The Australian Midnight Horror Show Riots

 (Another article submitted to a few magazines in 2021. Again, not a single reply. Not even a polite (or a non-polite for that matter) rejection email)


Midnight Horror Show Riots

A new gimmick was uncovered in Australia in the second decade of the 20th century: midnight movie screenings. By the 1950s a new aspect to midnight screenings was uncovered – riots!

The first such screening (that can be confirmed) happened at Broken Hill, on New Year’s Eve, 1912 when the short film Auld Lang Syne[1] was screened shortly after midnight. From there the midnight New Year’s Eve film became an annual tradition for Broken Hill and was as much a celebration for the city as Christmas. The popularity, and success, of the screenings was noted and picked up by other cities around the country. Soon it wasn’t just New Year’s Eve that was chosen for midnight screenings, public and school holidays and Easter were targeted.

Initially midnight screenings were reserved for mainstream romance, light comedy, and drama films, but the novelty soon wore off as the 1930s began. This saw the gimmick used sparingly until the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s. Where a midnight screening might be reserved for a one-off to promote a horror film, as was done for 1942’s Ghost of Frankenstein, or as a New Year’s Eve promotion, the new generation of the 1950s wanted to party. As a result, midnight screenings became more common place. And with midnight screenings came riots and brawls.

In Melbourne the Lyceum Theatre on Burke Street began to run what it called ‘Festival(s) of Fear’. These movies were held on Friday evenings as many of the pre-1948 banned horror movies were dusted off and screened. Man Made Monster, Ghost of Frankenstein, Dracula’s Daughter, House of Frankenstein, and The Mummy’s Curse were all given a run, resulting in full houses and a windfall for the cinema. Other cinemas realized what was happening and began to book the same movies and screen them at midnight, generally on a Friday, Saturday and, although more rarely, Sunday.

The early screenings attracted as many critics as they did paying customers. A letter published in The Argus gives a great insight into the kinds of people who attended these Midnight Screenings in the early 1950s. 

On Friday night, out of curiosity, I entered a city picture house for an early morning picture screening. I was late and was given a front seat. Near me sat a bored little boy of 12, with a cigarette butt dangling from his lips. Farther away were children of about 10, highly excited by the lack of restraint in other adolescents. Soldiers, sailors, and toughs were present, with language that matched their attitudes. Here and there were couples, and a sprinkling of the ageless weather-beaten men seldom seen in the daylight. In this atmosphere of emotional instability there must have been a number of wealthy and or responsible people, to judge by the taxi afterwards employed. After the show, at 2:30am, noisy groups departed homewards while little boys scurried through them home to their beds. From my car I watched a lad of nine hurrying along whistling nervously frightened by his own footsteps. A nearly deserted city at early morning is a terrifying place, the father of that child a scoundrel.[2]

The practice of midnight horror movies soon spread the country, but the main problems all appeared to focus on Victoria and its capital, Melbourne.

The first reported brawl occurred in Ballarat, a country town outside of Melbourne. In April 1952, The Argus noted how midnight horror movies were now banned in that city due to weeks of regular fighting and vandalism, the latter usually happening when errant bricks missed their marks (most likely a head) and went through windows. The audiences for these movies were young people, teenagers.


Marwick calls out the Bendigo filmgoers. The Age, 29 March 1958

In the 1950s teenagers had discovered rebellion, alcohol, sex, rock and roll, fast cars, and motorbikes, but not necessarily in that order. The trend was towards two distinct types of teenagers, the Australian equivalent of the American Greaser was known as the Bodgie, and their women were known as Widgies.

Bodgies were working class men and boys. They drove hot rods, rode motorbikes, wore jeans and t-shirts and liked to fight.

Bodgies would fight with anyone, especially authority figures, and their foes, migrant Australians.

Ultimately it didn’t matter who was with what gang, once teenagers got into the cinemas at midnight, they were half drunk. Once seated they continued to drink and in the wee hours they would pour out onto the street where any slight, real or imagined, would trigger an all-in brawl. The screening of old Universal horror films wasn’t the trigger. The Bodgies just happened to be there when they screened.

