For their six-month anniversary, Josh Frank and his girlfriend wanted to create their own personal movie theater. Using a building on Cesar Chavez Street as the screen, they projected “Grease” and watched the American musical classic from the comfort of their car.
Frank’s outdoor date night later evolved into Blue Starlite, Austin’s only urban drive-in theater. The mini drive-in, which opened in 2010, can fit up to 50 cars on its three-acre property.
“After watching ‘Grease,’ we thought that we would totally pay for doing something like this,” Frank said. “That’s how the idea of the drive-in was born.”
In 1997, Frank earned a film degree from SUNY Purchase College in New York and returned to his hometown of Austin to start an independent theater company. Frank tried to support himself as an artist by working at Austin Java and teaching at Dougherty Arts Center and the Jewish Community Center.
When he met his future wife in 2009, Frank started looking for more sustainable jobs. Although he expected the drive-in to last only about four weeks, it thrived. This year, it celebrates its sixth anniversary.
“I really enjoyed putting up independent plays with my theater company to give people unique experiences,” Frank said. “That’s what I aim to do with the drive-in.”
Although drive-ins in the 1950s were typically set on large properties outside of the city, Frank said Blue Starlite is different because it is smaller and in the middle of the metropolitan area.
“It’s a more intimate, unique experience than what a lot of people remember,” Frank said. “It has a new twist.”
Frank said this updated approach is appealing to a new generation of moviegoers because the privacy of their cars lets them use their cellphones and talk throughout the film. It also keeps them away from children who might be distracting in regular movie theaters.
“Because of the technology and speed in which we live, we don’t like turning off,” Frank said. “It’s an old-school way of watching movies that solves newer problems for millennials.”
Blue Starlite also serves hot dogs, fresh-popped popcorn and s’mores, which attendees can purchase before watching films.
Alexandra Young, a neuroscience senior, said her experience at the drive-in was a better alternative to her usual movie date night.
“Sometimes you don’t feel like watching old movies, but this time was different for me and my boyfriend,” Young said. “I hadn’t watched ‘Hook’ since I was a kid, and it really brought a lot of good memories. The whole concept of the drive-in just blends well with Austin’s culture.”
Blue Starlite opened another movie theater in Miami two years ago, and Frank will drive to Vail, Colorado, this summer to test another location. He said he wants to keep the main flagship in Austin, but hopes to experiment by bringing theaters to other places.
Since summer is Blue Starlite’s peak season, the drive-in features a “summer signature series” with all-time favorites from different genres. “Indiana Jones” and “Twister” are some of the action films on the list, while movies such as “Goonies” encourage a more family-based setting. Either way, Frank chooses to feature classics only.
“You can see modern movies everywhere,” Frank said. “Those are good too, but finding a way of bringing back your favorite movies you grew up watching and looking for ways to go back to how you first saw them — that’s what the Blue Starlite is about.”