By Melissa Keogh
Wallis Cinemas boss Lorna Wallis’ first date with the man who would later become her husband was sitting in the rows of the Capri Theatre, in Adelaide’s inner northern suburbs.
It was the late 1950s, a time when going to the movies was worth getting dressed up for, “gloves and all”.
Lorna, 79, can’t remember the name of the film they watched, but recalls the moment she dropped a box of chocolates Bob had bought her all over the floor.
“Buying a box of chocolates in those days was very expensive and I’d just opened them when I went to get one out and dropped the lot,” she says.
“Bob was very cross. I miss him terribly, it’s been 11 years.”
More than half a century later and Lorna is still walking the foyers of South Australian cinemas, carrying on the legacy of her late husband and the state’s movie man, Bob Wallis.
Bob was the son of Wallis Theatres founder Hughie Wallis, who opened the state’s first drive-in theatre, the Blue Line at West Beach, in 1954.
The opening of the Blue Line theatre sparked the explosion of drive-in culture in SA: teenagers piled into FJ Holdens, speakers hanging from car windows and kids munching on Chiko Rolls in the back seat.
In 1955, the Mainline Drive-In at Gepps Cross opened and is now the only one left in Adelaide.
Hughie died in 1994 aged 84, leaving Bob in charge. But when Bob himself fell ill and passed away in 2007, it was Lorna and their daughter Michelle’s turn to take over.
The cinema chain, now known as Wallis Cinemas, has been making South Australians laugh, cry and everything in between for almost 70 years.
“As long as people still come to the cinemas, that’s what we want,” Lorna says.
“There’s nothing like the big screen, I know there are big TVs now, but there’s nothing quite like a night out at the movies.”
Hughie Wallis had a fascination with photography and filmmaking and laid the foundations of his business when he began screening Hollywood films in community halls across Adelaide.
The opening of the Blue Line at West Beach in the ’50s sparked the establishment of a handful of other Wallis drive-ins and cinemas across metropolitan Adelaide and regional SA.
Its theatres included the Ozone at Glenelg, the Chelsea in Adelaide’s east, a cinema complex in Hindmarsh Square and of course, the Piccadilly in North Adelaide.
Lorna has fond memories of the old theatre, as she grew up around the corner on Childers Street, and would see a film there every Wednesday and Saturday night “with a group of young ones”.
She says the Piccadilly Theatre was also Bob’s favourite.
“Bob loved going to the Piccadilly, his funeral was held there,” she says.
“They had on his seat, ‘reserved for Bob’, which was nice.”
Over the decades, the drive-in culture faded and the company closed many of its facilities.
Wallis now employs about 230 people across four cinemas at Mitcham, Piccadilly, Noarlunga, and Mt Barker, as well as the Gepps Cross drive-in. The business recently purchased the Deacons Cinema at Mildura.
Lorna says Wallis Cinemas’ success and longevity in SA as a small-to-medium enterprise is all down to its loyal employees.
“A lot of our staff have been with us for 40 years, so we have very loyal employees. You have to have good people around you. Bob always told me that you’re only as good as the people around you,” she says.
“The patron is number one and we believe in pleasant customer service and cleanliness in our cinemas.”
Lorna admits business is tough with competition from larger cinema chains and online streaming giants such as Netflix, causing Wallis to drop its ticket prices by almost 50% last year.
Nonetheless, she says Wallis Cinemas is proud of its SA heritage and its small-scale footprint.
“We’re family. We’re too small to go up against the big guys interstate,” Lorna says.
“I’m proud to be South Australian. I’ve grown up here, my family’s grown up here and I just think we’re a lovely little state.
“You get into these others that get a bit big, but I love it here.”
I Choose SA for Small to Medium Enterprise stories are made possible by Bendigo Bank:
Visit I Choose SA for Industry to learn more stories about key industry leaders, why they’ve chosen SA as a base and how the state is enabling them to succeed.