Things came to head in Thornbury, an outer suburb of Melbourne, on March 10, 1958, when a riot broke out, resulting in heavy damage to the theatre and injuries to police. The blame was placed squarely at the feet of young people and horror films. We have a first account of the violence, thanks to an eyewitness, John Brideson, who wrote to The Age shortly after.

To see this programme 1,700 arrived, some two hours before midnight, but the most alarming feature about the audience was that most were teenagers of the most extreme type – in clothes, language and attitude. They were so rough that a plate glass screen was broken, a side door was surreptitiously opened, and the crowds swamped the theatre. The crew of a police patrol car, along with local foot patrols were required to maintain order during the show, which lasted till 3.45 a.m.[3]

Instantly horror films were blamed, even though the cinema was running gangster movies that evening. It was assumed that horror was the factor due to a card placed out the front of the theatre before the show, reading, “The whole theatre will quiver; you will shiver; but please don't faint.”

Solutions to the problem came thick and fast. Influential minister, and liberal theologian, Sir Irving Benson suggested a simple solution – Sunday School. Dr. Benson stood to address a gathering at Wesley College in outer Melbourne.

You probably have read that, when three lads were before the court for trying to overturn a motor car after they had left one of these so-called midnight entertainments their solicitor said, ‘The people who should be in this court are the people who run the theatre’. We want. in this country freedom of expression and thought, but such freedom does not entitle picture shows to provide for these midnight parties films (sic) which could only disturb and unbalance and give a wrong sense or values to the young people who see them. One of the best things that could happen in Australia would be a great national resurgence of Sunday School.[4]

Benson’s call was for all young people, under the age of 21, to mandatorily attend Sunday School, either for Bible studies or for training for work.

Replying to this, the Victorian State Government fell back onto a tried-and-true solution – parents. “If we could only persuade parents to go out more with their children, we would have a far less serious problem of juvenile delinquency and hooliganism on our hands,” was the response from the Chief Secretary, Arthur Rylah. “It would be unwise to rush in and take hasty action.[5]”. Rylah went on to claim that the bulk of the damage at theatres came about when some lads were refused entry and when boys and girls were allowed to sit next to each other. Segregating the audience had seen a reduction in the damage done to cinemas.

The opposition party didn’t agree. “We want the Government to do something about these shows, and not adopt a ‘wait and see’ attitude,” said the Leader of the Labor Party, Ernie Shepherd. “We can’t take the risk of allowing this to grow. Only this morning I received a telegram from the Mother’s Club Federation of Victoria, representing 55,000 mothers, expressing concern on the matter.[6]

Faced with growing attacks by the Church and Opposition, Rylah ordered an immediate investigation and report.

The report verified that gangster movies, not horror, were shown on the evening in question. “They were, in fact, some that could have been described as rather poor melodrama and detective stories,” claimed Rylah[7]. What Rylah didn’t say was all the films were approved by the censor and were American in origin. The showing of films, in particular horror, had contributed to vandalism at both Ascot Vale and Thornbury. Even as the report laid blame, it continued to defend horror films by deflecting some of the blame for ‘larrikinism’ onto ‘objectionable’ literature, recordings, television, and newspapers. Rylah again called for parents to take a more active role in the education and supervision of their children.

Thirteen ‘objectionable’ films were named in the report, and the media focused on the obvious horrors, Donovan’s Brain, The Creeper, The Black Castle, The Creeping Unknown, Strange Door and The Creature Walks Among Us.

Films from other genres, such as crime, gangster, thriller or music, were not mentioned by name. As will be seen, this was deceptive as at least one of the riots in Sydney broke out after a screening of a Bill Haley and Elvis Presley double bill.

To end to the riots, the Victorian Government called in the heads of Hoyts Theatres and negotiated a deal which would see a reduced number of midnight screenings and more supervision at the screenings that would happen. These solutions placated the public and brawls and riots became less and less as the 1950s ended. As the 1960s began midnight screenings moved to drive-ins, which provided new locations for fights.

