A story for Qweekend; my first contribution to their weekly ‘what I saw’ series of observational short stories.
Click the below images for a closer look, or read the article text underneath. Photography by David Kelly.
I went to the drive-in and this is what I saw
Thirty-eight kilometres south-east of Brisbane lies a large, lumpy car park just off the Pacific Motorway. It’s an unremarkable piece of land but for the two enormous white billboards at either end. At half-past five on a Saturday afternoon, a dozen vehicles are queued at the entrance. Relaxed female staff stride out to the central booth and begin letting traffic through.
Two different sessions screen simultaneously at the Yatala Twin Drive-In Theatre – hence the name – and since seeing one costs adults $13 each and two costs $16, it seems wasteful not to commit to the double. “What movie are you watching, darlin’?” the attendant asks. My partner and I opt for the pair showing in field two: fantasy-action film Thor and medieval-themed comedy Your Highness.
The parallels between regular cinemas and the Twin begin with “seating”. As with an indoor theatre, central real estate is snapped up first, while late entrants are relegated to the wings and neck-craning front rows. In the middle of the property, a single-storey building serves the dual purposes of business HQ and food outlet. The decor borrows heavily from the ’50s-era American diner aesthetic, right down to the life-size Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe statues in the foyer – “Please don’t touch”, reads a sign on Elvis’s guitar. A formidable wall of sweets makes young eyes water. Attendants serve dagwood dogs, Chiko Rolls, hot chips and popcorn, while an elderly manager potters behind the scenes.
All four films screening tonight are new(ish) releases. Those parked in field one will be privy to Rio and Fast & Furious 5. This ensures that visiting the Yatala Twin isn’t a novelty excursion into yesteryear but an independent alternative to watching films at a megaplex.
Beyond a row of tall trees at the foot of the property, the queue of brake lights on Stapylton-Jacobs Well Road extends into the fading dusk. Most headlights are dimmed once inside the theatre, as drivers heed a sign that reads: “Definitely no lights”. Seated at a table outside the diner, eyeballing the procession of slow-moving vehicles, we’re glad we got here early.
It’s chilly in Yatala tonight. Slippers and ugg boots are common; children, especially, are revelling in the chance to publicly parade their brightly-coloured pyjamas. The painful shriek of low-bodied sports cars scraping their undersides on the bumpy terrain occasionally interrupts a PA soundtrack comprised solely of golden-oldies.
We gaze up at the giant white billboard and attempt to estimate its height. Twenty-five metres? Thirty? (We learn on the theatre’s website later that it’s actually 13.4m.) As we walk back uphill, the diner’s painfully bright fluorescent lights destroy what limited night-sight the human eye can muster. It’s a complaint echoed by a pair of teenage girls, with whom we nearly collide. “We can’t see a bloody thing!” they say, startled.
Dean and Jess, a couple of Yatala regulars, are lounging on a mattress in the back of their station wagon. How does tonight compare to previous outings? “It’s cold,” Dean says. “That’s about it!” We all laugh. His mother once worked for the defunct Richlands Twin Drive-In Theatre. After getting his driver’s licence, Dean and his mates often spent weekend nights within these very grounds. “We like coming here. It’s peaceful. You get to lie back,” he says, gesturing at the mattress.
A strange feeling descends in the calm before Thor. It’s the realisation that we’re sitting in a dark carpark with hundreds of others, listening to a live Elvis album recorded in the 1950s. Parents tell their children to stay within sight. Some have brought fold-up chairs; others make use of ute trays. Blankets are a prerequisite. Many simply sit in warm little bubbles, radios tuned to the relevant frequency. Everyone respects their neighbours’ space. There’s something incredibly romantic about the manner in which this experience brings people together, far more so than an average trip to the cinema. Who knows how many children have been conceived here?
Beside each parking space is a steel pole lit by tiny, candle-like orange bulbs. The poles hold two chunky, steel-encased speakers designed to be hung inside car windows. The units are hefty. They give off the impression that the hardware hasn’t been upgraded since the theatre was opened, in October 1974, with one screen. (It became the Yatala Twin in 2000.)
The speakers buzz with distortion whenever things explode in Thor (which is often), or when starlet Zooey Deschanel breaks into song in Your Highness. Those who possess adequate stereos and generosity toward their fellow man blast the radio at windscreen-rattling volume.
During the interval, the queue for the ladies’ is dozens-deep. Happily, the guys’ queue is non-existent. Most of those parked in field two leave after Thor. Some cars creep forward a few rows.
Fifteen minutes into Your Highness, the yellow glow of the RACQ logo glides by. Three cars over, 32 year-old Alisha and her partner Frank are stranded. They had intended to relocate and watch Fast & Furious 5, only to find that their engine wouldn’t turn over. Theatre staff have a battery pack on hand to assist but it hasn’t helped. Frank’s son, Ryan, is in the back of their white wagon. “We come here every three or four months, just for something different,” says Alisha. “Ryan likes coming. In summertime, it’s awesome.” She butts out her cigarette on the bitumen. “There needs to be more of them,” she adds. “We come all the way from Ipswich. There’s one there, but it just shows old movies.”
As soon as the credits start roll, brake lights pierce the darkness. Our neighbours shoot off a few minutes before the film’s end. They leave in such a hurry that they fail to put their rubbish in a nearby bin. It’s the sole instance of unbecoming behaviour witnessed during nearly six hours spent parked before the giant, white billboard in field two. Our engine starts with the assistance of crossed fingers.