The Pioneer Theatre – open-air walk-in theatre
The Star Theatre – open-air walk-in theatre
Tennant Drive-In – open-air walk-in drive-in theatre
Warrego Mine Drive-In – open-air walk-in drive-in theatre
“A picture theatre will be opened on the goldfield presently.”
Northern Standard (Darwin, NT : 1921 – 1955), Friday 21 June 1935
Tennant Creek’s Lot 44 forms part of Blakeway’s original survey of the Tennant Creek township of 1935.
The original owners of the Pioneer Theatre were the Delaware brothers, (whose occupation in 1935 was listed as “Showmen” in Rockhampton, Qld. ) Reuben and Theodore Delaware are described as the picture show owners – responsible for bringing the “Talkies” to Tennant Creek in the pre-war years, and, it is assumed that they also erected the building in 1935. (still operating the “Talkies” in 1937)
Nonie and Camelia Meyers formed a friendship that would last a lifetime. They were the only two white women in the area and of the same calibre that is born in pioneer women who opened up the Territory for other women to follow.
They were both camped on the slopes of the Honeymoon Ranges when the picture show opened in town, owned by Rubin and Theo Delaware. It was a rough tin building, open air. It did not matter, it was entertainment. The seating was long frames of wood covered in canvas, Chaff bagging, sugar bags, hessian, anything that would hold a body. It was one and sixpence to go in, three shillings a reserved seat. The picture was “The Gay Divorcee” with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
So the Ford family and Meyers decided to go. They walked three miles across country and when they arrived a blinding dust storm hit the town and the show was cancelled. So they walked home again. Not to be discouraged, next picture night, they set out on the three mile walk carrying hurricane lamps. On reaching town it rained so much the show was cancelled. The next night the walk to town was on again. This time they made it. Comfortably seated they waited this wonderful movie they had waited and walked so far to see. Then the projection box caught fire. They never did see that movie.
(Taken from the Ford Family History book, as told by Jack Ford)
Tennant Creek is a new mining town, all unpainted tin buildings and hessian “little-houses” in very poor repair.
Imagine the place on Saturday night!
It is hot and the Tennant Creek Hotel is full. Outside in the wide roadway are an assortment of cars and trucks, and the air is thick and dusty. Inside there is the reverberating crash and tinkle of glasses, and the interminable rattle of the cash register (the best gold-mine in the Tennant) and over all, the hum and babble of voices. There is generally a fight in progress, or the promise of one, and, in short, a pleasant time is being spent by all. We dine at a bake-house across the road, as the hotel fare is all cold meat. We order steak and eggs, and get about a pound of steak and two eggs and toast and a pot of tea.
Afterwards there is a picture show – open air, the entrance is marked by a string of colored lights, and the notice on a sheet of tin, ‘The Pioneer Theatre.’
Northern Times, Saturday 29 May 1937
Talkies are shown every Saturday in an open-air theatre which has quite an imposing entrance.
Patrons lounge back in canvas deckchairs at a perilous angle and watch the screen through half closed eyes.
Recorder, Monday 19 July 1937
The Pioneer Theatre is described as a galvanised iron, open-air picture theatre building 100 feet x 50 feet with an earth floor, canvas seats that can seat over 400 patrons.
William Weaber owned the lease at the time of his death in October 1940 and was valued at £600 at probate. Bill Weaber is known for his mining interests (Nobles Nob and the Rising Sun) and no doubt was very keen that this family facility was held for the town.
Rose Mary Howard, of Magill SA was an absentee owner in the mid 1940’s. Howard’s Drapery was the store next door and south of the Pioneer Theatre.
Tennant Creek’s township Lots were mining leases because the town was on the Goldfield and the Lots were pegged in accordance and with the requirements of the archaic Mining Laws of the Northern Territory.
There was much confusion during the Second World War years, many owners thinking that they were exempt from paying the annual rent for the Lots, so many were “jumped” or forfeited for non payment, and lost to the original owners.
During the war, the military ordered evacuation of Tennant Creek, and all mines closed except Eldorado.
The Army took over the Pioneer Theatre.
Tennant Creek war years –
Robert “Shorty” Shortt was the lessee and the proprietor of the Pioneer Theatre.
