Wynwood welcomes drive-in movie theater

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.

Early reactions to the Starlite, which has been screening movies since September to work out kinks, have been positive. Seeking a different family activity, Jamie Rosenberg and his wife Lisa brought their three kids to a screening of The Princess Bride. Their son Reid, 6, and daughters Ivy, 8, and Nica, 3, were crawling around atop their parents’ car while waiting for the film to start.

Forget the movie, according to Reid: “That’s the awesome part. You get to sit on the hood of your car.”

Sheldon Black and Regina Goldman, also there for The Princess Bride, 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.”

Drive-in theaters were common in 1950s South Florida. The mammoth Tropicaire Drive-In operated for 38 years on Bird Road before being torn down in 1987. The Coral Drive-In on Coral Way opened in 1949 and was demolished in the late 1970s. None remain in Miami, but drive-ins still thrive around the state, including Fort Lauderdale’s Thunderbird Swap Shop Drive-In, which opened Nov. 22, 1963, and remains one of the country’s largest.

In rural and Midwest America, drive-ins are still part of contemporary culture. When a 2010 fire consumed Tulsa’s Admiral Twin Drive-In (made famous in 1983’s The Outsiders), locals donated funds toward a reconstruction effort to save the nearly 60-year-old institution. The theater remains in operation today, screening films on Fridays and Saturdays.

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.”

Miami Herald writer Margaux Herrera contributed to this report.