Darwin’s tradition of open air cinema

Darwin’s only outdoor cinema – Deckchair Cinema – was opened on 1 June 1994 by the Darwin Film Society. It started near Stokes Hill Wharf, but within nine years had outgrew its location. So in 2003 we re-opened at our current home on the Darwin Waterfront.

Historically outdoor cinema had long been important to the social life in the Territory with the first cinema under the stars begun by George Wedd at the back of the old Gordon’s Don Hotel (where the ABC office now stands at the corner of Bennett and Cavenagh Streets). This cinema was a very rudimentary affair with a high corrugated iron wall surrounding “A small stage area in front of a large screen and a small frontage where I played the piano and Mrs Tybell accompanied me on drums,“ Heather Bell, a free-spirited Darwin woman who later married Tom Harris, operator of the Star Cinema.

Harold Snell built the first purpose built cinema, the Star in 1929. It seated 860 people, on two levels, in both deckchairs and bench seats. It was practically open air with only a few rows at the back and upstairs in the Dress Circle, covered by a roof.

“The Star was operated by Tom Harris, himself an entertainer who sometimes lead the audience in sing-alongs during interval,” (the Front Door, p250) The Star became a focus for social life for people from all walks of life. Everybody went to the Pictures!

As Myra Hilgendorf wrote in April 1939 “I’ve been to the pictures twice this week – an unusual theatre in our experience. It is built so that the screen and the section in front are open to the sky, and the blacks, Chinese and half-castes (sic) sit there exposed to the weather and the whites sit upstairs in deckchairs under cover of a roof… At interval everybody goes out for refreshments for half an hour or so – a beer at the pub or a Jap Squash in Chinatown,” (Northern Territory Days)

Members of the audience seemed to have sorted themselves-the government employees sat at the back or upstairs in the Dress Circle, leaving the Aborigines and ‘coloured folk’ to the front stalls.

David Mills, Larrakia man recalls, “Aboriginal people preferred to sit right up the front by themselves. It wasn’t really racism but they preferred to sit there. Nearly every Wednesday they had cowboys (Westerns) and that’s when it was packed because Aboriginals, they liked cowboys,” (Saltwater People, p59) At this time, Aboriginal people were under the control of the Aboriginals Ordinance which prohibited them from being in town between dusk and dawn. The Chief Protector of Aborigines, Cecil Cook had to regularly grant permission for them to be in town after the curfew.

Going to the movies was a “noisy social occasion where people met their friends, talked and flirted, and reacted loudly to the actions on screen. The arrival of the talking pictures in May 1933 seems to have limited the noise somewhat, but did nothing to reduce the festive atmosphere,” (Discovering Darwin p35)

In the memory of some, when the show began a lion appeared on the screen and roared loudly, at which point children dived under seats and many Aborigines at the front ran out the door.

It was here that many relationships began and flourished. “The older girls from Retta Dixon Homes were occasionally taken to the Star Picture Theatre by the head missionary, Miss Shackleton. It was here that Nancy (Browne, nee Moo) and her future husband, Bill, first laid eyes on each other…Even though Nancy was always accompanied to the pictures by her chaperone, she and Bill managed to hold hands in the darkened theatre and their relationship developed from there.” (SP p160)

The Star was run by the Harris family for many years until it was destroyed by Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Eve, 1974. The final film screening was Celebration at Big Sur.

During the War years the RAAF and Army also set up many rudimentary outdoor cinemas around Darwin, Katherine and Batchelor, mainly to entertain the thousands of troops stationed around Darwin between the late 1830s and 1945.

Some of them continued after the war finished, becoming part of a circuit of cinemas serviced by the Harris family. These have all now vanished.

As well as running a program of varied films for residents and visitors to Darwin, the Deckchair has been made available one day each week to community groups wanting to raise funds or for social reasons. These events usually include special food and sometimes the opportunity for members to get dressed up and to entertain the audience with dances or other performances.

This is another aspect of the original outdoor cinemas being continued by the Deckchair.

The movies were important not only as entertainment, ‘for the pictures were places of inclusion rather than exclusion. They were places where the community held its “benefits” In 1932, the Unemployed Sports Club held a benefit and elderly Chinese, seeking to return to China were also given their benefit night.’ (Discovering Darwin p37)