Sun Pictures movie theatre Broome, WA: The world's oldest outdoor cinema

Near the ticket booth, the old pensioned-off projectors stand on ceremony. They're showing their years, a little chipped and rusting, the one-time state-of-the-art lustre long gone. One is from 1926, back in the silent era, and looks like it would whimper and die if called back into action.

It's not a museum piece carted in to show what ye olde cinema used to be, however. It's inside the Sun Pictures building because it was once used for projecting films there. And the family of antiquated machinery around it is just one way of journeying through the history of the world's oldest outdoor cinema.

Way before drive-ins and beanbag-heavy moonlight cinemas were invented, the al fresco movie thing was happening in the somewhat unlikely locale of Broome. It may be, by some measures, the most isolated town in the world, but Broome has cemented its own place in the film section of the Guinness World Records.

The most interesting nostalgia trip, however, comes in the old black and white photos dotted in amongst the movie memorabilia. Photo: Sun Pictures

The most interesting nostalgia trip, however, comes in the old black and white photos dotted in amongst the movie memorabilia. Photo: Sun Pictures

According to the official history (which glosses over the period it was probably used as a brothel), the building was opened in 1903 by the Yamasaki family. It sold imported Asian food, clothing and other household goods. Part of the building was later given over to a traditional Japanese playhouse until master pearler Ted Hunter bought it in 1913.

Hunter had a 500-seater movie theatre constructed on the site, which finally opened 100 years ago in 1916. The first film shown was a British racing drama called Kissing Cup. Since then, plenty of other rather more famous flicks have got an airing, as the posters all over the walls demonstrate. They range from King Kong and Lawrence of Arabia to Titanic and The Godfather, while golden age star photos include John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich.

The most interesting nostalgia trip, however, comes in the old black and white photos dotted in amongst the movie memorabilia. One shows tidal floods coming right up to the doorstep, which was a regular occurrence until a levee bank was installed across the marshes in 1974. Speak to a Broome old timer, and they'll probably break into an anecdote about watching a film with fish swimming around their feet, or coming out of Sun Pictures to find the street underwater and their car partially submerged.

Another photo gives an indication of how Broome has always been different from the rest of Australia. There's a multi-ethnic mix of faces, way before that became a common sight in Sydney or Melbourne. Broome was a rare exemption from the White Australia policy, and its pearling industry was reliant on Asian labour – with mainly Japanese divers and Chinese, Malay, Timorese and Filipino crew.

That's not to say it was a utopian, harmonised paradise though. There's very noticeable segregation in the seating, with Europeans getting the plum cane chairs at the front, Chinese and Japanese in the second grade seating behind them, with Malays and Indigenous Australians shunted unceremoniously to the back and sides. Segregation continued until 1967.

Most striking of all, however, is how little has changed from those old photographs. From the outside, the building still looks like a ramshackle piece of aspic-preserved Deep South. The "Sun Pictures" sign is still made up from a series of simple white, circular lightbulbs. The wooden frame is still surrounded by cheap corrugated metal, long the construction material of choice in a town that's over 2000km of hefty transport costs away from the nearest capital city.

Inside, Sun Pictures still revels in its idiosyncrasies. It may have switched to digital projection three years ago, and the wooden floors towards the back may have been replaced, but the attachment to the picture gardens of the past still remains strong.

Sitting down for the movie, stench of popcorn wafting from the kiosk at the back, there's a choice of seating. There's the partially covered area with the wooden floor, or the completely open to the elements front half, where a grassy lawn separates the screen from the brick patio with the seating on.

The seats are essentially bench frames with strips of fabric draped between them – like a set of deck chairs corralled into a single entity. They're not plush, but making them so would destroy the vibe. More impressive is what's above the screen – an unsullied night sky of twinkling stars. And then, part way through the movie, they are joined by a plane coming into land at Broome International Airport. Sun Pictures is right under the flight path – and that's one idiosyncrasy that couldn't have been predicted 100 years ago.

Another quirky activity in Broome: Ride a camel along Cable Beach. Photo: supplied by John Rozentals

Another quirky activity in Broome: Ride a camel along Cable Beach. Photo: supplied by John Rozentals

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/western-australia

australiasnorthwest.com

visitbroome.com.au

FLY

Qantas offers seasonal direct flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Broome during the dry season. Otherwise, connect through Perth. See qantas.com.au

STAY

With eight rooms in a historic former pearling master's home, the Pinctada McAlpine House offers a heritage contrast to Broome's modern resorts. Garden suites cost from $225 a night. See mcalpinehouse.com.au

TOUR

Tickets at Sun Pictures cost $17. During peak season, history tours of the premises are available at 10.30am and 1pm, costing $5. See broomemovies.com.au

David Whitley was a guest of Tourism Western Australia.

This story originally appeared on Traveller.

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