This is what it looked like when we rolled into Dromana 3 Drive-In as wide-eyed kids: windows cranked down to let the warm summer breeze flow while waiting for the big screen to do its thing, and the mattress in the back of the station wagon piled high with pillows and rugs. There was nothing quite like a Saturday night at the ‘flicks’ with the kids stuffed in the car like sardines, snacking on chips and lollies as Arthurs Seat stood sentinel. Seatbelts . . . well, let’s leave that one alone.
The Whitaker family has been part of the Mornington Peninsula landscape for more than 100 years. William Whitaker, who was a horse and coach builder and inventor in Hull, England, before migrating in the early 1900s, worked on the ‘red rattler’ trains in Melbourne and holidayed on the Peninsula. He soon recognised there was an opportunity to push the horse-drawn coach era into the future and opened the first motorised service – called Whitaker’s Peninsula Motors, with six-door cars – which went on to be the Portsea Passenger Service, then Peninsula Bus Lines, and ultimately Ventura. His son Frank, who built the drive-in with the help of local tradies Cliff Bird, Ken Opie and Sandy Christie, used to drive the buses at just 16 with a retired policeman sitting next to him.
Frank’s son Paul, who took over Dromana 3 Drive-In operations in 1989, explains: “That’s what they were allowed to do back then. I remember stories of the town hall in Dromana where the first movies were screened. That was about 1935. Dad took over the old Broadway Cinema in Rosebud and hosted music events like dances for servicemen during World War II. There were stories of the local bouncer taking American sailors to the Rosebud Pier and throwing them off, and I think John Farnham performed his first gig there singing Sadie the Cleaning Lady.
“The drive-in was built in 1962, and I can still see the huge hole in the ground that was dug out for the one and only screen’s footing. The first movie screened on Friday, December 21, and was the musical State Fair. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was screened on December 24 and movies like Pillow Talk and the original The Parent Trap followed. There was no daylight savings back then so the movies could screen earlier. My mum Gwen, who ran the diner, which had seating and served counter meals then, says the health inspector turned up on the opening night and she sat him down and made him peel a couple of cases of bananas for her banana fritters. My wife Shelley runs the diner now.”
Today there are four screens at Dromana 3 Drive-In. Paul continues: “I was driving through Altona past a drive-in that had closed down in about 1992. I got in contact with the owner and he let me have the old screen for free, but we had to dismantle it and truck it down to Dromana and basically redesign it. Number three screen went up in 2002. Then came number four about six years ago. One screen got blown down in 2003.
“It’s strange how things work out. I went into the old projection room in The Broadway Cinema in the mid-‘80s after it closed down because I thought there might be some memorabilia hanging around, but everything had been stripped out except one broom standing in the corner and a small pile of rubbish beneath it. And guess what was in the pile of rubbish? One hand-coloured glass slide of the first car my grandfather built for Whitaker’s Peninsula Motors.” Just silver screen magic.