MORE than 50 years’ worth of classic, blockbuster and timeless movies may well be on permanent playback in Tidal River Open Air Cinema exhibitor David Lenton’s head.
David, together with his business partners Roger and Leonie Little, started showing films in the main Wilsons Promontory National Park camping ground in the summer of 1968, when they were all in their early 20s.
“The previous exhibitor apparently had had a blue with the Prom’s committee of management as it was at that time before we came along and decided to take over running the outdoor cinema,” he said.
“I still have the single-page letter that we got from the committee that set out the conditions we had to abide by to operate the cinema in eight paragraphs, including the start time and when we must finish by, that we had to clean up all rubbish, that the committee wouldn’t guarantee power supply and that we had to have our own insurance cover.
“Imagine trying to make such an arrangement these days and how long the document would be!” David said.
“The first film we ever screened was The Taming of the Shrewwith Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and you wouldn’t believe the whacking great crowd we got to watch Shakespeare at 60 cents an adult and 40 cents a kid!
“And since then until Easter 2019 we reckon we’ve had an average of 8000 patrons each four-and-a-half month season every year times 50 which equals 400,000 though the cinema,” he said.
“The season started on December 26 each year and ran for seven nights a week until the end of January for the summer holidaymakers and then for two or three nights on weekends and weeknights until after Easter for the school groups and other visitors to the Prom.
“It really has been a lifetime spent at the movies and I’m still passionate about films,” David said.
“The Prom is a unique and beautiful place and I’ve certainly perfected popcorn and choc tops after all these years!”
“So many people have seen a film at Tidal River, and many of them were kids themselves in the 1970s, who became parents in the 1990s and are now grandparents bringing their grandchildren to the outdoor movies.
“One of the most amazing things is that people remember the film they saw in 1984 or whatever, like The Karate Kid, or Top Gunor that silly, slapstick spoof thing Flying Highbecause of the perfect atmosphere under a brilliant, perfect summer night sky.
“Or they recall the opposite, like in March and April of 1997 when we were showing Titanicand people came when it was raining and freezing cold, and they really got right into the drama of the ship sinking,” he said.
“Most people though seem to have kept the memories of coming to the cinema during a January wearing shorts and a T-shirt on a warm and balmy night.”
David said he and the Littles “really have had a rich experience, one that started at the Prom as Tidal River was the first of three cinemas on the Victorian east coast that we ran, with Mallacoota from 1972 and Lakes Entrance from 1976.
“During the 1980s we expanded westward, too, and ran cinemas at Torquay, Portarlington and Ocean Grove.
“We sold both Mallacoota and Lakes in 2000 and the west coast ones in 2003 and the exhibitors who bought them are still going,” he said.
“When we originally began at the Prom the films were in 16-millimetre format, which was the successful and popular medium of the time and which lasted until the 1980s.
“The arrival of video probably killed 16-millimetre, and we went to 35-millimetre which stayed in from the early 1980s to 2014.
“After then, the old film system had become redundant after everything was converted to digital, which I have to say produces a beautiful clear picture and fantastic clear sound,” David said.
“The cinema itself was pretty simple in the early days, too, with no seats or shelter, but now it’s a bit more luxurious being under cover, with a permanent screen, 200 sling-type deck chairs, a ticket box and a kiosk.
“Adult-size beanbags are available for hire, and there’s the only lush green grass in Tidal to sit on, that’s when we can keep the wombats out,” he said.
“Oh, and also, the occasional tiger snake … “
Among the very many films shown at the Prom during the past half-century, David can recall quite a few that always went over well, and those “really good movies that tend not to date.”
“Character-driven films like Midnight Cowboywith Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voigt, the original French Connectionwith Gene Hackman, and The Dirty Dozen are always riveting.
“We ran films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Rocky Horror Picture Showand The Blues Brothersevery year for 10 years until they ran out of puff and video came along,” he said.
“We liked to play an odd-ball feature on New Year’s Eve like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and during the 1970s horror era we screened The Revenge of Frankensteinand Count Yorga Vampireto great effect!
“People always enjoy those mad English films like The Great St Trinian’s Train Robberyand the Carry Onseries, and I’m simply amazed by the longevity of some classic movies, like Grease,” David said.
“There was a long queue outside the ticket box last summer waiting to see Bohemian Rhapsody, and the last film we had at Easter this year was the reissue of Storm Boy; we screened the first version of that one over and over.”
David said when he, Roger and Leonie began at the Prom, Don Yorke was the park manager and that there were more than 700 camping sites at Tidal River, in contrast to just under 500 sites now.
“Don used to say the cinema helped to keep the campers happy and that made the park manager happy, too!
“The Tidal River cafe was run by Jack and Valda Shellcot during the early days, and they became great friends of ours.
“We want to thank Heather Peck who had the Wilsons Prom Surf School at Tidal and who ran the cinema for us for 20 years, while we were at Mallacoota or Ocean Grove,” he said.
“We got a lot of repeat business as people come back to the Prom year on year.“I reckon those people are a pretty special and unique clientele and we like to think that the Tidal River cinema has been a bonus for them and for the Prom.”
Tidal River open air cinema For Sale
David said he and the Littles have decided to offer the Tidal River Open Air Cinema for sale and that they “have virtually put the sign up.
“It really has been a lifetime there for us, and I know I haven’t had a New Year’s Eve at home since 1967,” he said.
“We think it’s time to hand the cinema on, and with its four-and-a-half month season it certainly would be a good opportunity for someone from the Foster or Fish Creek area to take on,” David said.
“Whoever does become the new exhibitor at Tidal River will definitely see a lot of movies and have a lot of fun!”Find out more information about the Tidal River Open Air Cinema on Facebook.