Children’s Christmas Party
Not one child was overlooked at the Christmas celebration held at Tennant Creek, when Father Christmas distributed toys, cool drinks and sweets all to the young inhabitants.
Children at Banka Banka Station and Wauchope were also included by the Country Women’s Association, which was responsible for organising the party.
After the distribution of gifts from the Christmas tree in the Pioneer Theatre, Father Christmas was given three rousing cheers. After his departure Mr R Shortt presented a series of short films, mostly in Technicolor.
Father Christmas and Mr Shortt each received a present for the pleasant evening they had given the children.
Northern Standard Friday 20 December 1946
William Cecil Burton born 14 June 1907, Winton, Queensland to Nellie (Absolon) and John Winfield Burton, and died 29 November 1968 Tennant Creek.
Occupations – Mail contractor – Cloncurry, farmer – Alice Springs, and Leslie Joseph “Snow” Kenna’s travelling picture show rig – Alice Springs.
Up until 1935, the social life of Alice Springs was confined to an occasional dance and concert. Then one day in rolled an old car with two men and equipment to modernise the out back town. “Snow” Leslie Joseph Kenna and “Bill” William Cecil Burton, the “Picture Show Men” had hit the town. They began showing in the old Welfare Hall on the Recreation Reserve, now Anzac Oval) but Ly Underwood saw the possibility of this modern entertainment and erected his Capital Theatre into which moved Snow and his plant.
Bill Burton moved on to Tennant Creek in 1947 to open a show there, the (Star Theatre).
Centralian Advocate, 8 December 1950
Northern Standard, Friday 31 January 1947
TENNANT CREEK NOTES
Snow Kenna, of Alice Springs has been spending some time on the field in connection with his mining interests. It is believed that good stone is showing on the “Mount” Lease which may account for that broad smile which he is wearing.
A NEW PICTURE THEATRE – The Star
This open air theatre “The Star” held its initial opening on Saturday 30 May 1947, and is a sure indication of the growth of the Tennant Creek township. William Cecil (Bill) Burton, its proprietor, has had a busy time for some months, and the week prior to the opening exceptionally so, when it was found there was not sufficient power available from the town supply, and he had to install his own power plant. It was more than pleasing, especially to Bill, when the seating arrangements proved inadequate, extra seating having to be secured from elsewhere to accommodate the patrons. The screening was good, the sound system excellent and well fenced both sides. If good films can be maintained this should prove a popular place of entertainment.
As a young 14 year old girl, Linda Price (nee Green) fondly remembers working as a ticket seller on the opening night of The Star and feeling so proud sitting in the little cashier’s cage selling tickets, and even making herself a ready reckoner so that she didn’t make mistakes. (Linda arrived in Tennant Creek in 1938 with her sister Rosemary and mother Beryl, later known as Beryl Renfrey)
Bill was great friends with Tom Harris who built the Star Theatre in Darwin, then followed by his son Tom Harris .. (check)
The Pioneer picture theatre, ably conducted by Mr Bob Shortt, duly shows three times per week, Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, and patrons get a good double feature programme, shorts, etc. for their money.
The British Flood Relief Fund was increased by £20/7/7 on Sunday night when Mr. R. Shortt kindly presented a full programme at the Pioneer Theatre. Sincere appreciation is felt by the committee and public in general for Mr Shortt’s kind gesture in providing the films and use of the theatre for this occasion.
Centralian Advocate, Saturday 31 May 1947
The Tennant Creek Picture Theatre men meet – Bob Shortt and Bill Burton …
“You buy me out or I’ll buy you out!”
Mr William Cecil Burton has recently taken over the lease of the Pioneer Picture Theatre from Mr Robert Shortt.
The final screening at the Star Picture Theatre was held in February 1949.
The building was sold to the Tennant Creek Co Operative.
Storms and fire during the 1950’s saw the demise of the building, the stage was destroyed in 1954, some years later fire, and then finally a storm in 1958, which demolished the building.
Tennant Creek Fire
News was received late on Thursday that the Tennant Creek picture theatre operating box was badly damaged by fire on Wednesday night, 31 October 1951.