Before the Rylah commissioned report was tabled, more problems arose, this time in Brunswick, another of the pouter suburbs of Melbourne. The Hoyts Padua theatre hosted a midnight screening of two movies, described as being horror, almost a year to the day of the 1958 Thornbury incident. Despite opening the doors at ten thirty, people flooded the theatre and police had to be called in to restore peace.

Government minister William Slater told the Victorian parliament about his experiences after recently attending a midnight show.

The show started shortly after midnight, and among the audience was a considerable number of teenage boys and girls and some children aged from 8 to 10 years. They had displayed to them in an abominable fashion, according to my informant, these ‘horror’ films depicting such scenes as a surgeon from Mars performing an operation on the brains of persons destroyed by a monster. I think it is time a strong protest was registered, in the name of youth, against the sordid commercialism of certain interests which are prepared, for the sake of money, to display these extraordinary and horrible films to that section of the community.[8]

This time the principal of the nearby Brunswick Technical School was the complainant, and he had support within the state Labor party in the form of stalwart Slater, then in the last year of his life. Slater read letters that had been sent to him and thundered his opposition about horror films and midnight screenings[9].

As Slaters health declined, his colleague, Campbell Turner, took up the gauntlet.

Our chaplain attended a midnight ‘horror’ session at a Sydney-road picture theatre during the early hours of Monday, March 9th. The films screened were of a particularly morbid type, and the large audience included children and adolescents from the age of eight or nine upwards. It may perhaps be argued that what occurs outside school hours is not the business of the school, but I feel that teachers have a moral responsibility toward their students, and I know that some of our boys attend such ‘horror’ screenings. From the standpoints of morality, health and plain commonsense these shows appear to be highly undesirable, and I would urge that the Government be encouraged to bring down legislation to at least curb this social evil.

Faced with yet more attacks, the Government decided not to legislate, but rather to handball to the local councils. When Rylah’s report was finally tabled in the Victorian Parliament in 1959, he included this statement.

“In districts where midnight performances are held from time to time the remedy seems to be for those who oppose such entertainments to make their representations to the local municipal councils and urge that a by-law be made and enforced regarding the times at which picture theatres may be open to the public.[10]

This now ensured that all complaints about Thornbury, Ballarat, Brunswick or anywhere else, would now not be the State Government’s problem.

By then it didn’t really matter as another series of midnight picture shows was about to explode – at the drive-ins.

On 29 January 1962, the worst of the riots occurred in Melbourne. Again, Preston and Thornbury were the epicentres and again it was horror films that sparked the riots.

The Thornbury/Preston riot. The Age 30 January 1962

Several incidents occurred that night. A man, Cosimo Surace, was walking into his house, with his cousin, when a car pulled up. A man leant out of the car and called him by name. Cosimo walked over to the car and was shot six times. Wounded in the hip and foot, Cosimo collapsed to the street whereupon the same jumped out and proceeded to whip him as he lay bleeding in the street. His cousin jumped in and started throwing punches. Two men ran, leaving the whipper and the car. The cousin sat on the attacker until a patrol car came by and arrested a 27-year-old and charged him with wounding with intent to murder.

If it sounds like a gangland hit, then it probably was. But the fact that the victim and his cousin had been at a midnight film show in Northcote was cited as the likely cause. That the gunman was not identified as being at the show meant nothing. A man was shot and beaten, it had to be the fault of a midnight horror movie.

At the same time as the shooting the Regent Theatre, Thornbury, was under attack from within. As the movies were being screened, patrons started jeering and throwing eggs at the screen (sadly the name of the movie is not known). Those who were there to watch the movie took offense at the eggs and began to throw fists.

Then bottles started flying. That was it. The film was shut off, the lights turned on and the theatre manager stormed down to the front and was in the process of telling everyone to get the hell out of his theatre when he too was knocked senseless with a bottle. When he got to his knees, another man rushed up and smashed him in the mouth with a broken bottle. This time he stayed down.

