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Wynwood Welcomes Drive-In Movie Theater

October 15, 2013

Wynwood’s Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In cranked up the projector on its grand opening weekend this past Friday night with a screening of Back to the Future.

The drive-in is looking to be something fresh: a communal experience that parlays nostalgic impulses into a social event — a new and unique option for a night out in Miami.

The theater is the brainchild of Josh Frank, 38, a Texas artist and author who’s testing the small drive-in concept on his second urban American market.

“I was running an art complex on the east side of Austin, which is basically Austin’s Wynwood,” Frank said this week as he scurried around the Blue Starlite, preparing for a dry-run screening. “I was looking for a way to celebrate my six-month anniversary with my girlfriend Jessica [who is now his wife]. There was this cool alley in the back of the building, so I painted a white screen on a wall, took a projector and a couple of drive-in speakers I bought on eBay and surprised her with a screening of Grease, which is her favorite movie.”

His wife watched the film, but Frank was up to something more ambitious. He calculated that the alley could accommodate about 15 cars in a spot two minutes from downtown Austin. Back home that night, he researched drive-ins online and discovered no new ones were opening anywhere in the country.

“I started thinking it would be pretty cool — the concept of making a drive-in that fits into the existing city,” Frank said. “I decided to open one there in that alley as a kind of art installation and see if people would show up. I had nothing to lose.”

The result was so successful that over three years, the Austin drive-in has relocated twice, expanding its capacity to some 70 cars.

Earlier this summer, after his wife got a job offer in Miami, the couple moved to South Florida. Although Frank makes a living as a writer (he’s the author of several books, including Fool the World: An Oral History of a Band Called Pixies), he immediately started thinking about recreating his drive-in experiment here.

After contemplating larger venues in Coral Gables or on Virginia Key, Frank settled on the thriving arts district of Wynwood.

David Lombardi, president of major Wynwood landlord Lombardi Properties, was taken by Frank’s enthusiasm and signed him to a “reasonable” two-year lease on a vacant lot adjacent to the O Cinema, also his tenant.

With the same resourcefulness he used in Austin, Frank set out to build his new theater on an empty lot. On Craigslist, he found the cabin of a cherry-red 1950s Chevy truck that had been retrofitted into a DJ booth and turned it into his projection booth. For concession snacks, he found companies that sold nostalgic remakes of vintage snacks, such as Frostie Blue Cream Soda and Pop Rocks. He stocked up on drive-in speakers from eBay. And instead of painting a wall, he came up with a real movie screen, 23 by 12 feet, that is waterproof. The Blue Starlite accommodates 20 to 24 cars, and there are seats near the front of the viewing area for those who wander in on foot. Some of the facilities are rustic: There are no bathrooms yet, just portable toilets (although they are kept remarkably clean). And plans are under way to collaborate with neighboring restaurants to cater to the Starlite’s customers with pizza deliveries and specially created drive-in meals.

Early reactions to the Starlite, which has been screening movies since September to work out kinks, have been positive.

Sheldon Black and Regina Goldman wanted to see the movie on a big screen but were more excited about the overall experience.

“It’s good to get that nostalgic, vintage feel,” Black said. “The drive-in gives that added boost.”

That sense of community and loyalty is what Frank hopes to develop with the Blue Starlite.

“Sure, there are other drive-ins out there,” he says. “But this is the only one where we escort you to your parking space, put the speaker on your window and make sure you’re comfortable. The concession stand is five feet away, and there aren’t 100 people waiting in line. We want to create a moviegoing experience where you don’t feel like an ant on an anthill. People develop a strong connection to movies, especially older ones like we show. When you come here, you watch a movie in your car, you sit with your friends, you have a private and intimate experience and it’s something you really can’t do anywhere else.”

Source: Miami Herald

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