Nostalgia – Austin Style
By Chad Swiatecki
Opening a drive-in movie theater will make a man out of you quick – just ask Josh Frank, founder and owner of Austin’s Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In Theatre.
“I’m a fix-it man now, way more than I ever used to be,” he says with a laugh, admitting that before opening the East Chavez site last summer, he was far more of an artist than a handyman. “I know about electrical circuits and wiring stuff and pretty much taught myself how to take apart and retrofit our speakers. I had to learn about different voltages and soldering in a very DIY way. I probably do it wrong, but it ends up working.”
What Frank has created is an exciting pocket on the edge of East Austin that’s become a haven for local movie buffs. For roughly the price of a pair of first-run movie theater tickets, patrons get the retro experience of pre-movie shorts, a vintage speaker on the car window and a mix of classic and quirky movies shown by a staff that cares about every piece of the movie-going experience.
Describing the Blue Starlite lot located behind Austin’s Starving Artist studios (which he also manages) Frank says, “There’s something whimsical and DIY about it and it’s got a special energy to it. Decorated with antique children’s cars, posters and wall paintings, the lot provides a distinct island of misfit toys vibe. “With a set place you can light it in different ways to create a special ambiance and play around with things to create the atmosphere you want.”
Frank, a Texas native, attended film school in New York before becoming a published author. At age 35, he bounced between Austin and the Big Apple several times before deciding early last year to open a food trailer on South First Street. Showing movies on the side of the vehicle began as a way to tempt customers to stick around. Gradually Frank’s cinematic love won out. “I scrapped everything about that business that I didn’t like and I was left with showing movies in this open space”.
A meeting with the owner of the building that now houses Starving Artist Studios gave him some room to play around with movies when he wasn’t managing a team of artists concentrated in one space. What was intended as a one-off drive-in date night with his now fiancé caught the attention of the artists inside, and possibilities began to emerge. “People from the gallery came into the back to see what we were doing and they were really into it,” he said. “That’s when I started realizing this is something that really excited people, and then it shifted gears to something I could do for the public.”
By August of 2010 he was up and running. The Chavez site can now hold 16 cars per showing while a second, occasional location at the East Side Drive-In on Sixth Street can accommodate 24.
Encouraged by the interests of a town that’s growing into a film buff mecca in the same way Austin has been drawing musicians for decades, Frank is not slowing down. “I’m looking for perfect space downtown, with more infrastructure and an awesome view that’s just perfect. This is an idea you can take anywhere.”