It must have been a full moon because in nearby Preston, the entire drive-in simply got up after the film ended and had a fight (again, they were described as ‘horror’ films, but the names aren’t readily available). This time it kicked off as everyone was leaving. Someone said something to someone else and that was it - it all erupted. As is usual with such riots, nobody knows who threw the first punch, but when it was on, it was on.

For those reporting the scene, it was clear – midnight screenings, plus horror equated riots. But was the riot due to the films, the time of the night or something else?

One newspaper account gives the best clue as to what happened and why when it was reported that ‘migrant’ and ‘Australian’ mobs fought in the streets. Fences were ripped down, palings torn off to be used as weapons, cars were set on fire and letterboxes blown up with firecrackers. Newspapers were set alight, bottles rained down and letterboxes were used as weapons. By the time police regained control, twenty-one people were sitting in the cells.

If it sounds like a race riot, it’s because that’s exactly what it was. Sadly, they weren’t that uncommon in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Again, media and politicians played up the midnight screenings of horror films. Never mind that people had recently rioted in Sydney after a midnight screening of Rock Around the Clock and Jailhouse Rock, horror was the true enemy[11].

By the early 1960s, the Bodgies were in decline, replaced by Sharpies, so named due to their tendency to ‘dress sharp’. The Sharpies hung around anywhere that had any kind of youth entertainment and didn’t care who they fought. They’d bash each other if no other entertainment was available.

The usual calls for banning horror films went up and were ignored. Distributors and the censors knew that horror films had been banned since 1948, so they couldn’t ban the banned. Police formed what they called a ‘Bodgie Squad’, a flying squad that was designed to go around and beat up as many Bodgies and Sharpies as could be found. Oh, and if they could be bothered, arrest them. Incarceration came secondary to the beatings. They also put plainclothes police on bicycles to infiltrate the youth gangs.

Midnight shows were also banned in Thornbury, so that was being looked at. Fines were issued. Again, parents were handed the bulk of the blame. The County Women’s Association then stepped in and that was it for midnight horror cinema shows in the greater Melbourne region for the duration.

The film most likely at blame is Village of the Damned. This movie was in circulation and a popular midnight movie of the time. It was being shown in other cinemas and drive-ins across the country at the same time, including Victoria, but this hasn’t been confirmed.

The Age. 30 March 1958

Drive-ins went on their merry way. In November 1962 another brawl took place in Broadmeadows. Six youths were caught, named, shamed and fined. This time the brawl took place within the drive-in, with pieces of wood stripped from the fence used as weapons, with the usual bottles, chairs and fists flying. After that last punch-up, nothing from Melbourne. Midnight shows would continue, with horror being a selling point, but the riots simply ceased. The same happened for the other capital cities.

What had once been a place for fighting, drive-ins showing horror films at midnight became family affairs. If people didn’t bring their families, then they were highly likely to be starting them during the quiet bits of the films. They would continue well into the 1970s.



END NOTES



[1] USA. 1911, Vitagraph Company of America, directed by Laurence Trimble.

[2] The Argus, 21 December, 1951

[3] The Age, 17 March 1958

[4] Ibid

[5] The Age, 20 March, 1958

[6] Ibid

[7] The Age, 31 March, 1958

[8] Hansard 41 CA V257

[9] One such letter read, “As you are doubtless aware, it has become the practice of suburban picture theatres to present midnight screenings of " horror " films. The unanimous feeling of the council of the Brunswick Technical School is that these screenings should be prohibited, or at least transferred to more suitable times and then very strictly controlled. I am instructed to bring to your notice the fact that young children and adolescents attend ·these shows in large numbers. From the standpoints of morality, health, and plain common sense they are most undesirable, and your support is sought for any legislation which will deal with a growing social evil.”

[10] Hansard 41 CA V257

[11] Sydney Morning Herald 5 March 1963


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