Centralian Advocate Friday 2 November 1951
The story of that fire as told by Bob’s father, Bill Burton.
Bill was in the projection box screening a movie and Bob was told that the doors should always be closed when nitrate film was being used, as it is very flammable especially if the film breaks. Well the door wasn’t closed on this Wednesday night (and who could blame him!) and of course the film broke, and Bill was unable to grab it before the reel caught it, and dragged the burning end on the reel, which then set the film alight. Frantically he yanked the burning reel off the projector and flung it straight out the projection box door, only to his horror to watch it bounce and then roll backwards into his storeroom below .. alas Tennant Creek went without picture shows for a few weeks until the box and projectors were replaced.
Social life did not suffer though as the number of dances increased, to compensate for the theatre’s closure.
Tennant Creek Christmas Treat:
Children were grandly entertained last night (Thursday) in Mr Bill Burton’s open-air picture theatre when, from a monster Christmas tree, colourfully decorated, a jovial Santa Claus distributed presents to every child in this settlement. This grand show was the CWA Christmas Tree for which this worthy association holds functions during the greater part of the year.
Santa (who lost his reindeer) was a glowing light for the benefit of children.
I shall not disclose his name, but say “well done. Bill, well done.”
Centralian Advocate Friday 18 December 1953
TENNANT CREEK NOTES
Tennant’s weather is now upon us. The cold winds have started their merry play and most gentlemen have dispensed with their wearing of shorts and taken it upon themselves to wear long trousers. Lounge fires are commonplace every evening now the colder weather has set in and parties heading towards the open-air picture theatre on screening nights now resemble expeditions. All seen to be laden with blankets and cushions.
Doctors tell us that weather changes are good for the constitution. So let us grin and bear it!
Centralian Advocate Friday 28 May 1954
TENNANT CREEK NOTES
Bill Burton took an advanced course in motion picture projection whilst away. (CinemaScope)
Centralian Advocate Friday 10 September 1954
Bill’s son Bob arrived in Tennant Creek accompanied by Bill’s friend, Ron Paterson (Bill helped Ron get his job at the Battery, with Lorna Paterson and Freda Burton with families arriving soon afterwards)
The Pioneer Theatre is built back to front, as all other cinemas and theatres patrons walk in towards the screen.
The projection box required a 3 horsepower generator to run an ac motor to drive the dc motor required to power the arc rod projectors, thus putting all the noise to the rear of the building, into the back lane away from entering patrons and main street.
The building being described as “open-air but sides and rear had 8 foot skillion cover” and the seating capacity of the theatre then was 470 patrons on canvas deckchair style seats.
Movies were screened three times a week, two movies per session
“Yes it was time for the Pioneer Theatre to go Big Screen and Bill had traveled by plane to Adelaide to learn about the installation of the modern miracle, CinemaScope. This meant the purchase of anamorphic lenses and the building of a new double size screen to project CinemaScope movies. Yes Big Screen movies had arrived in Tennant Creek.”
… Greg Lynch
CinemaScope – a cinematographic process in which special lenses are used to compress a wide image into a standard frame and then expand it again during projection.
It results in an image that is almost two and a half times as wide as it is high.
The screen and front of the building, the ticket and entry section, was widened on the northern side over the empty land on the block, to cater to the new CinemaScope movies. The building now extended from its original 50 feet to 75-80 feet with the 100 foot throw between the projector and screen remaining the same. The theatre was now able to seat 600 patrons and a wider centre aisle was created to allow mothers to place babies prams beside them, a practice considered illegal in other cinemas.
Although the screen was enlarged for CinemaScope, son Bob was not happy with the viewing result as Bill had purchased cheap “Paradise Lenses” which created distortions on the sides of the movie, so were replaced when he managed the theatre.
Film distribution in the Northern Territory was called “The Circuit” which took 3 months to return.
Trunks of film reel were freighted by rail from Adelaide to Alice Springs
(Snow Kenna theatres) 1950’s – Sunday morning the trunks were picked up by Ron Dingwall, Tuit’s “Overlander” bus driver and transported to Darwin
Darwin – (Tom Harris’ theatres) then Air Force Cinema, Army Cinema, Batchelor, then back to Darwin, Katherine (Peter Murphy built the Katherine Drive-In) Tennant Creek shared with Warrego Drive-In then onto Alice Springs returning then to Adelaide by rail.
