Long-time Austin theater Blue-Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In takes on new life in pandemic

Josh Frank, owner of Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-in for more than a decade, holds up a Blue Starlite-branded mask. (Photo by Olivia Aldridge/Community Impact Newspaper)
Josh Frank, owner of Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-in for more than a decade, holds up a Blue Starlite-branded mask. (Photo by Olivia Aldridge/Community Impact Newspaper)

Josh Frank, owner of Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-in for more than a decade, holds up a Blue Starlite-branded mask. (Photo by Olivia Aldridge/Community Impact Newspaper)

Drive-in theater Blue Starlite found itself in a unique position in 2020: After more than 10 years as a small business “just getting by,” demand for drive-in movies exploded, owner Josh Frank said.

At the same time as many local institutions were forced to adapt to business models due to the pandemic, the Blue Starlite experience was already socially distant and in compliance with new state and local safety regulations.

“Last year when COVID-19 hit, I woke up in the morning to discover I was the only theater open in town,” Frank said.

Frank, a native Austinite, writer and artist, started the project that would become Blue Starlite in 2009. At first, he opened a small trailer serving dessert and projected a film at the location. At that point, he considered the project to be a sort of theater exhibit—and assumed it would be a short-lived pop-up.

“I was like, ‘That’d be fun,’” he said. “If some weirdo said, ‘I’ve got a drive-in in an alleyway in East Austin. Come watch an old movie!,’ I’d pay for a night doing that.”

Quickly, Frank realized his project was filling a space in the Austin film market that bigger theater chains did not touch. He had created an experience that people found “charming and quirky,” and it helped him earn steady income while working on writing books; Frank has authored a biography of the punk band Pixies, among other books.

In 2021, Blue Starlite still holds on to the aesthetic Frank began with. The Mueller location now has seven screens, but vintage trailers and movie paraphernalia still dot the landscape.

The business has also grown from the demand of Austinites seeking coronavirus-safe activities; Blue Starlite now offers food and concessions, has extended the life of a pop-up in Round Rock and opened a fresh location downtown. Frank has also obtained licenses to show new independent films in addition to the throwback flicks Blue Starlite is best known for, from “The Princess Bride” to “James Bond” films.

"Ten years ago, what started as this little seed of an idea is now offering such a usefulness to our town,” Frank said. “I’m super proud of that.”
By Olivia Aldridge

Reporter, Central Austin

Olivia joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter in March 2019. She covers public health, business, development and Travis County government. A graduate of Presbyterian College in South Carolina, Olivia worked as a reporter and producer for South Carolina Public Radio before moving to Texas. Her work has appeared on NPR and in the New York Times.


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