Lost Cinema Reopening in East Austin
Blue Starlite teams with Millennium for community initiative
By Richard Whittaker,
10:50AM, Tue. Dec. 5, 2023
If you step into the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex on Hargrave Street and swing a right through the amusement arcade, there’s a yellow sign that spells out “Movif” in a font that emulates celluloid.
Pass under the sign, down a corridor, and through a door, and you’ll find a forgotten secret: the last single screen cinema in Austin. Right now, you’re also likely to find Josh Frank, owner/operator of the Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In, as he prepares to help reopen the Eastside Cinema at the Millennium for the first time in over a decade.
There's a dearth of cinemas east of I-35. In fact, there is no indoor cinema south of Alamo Drafthouse Mueller that side of the highway screening new releases. Moreover, Frank finally had to relocate Blue Starlite's main location from its most recent location on E.M. Franklin further north, to a new home at 500 VFW Rd.
This void wasn’t always the case: the Harlem Theater operated on 12th Street from 1935 until it burned down in 1973. When the city opened the Millennium in 1999, the building included a purpose-built single-screen cinema, but it closed in 2011 due to the then-prohibitive cost of switching to digital projection.
However, with a new DCP system provided by Ultimate Outdoor Entertainment and technical support from Frank and the Blue Starlite team, the refreshed Eastside Cinema at the Millennium will host its grand opening in January. However, audiences will get a sneak peek at the screen starting Dec. 17, with a special showing of Beyoncé’s Renaissance, followed on Dec. 20 with a screening of Nicolas Cage's surreal satire, Dream Scenario – the first two of several such preview events scheduled before the end of the year.
It was around eight months ago that Frank first heard about the cinema. A mutual friend connected him with Millennium General Manager Kimberly Wright, who was looking for ideas to revamp the whole facility and increase its value for the community. One suggestion on the table was to turn the cinema into a performance space, but she took Frank to the screen to show him what was there. To his amazement he found a ready-to-go cinema, with over 100 seats in place, a working 35mm projector, fully operational 7.1 surround sound, and a second projection window “for classic digital or new releases,“ said Frank.
After seeing the room, he immediately talked to Wright. “I said, ‘Kim, what are you thinking here?’ and she said, ‘Well, I’m thinking about turning it into a live venue, cabaret stuff.’ I said, ‘Kim, you have the last single-screen cinema in Austin that’s in perfect working condition. I could start showing movies with you, in collaboration, any time.’”
The collaboration is important, as Frank said he did not want to take over the space, but instead help provide the equipment, the training, technical know-how and programming experience to get it back up and running as a cinema again. The one place where he even came close to putting his foot down was when the Millennium team suggested replacing the old seats. “I said, ‘Don’t you touch those seats. If you want to spend money on anything, get beautiful new red curtains, or let’s paint this place. [Wright] said, ‘Aren’t these seats ‘90s?’ and I said, ‘Bingo!’”
The cinema will open fully with a slate that is planned to include new releases on Friday and Saturday nights, art house films, and classic repertory titles, including programming by local film and media clubs. Working with those organizations, which Frank dubs curator groups, is an important element of what the space can provide: “There’s got to be 20 or 30 foundations, film clubs, festivals, that are homeless. They’ll do things in bars, they’ll rent indoor theatres for fifteen hundred to two thousand dollars or find anywhere they can. What if they had a real movie theatre? What if the people who do an anime movie night had a real theatre? What if a community organization that meets once a month in some hall somewhere to watch movies, what if they could have a theatre, program it, and invite the public?”
While Frank said he was excited to reopen a cinema, any cinema, his hope is that this new screen will become “a true community cinema. … This is the Millennium Youth Center, this is a community-based thing, this is a space in the Eastside, and there’s nothing like this left – not just in Austin, but in very few cities.”
Find more info about the Eastside Cinema at the Millennium, including schedule, tickets, and how to become a curator group, at eastsidecinema.com.