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Blue Starlite Drive-In Finds New Home at Old Coconut Grove Playhouse Back Lot

Blue Starlite Drive-In Finds New Home at Old Coconut Grove Playhouse Back Lot
Ciara LaVelle

When he moved to Miami from Austin in May last year, Josh Frank wanted to simply re-create the Blue Starlite, the urban drive-in theater he launched in Texas.

Four months later, the Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In first opened its gate in a small Wynwood lot next to O Cinema. The drive-in earned plenty of buzz, but Frank says he never quite felt settled into the area. "[Wynwood was] a great place to start because it's where people in Miami associate 'the now,' and at the time the drive-in was new... I proved myself in Wynwood."

But when Frank drove around Miami looking for a spot to drop his drive-in, he noticed a secluded nook, still visible from all the right angles, tucked within the cobbled streets of Coconut Grove. It was right there, in the back lot of the beleaguered Coconut Grove Playhouse, that Frank envisioned his Miami drive-in.

Next month, that vision will become a reality. The Blue Starlite will move to the long-shuttered playhouse, effectively launching the building's revival.

"I feel very honored and excited to be able to give the playhouse a use within what it is meant for," Frank says. "I get to use the Blue Starlite to revive it in a way and also to be able to have people enjoy it again."

The playhouse has stood vacant since 2006, amid rising debts and accusations of mismanagement by its board of directors. Until last year, its fate remained uncertain. Then, in early April, a meeting at Miami City Hall was held to determine the future of the historic building, which dates to 1927 and once catered to the likes of Tennessee Williams and Liza Minnelli. The most popular plan: refurbishing the building using $20 million in Miami-Dade County bonds to turn it into a working theater once again. That plan has yet to be finalized and put into motion.

Meanwhile, Frank's dream lot was up for grabs. The Miami Parking Authority was renting the space, so Frank pitched his vision to the Business District Council and to the Parking Authority. After he spent two months lobbying for his cause, the location was his.

If the city's plans work out, it'll be the first of many ventures on the property.

"The big idea," says Michael Spring, director of the county's Department of Cultural Affairs and one of the spearheads reviving the Playhouse, "is to [ultimately] return great theater to the site... I always say that the playhouse was like the ancestral home of theater here."

An architectural firm will be hired this year, Spring confirms, to work out the details of the renovations. When they're completed, GableStage and Florida International University's theater program will partner to produce live shows at the venue.

But before any real work will begin on the playhouse, Spring and his team are working on fixing up the surrounding parking, including the future home of the Blue Starlite, and making sure the building is secured from vandals.

Frank insists his freshman stint in Wynwood was successful. So why close shop and move to a new spot, away from the city nightlife?

"Bottom line: People aren't coming to Wynwood for the kind of experience I'm offering," he explains, saying that Wynwoodites are more interested in "being social" at bars, galleries, and restaurants than settling into their cars to watch a movie. Coconut Grove has the kind of artistic history he's looking for.

Plus, the new space is larger. In the former lot, he could fit only up to 18 cars -- and even then, he describes the area as "tight." In the playhouse lot, he can comfortably fit 30 to 35 cars while still creating a boutique film experience.

The Miami Parking Authority uses the playhouse lot on the weekends, so Frank will operate the Blue Starlite on weekdays only. But that doesn't seem to bother him. "Maybe I should stop competing with all the millions of things that go on during the weekend in Miami," he reasons, "and concentrate on the week."

So the Blue Starlite's retro concessions stand and vintage speakers will have to share their new home. But that compromise is worth it, Frank says, for the chance to become part of local history.

"Whatever the Coconut Grove Playhouse is years from now, people can pass by and say, 'Oh, that used to be a movie theater,' 'that used to be a playhouse,' or 'that used to be a drive-in.' I love that idea."

The grand opening for the new Blue Starlite Drive-In location is scheduled for Monday, June 23, with films The Coconuts and Angel on My Shoulder.

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