Atmosphere, film selection drive Blue Starlite’s success

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Audience members Vanessa Parner and Dylan Reynolds watch a screening of Nightmare on Elm Street at The Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In Theatre in East Austin Wednesday night. The Mini Urban Drive-In has been open for almost a year and shows indie, cult, Gen X/Y, childhood favorites, and drive-in classics.

Photo Credit: Allen Otto | Daily Texan Staff

As dusk falls and ushers help late arrivals get squared away in their spots, popcorn crunching and hushed laughter die down as the screen flickers. All eyes are glued on the screen at Blue Starlite, Austin’s only urban drive-in theater.

The Blue Starlite Urban Boutique Drive-in Theatre showed its first film, “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” just one year ago, and since then has gotten attention for its unique take on an old concept — classic movie soundtracks streamed through an FM radio in the comfort of your vehicle.

With two locations in town, a brick-and-mortar location on Cesar Chavez Street and a satellite branch on Sixth Street, the theater claims to be the “first and only” mini urban drive-in.

Unlike a traditional drive-in movie theater, owner Josh Frank said Blue Starlite’s metropolitan setting adds a magic touch that makes the theater a unique movie-watching experience for customers.

“It’s the drive-in for the modern age,” said Frank, who was born in Austin and has a film degree from the State University of New York. “It’s small, it’s compact and it’ll fit anywhere. We came up with a movie experience that you can’t have anywhere else — even at the Alamo Drafthouse. So that’s really nice that there are two really cool, original movie experiences right here in the middle of Austin.”

Frank, 36, said he had the idea for the Blue Starlite theater when he was trying to think of something to do to celebrate his six-month anniversary with his girlfriend last August. At the time he was renting out space to artists in an art gallery he owned. He said he thought it would be cool to create a little drive-in theater for the night, so he set about converting part of the building.

“Some of the artists in the building that I was renting came out and said ‘Oh, this is so cool, can I come?’ and so, lightbulb!” Frank said. “I added a couple more spaces and started inviting my friends, and then their friends wanted to come and I made some more spaces. And pretty soon I had a little business. It was an art gallery that basically morphed into the drive-in and the drive-in sort of took over and now that’s my job.”

Frank said the theater appeals to everyone, from couples on a date to people who just want to do something quirky and fun. It’s an easy way to experience movies in a setting from a bygone era, something that many of their customers have never had the chance to do.

“We have teenagers and college kids coming in that have never been to a drive-in and they’re actually getting a taste of a drive-in movie theater for the first time in their lives,” Frank said. “We’ll have a truckload of kids come and sit in the back of the truck and hang out and watch a movie. It’s not just going to the movies, it’s an evening.”

In addition to serving up flicks in a nostalgic setting, Blue Starlite specializes in showing not only movies that theatergoers grew up with, such as recently shown “Back To The Future,” “The Goonies” and “Teen Wolf,” but also older, more obscure movies that haven’t been played on the silver-screen in years. Frank always tries to add some context to his movie picks by keeping the featured film relevant to current events.

Since Jon Favreau’s rendition of “Cowboys & Aliens” releases Friday, the drive-in is showing “Westworld” — a film centered on futuristic robots dressed as cowboys — and the less analogous “Hook.”

“We always have some sort of fun tie-in that ties into something today, but there’s also the nostalgic factor. I always try to mix in something alternative or subversive or heady,” Frank said. “Like ‘Hook’ is a total crowd-pleaser and our patrons have been asking for it, but then ‘Westworld’ is a 1970s sci-fi movie that probably hasn’t been shown in a long time. So we try to mix it up.”

While the brick-and-mortar theater on Cesar Chavez Street is the epicenter of Frank’s business, the portable version on Sixth Street is what Frank is working to improve.

“I imagine more satellites and I imagine having satellite locations in other cities too,” he said. “We’re also looking into the idea of doing one in a big field in a smaller town outside of Austin like once a week. Like exploring a larger drive-in version that’s more of a destination that you would drive to for an evening.”

Within the next year, Frank said he wants to test the urban drive-in experience in other cities as well.

Theatrical design graduate student Renee Berthelette said her experience at Blue Starlite was different from the drive-ins she grew up going to.

“It was definitely different from how I had experienced [drive-ins] because it was so Austin-y,” Berthelette said. “It seem super Austin-y — like the decorations, the atmosphere. The fact that we were watching this old, obscure movie from some hipster’s choice of what he wanted to watch, it wasn’t like a traditional drive-in experience to me.”

Frank said the awe patrons derive from the experience is what sustains his interest in the business.

“I continue to be blown away and humbled by the mere fact that when we park the car, when we help the car to their space and put the speaker in their window, nine times out of 10, the person looks up with just a giant smile on their face and they’re like, ‘This is the coolest thing ever,’” Frank said. “That smile makes it all worthwhile. It’s what gets us through the dog days of summer and the cold days of winter.”

Printed on 07/21/2011 as: A country concept in an urban setting