end of the drive-in’s dominance in the entertainment industry. By 1995, the drive-in was in a state of disrepair and its screen was often used as a nesting spot by pigeons. However, it was restored and reopened in 1996. Since the early 2000s, a team of volunteers, including Britt and Boyd, have been managing the drive-in.
Boyd was trained in the operation of the Gaumont-Kalee Model 21 projector, nicknamed “Sexy Beast”, which utilized carbon rods to display moving images on a screen. She describes the learning process as hands-on and akin to an apprenticeship. As 35mm film became obsolete, the drive-in theater raised funds to purchase a data projector and construct a climate-controlled space for it.
Boyd remembers showing The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert to the movie’s producer and crew to commemorate its 20th anniversary. The part where Guy Pearce’s character is attacked by miners was shot at a drive-in. The original 35mm film was retrieved from the National Film and Sound Archives, and Boyd brought a postwar projector out of retirement to display it. She expresses gratitude for being invited to show the film again.
Britt remembers how calm Boyd remained despite any potential issues with the film being disrupted by projector malfunctions. According to Britt, if such a situation occurred, people would honk their car horns and Tina would have to quickly troubleshoot amidst the chaotic noise of complaints.
Prior to the recent storm, the drive-in theater was consistently showcasing movies every two weeks. In a display of the town’s strength, the dedicated volunteers have announced on social media that the drive-in will make a comeback: “This is not the demise of the drive-in; we will reconstruct and resume operations in no time.”
Britt states that the symbol represents something unique about Coober Pedy.