Blue Starlite Shines on Mueller Again

After four-month hiatus, urban drive-in finds a new old home

Back to the future: Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In, shown here in its days at Austin Studios, has moved back to the Mueller area. (Photo by John Anderson)

Josh Frank isn’t an average business owner, but the Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In is not an average business. As it moves back to Mueller, Frank said he is excited that the Starlite is returning to the “mini” roots that made the business fun to operate when he first launched it.

If you feel like you’ve already heard about the Starlite and Mueller, it might be because this isn’t the first time it's set up shop there. From 2012 to 2016, the drive-in operated just a mile and a half away from its current location on E.M. Franklin Avenue, on the back lot at Austin Studios, but was forced to relocate due to the recent development at Mueller. Having relocated five times since it was established in 2010, Frank says the Starlite’s latest location on Mueller seems to be the perfect fit for the unconventional pop-up movie spot. He said, “This feels right, more than any of the other spots."

For Frank, the perfect drive-in must have a few simple yet essential elements: a little nook with open space, concrete, the right amount of exits, and minimal proximity to residential properties. “There's a lot of things that have to be checked off for something like this to work,” Frank says, but the stars aligned when he found the new location behind the Moose Lodge. The new location has all the country-charm of its previous South Austin location with the added perk of proximity to the heart of the city.

Despite bringing back fan-favorites like all-night concessions, authentic drive-in speakers, and the homemade preshow featuring vintage ads, Blue Starlite is not emerging from its four-month hiatus without adding a few new amenities for patrons to look forward to. Now operating in the backyard of Austin’s historic Moose Lodge, the drive-in offers guests the Moose Lodge balcony for private viewings and parties, fully equipped with vintage speakers and a great central view of the screen. Additionally, the drive-in has a selection of vintage sodas and promises new local sweets will be added to the menu.

With the new city-central location, the Starlite is incorporating an array of viewing experiences at varying prices. Viewers can pay as little as $7 on “Soda Pop Cinema Social” tickets to watch a drive-in movie for the price of two vintage soda pops, or up to $40 for a deluxe front row space equipped with drive-in speakers. Frank says that while he doesn’t expect every customer to pay big bucks for a front row seat, or $180 to rent out the Moose Lodge balcony for a private party, offering the option for premium seating helps him maintain affordable ticket prices. And whatever the price, no outdoor movie-going experience is complete without equally al-fresco snacks, so every movie-goer is welcome to the drive-in’s roasting pit, which it set up to make fresh s’mores at any point during the movie.

Besides finding a large plot of land in a heavily populated city, hunting for the perfect drive-in location is no simple task. Frank said his former career as a nonfiction author came in handy when it was time to hunt down a new location for Starlite. “To keep a business like this open in this new Austin, you gotta be creative and think outside the box."

Being an author was part of what motivated the early years. After writing a biography of the Pixies, Frank says the famed lead singer, Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV aka Black Francis aka Frank Black, paid a visit to the drive-in’s original modest location – an alleyway in East Austin. Frank says that Francis’ encouragement pushed him to seriously pursue the drive-in. “[Francis] told me that I needed to keep going with this because it was one of the coolest things he had ever seen,” Frank said. “That was one of the things that inspired me to solidify the decision.”

Black Francis has not been the only famous guest. In a curious turn of events, Lee Daniel, cinematographer of movies such as Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, and Boyhood turned out to be the Starlite’s new neighbor at Mueller, and he paid it a visit after its opening night. After discussing their mutual connection to the Austin Film Society (Daniel was a founding member, and AFS was Frank's landlord in the Austin Studio days), the two filmophiles came together the next night for a balcony viewing of Dazed and Confused.

At the height of business, the Blue Starlite had up to 100 car-slots available at their larger, former locations like the Austin Film Society. Frank says that when he was on the hunt for the new drive-in spot, he made a point to search for a smaller location so he could return to his original 30-car drive-in model. He said, “Part of my happiness in the world is waving hello to each customer as they come in, talking to them and waving to them as they leave. Even on an 80-car night, I made a point to say hi to every car, but I kind of missed that I couldn't talk to them for as long.”

Now, at this smaller home, that intimacy has returned. Frank looked over at an array of cars flickering under the translucent glow of Harrison Ford’s face on the big, outdoor screen. He said, "I consider this a sold-out night."

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Blue Starlite Drive-In, Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In, Josh Frank, Lee Daniel, Mueller, Frank Black

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