Books: Nitrate Nomads: celebrating Australia’s cinema pioneers

Jim Slater reviews a work by BKSTS member Daryl Binning charting the lives of hardy cinema showmen down under.


Long-time member of the BKSTS Daryl Binning from Western Australia came to visit Europe with his brothers this spring. He called in on me, giving the opportunity for a good ‘catch up’ about cinema. Daryl has ‘been there, done everything’ over his lifetime, from projection and exhibition in cinemas and drive-ins, to cinematography, to producing award-winning documentaries and undertaking assignments for Walt Disney, the UN and the Australian Defence Department, to manufacturing cinema equipment. He also presented me with an early copy of his new book, ‘Nitrate Nomads’, a labour of love, it will be of interest to some CT readers.

It is certainly different — a detailed history of cinema written in a very personal ‘tongue in cheek’ vein, it looks at the contribution made by the pioneering travelling picture showmen who worked in the south-west of Australia, hundreds of miles south of Perth and Fremantle.

The book covers the work of these showmen from the days of the early silent movies, a hardy band who provided entertainment to settlers and other isolated communities right up to 2015 when the last drive-in theatre in the region closed. The major storyline is based around Allan Jones Circuit Pictures, a company which began in 1923 serving the workers at a remote sawmill, and which evolved into teams of projectionists touring the region showing everything from wartime newsreels to the latest blockbusters. It is claimed that the Jones circuits were the longest, continually-screening cinema operation by the same family anywhere in the world, an impressive 92 years — Daryl is keen to know of any competing claims! As well as the touring cinema shows, Allan Jones (1902-1982) had permanent cinemas in three towns, ran four drive-in theatres, and from 1974 ran a cinema museum in Busselton.

“Nitrate Nomads” is an important contribution to Australian film history, and I found it eye-opening to read the accounts of the challenges faced by the early pioneers and the details of the technical equipment used and the way this developed to overcome difficulties. The book is aimed at cinema history buffs and those who have seen the cinema business develop. I was particularly interested to read about Australian manufactured projection and sound equipment with names like Markophone, Raycophone, Reprovox and XL-Tone, and it was fascinating to read about ongoing problems with power supplies and generators and how one area coped with a change from 40Hz to 50Hz mains. The technical details of how projection changeovers took place when the power supply had the capacity to serve two projectors but only one carbon-arc at a time will fascinate any old-time projectionists..

Nitrate Nomads has 360 pages, and has been styled after an old cinema presentation, with ‘reels’ instead of chapters etc. Rather than a conventional index it has four detailed lists entitled Casts, Locations, Attractions and Crew. Copies are available at various volunteer-operated historical societies and community museums in Australia, and will enable them to raise funds for on-going local preservation efforts. “Cinema Technology” readers interested in obtaining a copy should contact the author.