Dr Darrel Killen
Born: November 28, 1925. Died: December 31, 2014.
Born Edward Darrel Lyle Killen, Darrel was the younger of two sons to Geoffrey and Una Killen. The Killen family were prominent pastoralists in central NSW, and owned several properties including Moonagee Station, Nyngan. Darrel was a distant relative to the politician Jim Killen.
Killen followed his older brother, Bryce, into Edgecliff Preparatory School in Sydney, and then to Sydney Grammar School. Holidays were spent in the bush at Nyngan. He joined the AIF as soon as he left school and served with the 2/7 Australian Commando Squadron in New Guinea, taking part in the Aitape-Wewak campaign. He was a proud member of the Guard of Honour at General Adachi's surrender on September 12,1945.
Discharged in 1946, Killen enrolled at the University of Sydney, completing a three-year Arts course in two, despite active involvement in university politics and inter-collegiate sport. For a time he was president of the University's Liberal Club. He then studied philosophy at Oxford University, and completed a PhD in Political Science at the University of Chicago.
He worked briefly for the United Nations in New York, then returned to Sydney to work as a researcher for the Liberal Party, and served in the Prime Minister's Office in Canberra. In Canberra in 1960 he married Gillian Kirkpatrick (usually known as Dinny) who remained his life-long partner. They had three children – Virginia, Granger and Edward.
Although Killen maintained an interest in the family's properties, managed by his brother Bryce, it was in Canberra that he embarked on his business career. With his cousin, Ross Gibson, Darrel formed Moteliers Limited, and from 1960 onwards, purchased, built and operated a number of motels in regional NSW, including Young, Hay and Wagga Wagga. The jewel in the crown among the motels was the Townhouse Motor Inn in Marcus Clark Street in Canberra City, designed by the Italian architect Enrico Taglietti, with whom Killen was frequently involved. Then the largest motel in Canberra, and with its distinctive restaurant known as Noah's Ark, the three-storey Townhouse opened on May 4,1961 and became a Canberra landmark.
Other motels and hotels followed, including an involvement in the Lakeside Hotel on London Circuit. Then in 1965, Killen and his partners acquired the lease on a block of land in Civic with the intention of building Canberra's first independent cinema. Fuelled by his encyclopaedic knowledge of films, Killen undertook an extensive study tour of the United States, Britain and Europe to look at the latest trends in cinema design.
The Center Cinema opened in Bunda Street on October 4, 1966 with the attendance of the Governor-General, Lord Casey. It was a remarkable building, with four storeys of offices and shops above the fully underground 500-seat cinema. Innovative in its design and fittings, it remains one of the finest examples of Taglietti's architectural work.
In these days of cinema classics on TV, DVD and the internet, it is hard to appreciate what hopes Canberra film enthusiasts had for the Center Cinema. Before then, Canberra had no easy access to quality cinema: the two Greater Union cinemas which had dominated Canberra for 30 years, showed mainstream product from the major studios, and alternative programming was scarce.
The Center Cinema arrived with the promise of a radically different programming policy, including weekly "Sunday Classics". The film culture behind the venue was signalled by the murals on the walls of the cinema stairs and foyer (images from films by Welles, Chaplin, Fellini, Olivier, Ingmar Bergman and others). The cinema was luxurious – a warm, intimate, dark brown temple to cinema, with state of the art image and sound, and everything in the best of taste. With long "continental" rows and retractable seating, there were no internal obstructions for the view of what was then Canberra's largest screen.
The opening film was Dr Zhivago which ran for a then Canberra record of 9 weeks. It was followed by numerous high profile events including world premieres for The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, We of the Never Never and many others. Crocodile Dundee ran at the Center for 50 weeks and drew a total audience of over 200,000, an extraordinary achievement for a city the size of Canberra.
Not resting on his laurels, further cinemas soon followed in Canberra: the Sundown Drive-in opened on March 14, 1969, with many unusual features including staff on horse-back, and a Taglietti-designed "Tuckerbox" sunk below ground-level to avoid interrupting sight-lines. The Nova Cinema in Queanbeyan opened in September 1972, and the French-themed Boulevard Twin opened in Canberra City in December 1973 (eventually to become Electric Shadows in 1979).
In Sydney, with businessman Tony Cohen and others, he created the Academy Twin in Paddington, another major venue for quality cinema, opening in 1973 with design and programming nods to the best of British art cinemas.
Killen was an outspoken advocate of the interests of Australian independent cinemas against the major corporations. Like many independents, Killen had trouble sourcing product for his cinemas, and began to import films to show on his own screens, and to distribute around the nation to like-minded independents. Many French films, including his biggest success, Three Men and a Cradle (1985), found their way here because of Killen's commitment.
Killen made only one significant venture into film production: he was a pivotal investor in Journey out of Darkness, a feature film produced in 1966. Though saddled with bizarre casting, the film was highly aspirational. Killen and his partners were convinced they were pioneering a way forward for a new Australian film industry. The film attracted the attention of Prime Minister Harold Holt, who through Killen, followed the progress of the production with interest. Unfortunately, Holt's death soon followed the commercial and critical failure of the film, and the potential that Killen had encouraged Holt to see in a re-born film industry went nowhere.
Actively engaged in Canberra planning and development issues, Killen served on the Canberra Business Council's executive committee from 1986 to 1988. In 1992, he was granted a life membership of the council. Philip Hobbs, in the Canberra Times of January 12, 1991, wrote: "His peers and competitors describe him as being of the old school; from an era when fair play was not just a notion, but a tangible thing; from an era when business was conducted by gentlemen."
He was extraordinarily loyal to his staff, as those of us who worked for him in the cinemas knew well; never a micro-manager, he gave opportunities to young enthusiasts, tolerated our mistakes, and supported our initiatives.
Killen's vision, and his courage and determination as a businessman, profoundly enhanced the quality of cultural and social life for a generation or two of Canberrans, although he lived to see all of his cinemas close: the Sundown Drive-in in 1984, the Center in 2003, and the Boulevard (as Electric Shadows) in 2006.
The Killen family property and house at Glenlyle on Mt Majura were sold in 1999 and Darrel and Dinny moved into town.
After battling ill health for several years, Killen died on New Year's Eve 2014, but retained his mental faculties to the end. He was a strong supporter of the law-reform group, Dying with Dignity, lobbying for the legalisation of medically assisted death. He is survived by his wife, Dinny, his three children and by five grandchildren.