Not so long ago, vinyl records seemed as obsolete as landline phones. Now, they are prized by classical music aficionados and DJs alike. Similarly, 3D films were relegated to the scrap heap of 1950s B-movies. Now, it’s hard to find a multiplex without one on the marquee.
But when Wynwood’s Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In cranks up the projector on its grand opening weekend Friday night with a screening of Back to the Future, this won’t be another case of pop culture recycling itself. 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.
“I thought having the two theaters next to each other would be a perfect synergy,” Lombardi said. “Josh had made it work in Austin, and he convinced me he could make it work in Wynwood. A drive-in is a perfect match for the neighborhood, because anything goes there. The quirkier, the better. I also think it will attract a young generation that has never been to a drive-in. Most of the kids running around Wynwood are in their 20s.”
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.