1960’s – At Tennant Creek Bob had to watch for Dave Baldock’s Transport trucks that carried Peko Mine’s bagged copper concentrate to the Alice Springs railhead. The film reel trunks were then strapped onto the back of the truck for return to Alice Springs. (Free movie passes were given to the drivers.)
Bob assisted his father with every facet of the picture show business, and due to Bill’s increasing ill health eventually he managed the theatre.
Bill previously had had his right leg amputated, reportedly caused by “thrombosis” and had an artificial leg was fitted. Later though, the other leg began to show similar symptoms and he became ill, so he retired to Adelaide.
Bill could not handle the cold southern winters, so would return to Tennant Creek, living in a bricked flat at the rear of the theatre.
On the 29th November 1968, Bob found his father had passed away, the cause of death being a “heart attack” but in actual fact Bill had a disease that was unknown at the time, today it is “diabetes.”
Female toilets were installed and the “Candy Bar” at the rear of the theatre, below the projection room was completed 1965.
Recollections by Dave (Tony) Allen
Snooky Parsons, Daryl Herriot and myself use to do the doors 1965 – 67. Mrs Burton always did the till and tickets and was always very good to me. I also used to rake the gravel every morning before school and got to pick up quite a bit of money from the old canvas seats, which were always very comfortable to sit in.
Health Inspector report:
The Pioneer Theatre is an open air type. Beside the screen on both sides, rooms had been built and they are roofed with corrugated iron. A number of sheets are loose on these roofs where the iron laps. The storage room and screen form the Paterson Street frontage of the theatre, the loose iron was considered a hazard as in much that gusty wind could lift the iron off and hurl it among the patrons in the theatre. These laps are facing into what is known as the weather side.
Bob concreted the theatre floor and replaced the canvas seats with rows of chairs. Bill was not happy with the changes and was proved that he was right, as the chairs were uncomfortable and and the nylon webbing tended to rip as it was disintegrated by the sun.
Bob Burton extended the Projection Box to include his VIP Room. He installed a window, speakers and chairs. VIPs were his friends that joined him while he was working, screening movies in the theatre.
The Pioneer Building …
A permit was issued to erect a theatre foyer and shops in February 1969.
1970 Pioneer Building opened. (Jimmy the Greek, Cafe owner next door, not happy!)
Bob also opened his Insurance Office, adjoining the Milk Bar and it was also used for putting the Apex Club’s “Tennant Times” newspaper together, of which he was a member. Later Bob spent some time traveling away with Ian Tuxworth, and was writing articles from further afield, so he then renamed the newspaper “Tennant & District Times” (Bob Burton wanted the township to be renamed Tennant, leaving the name Tennant Creek seven miles north, at the creek .. hence the names Tennant Times and the Tennant Drive-In)
Tennant Drive-In was built.
The Pioneer Theatre out of business and closed in 1974 due to poor attendance.
Theatre Fire – Tennant Creek.
At 1605 hours, Sunday 30th January, 1977, a call was received at the Tennant Creek Fire Station to a fire in the Pioneer Theatre. On arrival of the attending appliances it was found that the rear storeroom and projection room were well alight. Damage to those areas was severe. Cause of the fire was thought to be children smoking in the theatre store.
Annual Report 1977 Northern Territory Fire Brigade.
April 1977 and the original theatre was ordered to be demolished, although the theatre foyer and milk bar attached to the front of the theatre was not affected.
The Pioneer Milk Bar site now too dangerous and ruinous and was boarded up.
Theatre land – Stan Price, Jimmy the Greek, (check name) could be son George Konidarus now .. property still for sale
Tennant Drive-In Theatre …
Peko Road, Tennant Creek 1972-1984
Main feature movie was shown first, especially on school nights.
Credits on the last movie were cut short to prevent cars from driving off while still listening and watching the screen with the speaker attached to the vehicle.
