Drive-in turns 50


Photo by Tors Drive-in

The Tors drive-in yesterday celebrated half a century of operation since its opening on Saint Patrick’s Day in 1966.

Current owners Steve and Debbie Snell have run the establishment for 25 of those years.

“That’s a life sentence,” Mr Snell joked.

The drive-in was built on the back of a bet the initial owner Jack Feldt had with another exhibitor.

“Back in the late 60s, early 70s drive-in’s were all the boom, they were a gold mine,”

“He said ‘I’ll have to build a drive-in in Charters Towers’ and they told him it’ll never work, you’ll never get your money back,” Mr Snell said.

“But he did, he built it all second hand, the screen was made with railway line, the speaker poles were made by hand, everything was second hand.”

Because of these cost-saving measures Feldt built the whole place for a miserly $22,000.

Steve has been a lifelong fan of theatre and as a little boy was captivated by his first visit to a drive-in.

“I went to the drive-in in Bowen as a seven-year-old and I found it amazing how you could throw an image, a little light coming out of a brick wall, could fly across the sky onto this massive structure,” he said.

“I had to find out how it worked, so I went up into the booth and that was it, I was hooked.

“I was too short to see out the window but by the time I was eight and a half I was running the picture theatre.”

After finishing school he went to work in Brisbane for theatre giants Greater Union but city life didn’t suit him so he came back up north to run the Bowen drive-in.

After a year, the owners of the Tors drive-in offered him this one.

“I was 19 when I bought it and my wife Debbie was 18 and we had a lot of debt,” he said.

“Here we were trying to find $3,000 a month to try and run the place.”

drive inDaylight savings nearly ended the drive-in’s life prematurely, with people not willing to stay out so late with work in the morning.

“Thankfully we got through that and it sort of picked up again, and then we twinned it,” Mr Snell said.

It was the first country town drive-in to have twin screens, a monumental drawing card for the small town.

They built an indoor theatre as well to become the first cinema and drive in complex in Australia, at the age of just 25.

It hasn’t all been easy sailing though.

“It’s been one hell of a challenge I’ll tell you that,” he said.

“It’s a bloody miracle (it’s still open), it hasn’t been rewarding financially but it’s made us proud to last this long because we’ve had so many people who I’m sure have had bets and even told me, ‘you’ll never last’.”

After the final of the three drive-in theatres in Townsville closed they moved their marketing focus there, with people now seeing it as more of a novelty.

“Townsville is about 80 per cent of the drive-in’s market, which is great because without them we wouldn’t still be in this town,” he said.

“It’s perfect for families, couples, even singles who just want a quiet night out and don’t want to mingle with anyone, you’ve got more privacy at a drive-in.

“There’s not a lot of cheap places to go for entertainment that you can go for under $50, but the drive-in is.”

The future for the iconic cinematic epicentre of town?

“That depends on Charters Tower and whether they want it or not, it’s as simple as that and the good crowd we get from Townsville,” Mr Snell said.

“If there’s a demand for it, they will have it, if there’s no demand it will just slip away and people will say, ‘remember the drive in, wasn’t it great when we had a drive in’.”