Cinema pioneer Jack Feldt built the Tors Drive-In, and it opened on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th, 1966. The first double feature to screen was ‘Tunnel of Love’ starring Richard Widmark and Doris Day, followed by ‘Mission of Danger’ starring Keith Larsen and Buddy Epson.
Jack had also owned three hardtop (indoor) cinemas in Charters Towers; the Theatre Royal, The Olympia and the Regent Theatre.
Inspired by the success of drive-in theatres in other areas, he decided that Charters Towers needed its’ own. Disused railway line and wooden seats from the Theatre Royal were recycled for the construction of the screen. It was built to last, and has survived decades of cyclones and severe storms. The speaker bases and posts were all made by hand and are still in use today.
When the drive-in opened it quickly became the favourite cinema venue in town. Attendances at the other cinemas dwindled as families preferred the convenience and atmosphere of the drive-in.
In fact, the success of the Tors helped to finance the building of the Range Drive-In in Townsville.
The Olympia closed in the mid 1960s as the Tors opened, then the Theatre Royal was demolished in 1970. By 1983 the Regent Theatre had also closed. So the Tors Drive-In Cinema was the last remaining cinema in town, surviving on its’ own merit.
From his hilltop bedroom in Bowen, Steve Snell could see the Whitsunday Drive-In. It was exciting to see the cars queue on the highway at dusk, waiting to get in. Then at nightfall a massive image magically appeared on the screen, and he was hooked. That’s when he became amazed by the process of a tiny frame of film passing through light to produce a big screen image.
In 1978, as an eight year old, he starting training as a projectionist for Ben and Phyl DeLuca at the Summergarden Theatre in Bowen. He had to stand on a film trunk to see through the portholes when he first started!
Steve would work at the Summergarden until his late teens during week-ends, and during the school holidays. We still consider the DeLuca family part of ours to this day.
Such was his fanaticism for cinema, that Steve’s backyard in Bowen was transformed into a mini drive-in! As a teenager he was the youngest person on the studios’ books to hold an account. He would work, save up and hire film prints to show family and friends on the holidays.
During the 1970s, the Feldt family continued to own and operate the Tors Drive-In.
In 1981, Ian and Lyn Blackburn purchased the Tors Drive-In from the Feldt family.
From 1984-87 Steve was a student at All Souls and St. Gabriels’ School in Charters Towers. As a boarder, he would go to the Tors on drive-in leave on the week-ends. It was then that he became friendly with Ian and Lyn. He would help out behind the scenes in the projection room and in the café.
When Steve finished school in 1987, he went to Brisbane to work as a projectionist for Greater Union cinemas. There his time was split between the Albert, The Forum and The George. He also was a relief operator at The Keppera Drive-In one night, which was also owned by Greater Union. Sadly, none of those venues survived the 90s. But by then Steve had moved on.
In early 1988 there was an opportunity to manage the Whitsunday Drive-In in Bowen. So he left Brisbane to move back home. He met his future wife Debbie when she was working at the Summergarden Theatre around this time.
Steve continued to manage the Whitsunday Drive-In for over a year until he was encouraged to move to Charters Towers by the Blackburns. He helped them manage the Tors until the Snell family took over.
In 1990, the Snell family purchased the Tors Drive-In. Deb moved to Charters Towers to help Steve and start a new life.
Within a couple of years we had rebuilt the ramps, painted the screen and buildings and twinned the drive-in.
There’s always a lot of ongoing investments/improvements made behind the scenes too. We upgraded the projectors in the original booth to show a brighter, sharper image. In the first couple of years of ownership we also introduced FM sound and revamped the wiring for the speakers. The speakers require a lot of ongoing maintenance and repairs to function properly.
In the past three decades we’ve invested heavily in the drive-in. Not just in terms of updates and improvements, but also to simply keep it open. We’ve also done our best to pay our respects to the history of the Tors, and those that have come before us. The original structure and integrity of the Tors have been preserved as much as possible. Therefore it functions as a living piece of our cultural and social history.
Like those before us, we are very hands on owner-operators. Maintaining and running the drive-in requires a lot of work. But the greatest reward is knowing that our patrons can continue to experience the magical atmosphere of movies under the stars.
Steve & Deb Snell are now the longest owner/operators of the Tors Drive-In. We hope that our drive-in will continue to bring people together, and that special memories are made here well into the future.
Harry Bucklar was the manager for Feldts’ theatres in Charters Towers. That included the Tors Drive-In when it first opened.
He was dedicated to the industry and was an old school, hard working hands-on manager. Harry helped to build and landscape the property before it opened and maintain it thereafter. We simply can’t look at the drive-in without thinking of Harry, he left such a mark.
We were fortunate enough to have Harry and his wife Ethleen in our lives, and they became family to us.
Les Bagley worked as a projectionist for Feldts’ Theatres, including the Tors Drive-In.
Steve met him when they both worked for the local radio station. It wasn’t long before Steve convinced Les to resume his projectionist duties at the Tors and he worked for us for many years.
It was great to have that continuity and connection to the past. And through local treasures Harry and Les, we learned a lot about the history of Charters Towers and its’ theatres.
Over the years we’ve employed some descendants of former cinema pioneers and staff here. They are now part of the Tors Drive-In’s story.
We’ve hosted many private functions in the past few decades, including birthday parties and intimate proposal nights! Plus there’s regular theme nights, such as Halloween and retro movie nights. The Tors’ has hosted many clubs and group social nights.
We were especially thrilled to first bring the Sydney Travelling Film Festival (STFF) to town in 2011 and then 2012. We had already screened a lot of arthouse and foreign films, but the festival really showcased different types of movies from around the globe. It gave locals the opportunity to experience a film festival in their own backyard in a unique way. These are the only years that the STFF has ever been to a drive-in theatre! We look forward to bringing more of these types of events to town if possible.
In 2016 we celebrated 50 years of big screen movies at the Tors. We were fortunate that filmmaker April Wright flew over from the U.S. as our special guest. She has made excellent documentaries about this industry including Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie.
The Tors Drive-In has a rich history that has touched many lives from near and far. It’s our sincerest hope that it continues to evolve, grow and show movies under the stars to future generations.
The first decade of the 21st Century rang in big changes regarding projection. There was the cyan sound upgrade, but then most significantly was the rapid development of digital projection.
By 2013, less movies were distributed on film, and by 2014 studios stopped supplying film prints on latest movies. To remain open, we had to invest $100,000 to convert our main screen to digital because we needed the best 4K projector on the market at the time to deliver a bright, sharp image to our massive screen. This was another of those “invisible” behind the scenes upgrades that customers don’t really see, but one that was essential to continue showing new releases.
We have kept our film projectors in the main booth and still occasionally screen on film on screen 1. Our second screen at this stage is exclusively film – 16mm and 35mm. While we hope to digitally upgrade our second screen, we will continue to screen on film whenever we can.
Film as a format is in the very DNA of cinema and is a vital part of its’ story. Film remains the gold standard for its’ depth of colour, warmth, character, reliability and archival stability. Movies are still shot on film, and increasingly new releases are being struck on film for distribution as audiences’ appreciation for the purist, analogue experience grows. The most recent 35mm film release here was Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, and we anticipate there will be many, many more to come!
The very magic of cinema started with seeing those 24 frames per second transformed into a moving picture on the big screen, so long may it live on!
We are one of the rare locations still showing film, and if you’re interested in a behind-the-scenes tour, please ask at the cafe. Steve is always in his element when he can share his love of film projection!