Recollections by Neil Fairhead
I worked with Bob Burton, helping at the Tennant Drive-In; from creating flyers, putting up posters, doing the adverts for the Tennant Times newspaper, collecting the movie reels from the plane, buying goods for the canteen to working in the projection box. We had seven billboards around the town.
Bob loved technology and had the first industrial photocopier in town to make the posters. We would cut out pictures from the film posters, paste and then copy. This was done from the insurance office next door to the Pioneer Milk Bar and every Sunday at midnight we would go around town and paste the posters up, often meeting with Peter Pointen-Wales, the owner of the local supermarket getting ready for the new week also. The town was dead still at that time of night back then.
The two projectors were Arc Rod projectors, the canteen was a single serve hatch and the ticket box was set between two lanes. Originally it was pay per person then changed to per car, due to some three or four people being in the car boots. We also had to tend to repairs to speakers, as they were being pulled off the poles by patrons forgetting to take them off the window of their car. Each week we would also drive the perimeter and fix several holes cut into the chainmail fence. A never ending task!
Colin Hardaker was also an employee at the drive-in and he also managed the Pioneer Milk Bar during the day and would often use what was left over from the day to serve at the drive-in.
Video stores opened in Tennant Creek, renting out movies on VHS tapes and television caused a huge decline in the number of patrons coming to the theatre.
The Tennant Drive-In closed after being in operation for twelve years, equipment and buildings were abandoned and the property was later sold to Frank Martino. In retrospect the closing for Bob was two years too late, with overwhelming operating debts of the two Drive-Ins and the Pioneer Milk Bar, and new rate debts which in the past never existed nor were rate bills received. Bob sold up and moved to Darwin.
(A year that saw the the ending of Drive-in theatres in the Northern Territory – five closed in one year from a 1000 car capacity to 60 car in size .. Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Warrego Mine, Katherine and Darwin – an end of an era)
Warrego Drive-In …
Warrego Mine, West of Tennant Creek 1979 – 1984
Jim Hunt built an open-air walk-in theatre on the mine site but in time was battling to afford the costs incurred with obtaining and freighting movies, which were being shown for one night only.
1979 Bob Burton bought the business, and developed the 60 car Warrego Drive-In with individual car window speakers plus a covered seating area at the front of the screen, using the seats from the old Pioneer Theatre and shared the films between the two drive-in theatres. Jim Hunt stayed on as projectionist (with Robin Small, Fred McKinley)
The Drive-In was equipped with Cummings and Wilson projectors, and Raycophone (model CP10) soundheads with Westrex carbon-arc lamphouses. The pair of projectors mentioned were offered for sale by a dealer in second hand mining equipment. They were originally located in the Tennant Creek area and may have come from Warrego, given the mining connection. The same pair of machines turned up again some time later, in Ballarat.
Warrego Drive-In closed
Ann Wilson … Great picture theatre at Warrego. The speakers were on the side of the projection box and you could hear most of the movie throughout Warrego. Great news when we actually got the speakers for the cars installed. Sorry to say I was one of the people that forgot to put the speaker back and ripped it out. The night the projection box caught fire was catastrophic, we were out of movies for a few weeks.
Freddie McKinley also ran the movies for some time.
Sally Gooley ... We used to mostly ‘walk’ in with chairs. Robin Small came out from Tennant to run the movies. This was in the seventies and early eighties. The drive in was across from the pool and up a bit. God those were the days!
Stephen White … At one stage we had to put a guard on the back door at the club! People would just grab a chair and go off to the movies!
The Burton family, namely William Cecil (Bill) Burton and his son Robert Joseph (Bob) Burton
are synonymous with the picture theatres of Tennant Creek.
Truly they are “Tennant Creek’s Picture Show Men”
Reference: check and add to
Advocate: Alice Springs newspaper
Tennant Times: Tennant Creek Newspaper
The Heritage of Tennant Creek – Helen J Wilson – Report to the National Trust 1995
Tennant Creek Yesterday and Today by Hilda Tuxworth
Facebook Group- CINEMAS and THEATRES of AUSTRALIA
Annual Report 1977 Northern Territory Fire Brigade
Alice Springs Past and Present by Shirley Brown
Bob Burton, Patti Feyer (Burton) Greg Lynch, Charlie Poole Ron Dingwall, ..