Story and Map by Bobby Blanchard, Photos by Colleen Nelson, Video by Andie Rogers
Tucked away in one of Austin’s crevices and hidden in plain sight is the Blue Starlite Urban Drive In, which gives visitors a movie experience from a different era.
The drive in is close by and easy to find — Austinites will find the Blue Starlite Urban Drive In down an inconspicuous dirt path if they exit Interstate 35 at 51st Street. The drive in has been operating in the city for more than five years now, and the founder is planning on expanding to other states.
Josh Frank, the founder of the Blue Starlite Urban Drive In, said Austin was the perfect “chemistry lab” to start an urban drive in.
“In a place like Austin, which is so tuned in to having pop culture and entertainment, that has definitely helped,” Frank said. “Austin is the greatest example of a city that has that type of culture. I don’t think this business could have started in another city besides Austin.”
Drive in theaters reached their peak of popularity in the 70s, when the LA Times reported that 25 percent of the nation’s theaters were drive ins. That number has since fallen to less than 2 percent.
Frank said the decline was partly because people began to enjoy movies at home — home entertainment options became more and more popular and movie theaters had to compete. But he said the biggest reason drive ins couldn’t compete was because they did not adapt. Drive Ins are typically located in the country, often far away from actual civilization and populations large enough to sustain a business.
View a map of other drive ins in Texas below.
What makes the Blue Starlite Urban Drive In unique is being located in the city. It is close enough to see the downtown skyline, but far enough away from the downtown noise.
“Drive ins didn’t really disappear or peter out because people weren’t interested in them, so much as the people owning them didn’t innovate with the times,” Frank said. “People are moving into cities, people are moving away from the country side. People were living differently.”
The Blue Starlite Urban Drive In is special in several other ways as well. It only shows “indie” movies and older movies. It is also designed to capture the feeling of the drive ins from times’ past. The equipment, the concession stand and the set up and design looks like something from decades ago.
“I really feel like when I come here, I go back in time,” said Chelsea Woodhead, who frequents the drive in. “The nostalgia is just off the charts.”
Natasha Smith, a 22-year-old Austinite, said she saw her first horror movie at the Drive In.
“I am definitely not prepared,” she joked before “Friday the 13th” started. She was purchasing popcorn at the concession stand. “But I think it is about time I see a horror movie, and there is no way I am going to buy a copy and own it in my house.”
Ultimately, Frank said he wants visitors to go to the drive in and have a good time. His favorite movie to show, he said, is “Grease,” the 1978 American musical. That was the first screening he did — and it was a special screening just for his wife.
Check out a slideshow of the movies they show at the Blue Starlite Urban Drive in below.
“I basically took all the good things that were awesome about the drive in, and innovative and did what I needed to do to make it work now,” Frank said. “What makes this little engine that could keep running is the combination of the things that are so great about this old business model and modernizing it.”
If you would like to see a fun video of the Blue Starlite Urban Drive-in watch the video below as Bobby Blanchard and Colleen Nelson venture to watch Brazil.