Sun Pictures in Western Australia holds record as world's oldest open-air cinema

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The Guinness Book of World Records lists Sun Pictures in Broome, Western Australia, as the world’s oldest open-air cinema in operation. The Sun Pictures Building was constructed in Chinatown at the turn of the 20th century by the Yamasaki family and was operated for several years as an emporium selling Asian foodstuffs and other household items. During this time, the Yamasaki family also used part of the building as a live theatre showing traditional Japanese Noh theatre.

Broome started out as a pearling port (pearls are still a major part of Broome’s economy) and pearler Ted Hunter purchased the building in 1913, commissioning architect Claude Hawkes to convert it into a picture theatre holding 500 patrons. Sun Pictures opened on Dec. 9, 1916, with the 1913 silent film Kissing Cup, also known as The Gift. The cinema’s location in Chinatown was close to brothels, shops and food stalls.

Harry Milner and Leonard Knight purchased the cinema in 1924 and converted it to sound in 1933. The first sound film to be shown was the 1930 Jeanette McDonald Paramount musical comedy Monte Carlo. At that time, it often took three years for a film to reach the remote settlement of Broome.

Broome is also subject to king tides from time to time, and it was not unusual for patrons to have to lift their feet during the film as the tide gurgled in. Many night patrons would leave the cinema to find Carrington Street completely flooded. Men would roll up their trousers and carry their women to higher ground. A levee bank built in 1974 put an end to the flooding.

Sun Pictures also went through a period of racially segregated seating. Children were seated on deck chairs in the front, and cane chairs with cushions were for the town’s elite. Other whites sat on the sides. Behind were the Chinese and Japanese and at the back, coming in a different entrance, were Malays, Koepangers, Filipinos and Aborigines.

Broome is now a popular tourist spot with a fabulous beach and some excellent hotels and resorts. This has brought about some unexpected problems for the cinema. As the tourists have increased, so has the number of planes landing. The cinema lies directly under the flight path of the local airport. Films through the decades have been interrupted at strategic moments by the engine roar and flashing lights of landing aircraft.

The cinema went through several owners over the years. Current owner Marisa Ferrez purchased Sun Pictures in 1997 and operates it with husband Ross de Wit. With assistance from the Heritage Council of Western Australia, a full restoration of the cinema was carried out. As an open-air cinema, it operates at night only with two sessions and usually shows a different feature at each session. If you have the opportunity, it is well worth visiting.

E-mail your Australia/New Zealand news items to David Pearce at insidemovies@hotmail.com.