Rainstorms threatened Miami all day yesterday, but somebody up there must really love vintage movies in a retro, open-air setting. Blue Starlite Miami Urban Drive-In launched its soft opening week last night with Pretty in Pink and damn near perfect weather.
The lot was already nearing capacity at around 8 p.m. last night, half an hour in advance of the film's advertised start time. Couples parked in convertibles, a family with kids set up folding chairs in the flatbed of their pickup truck, and a few stragglers snagged spots on the lawn in front of the screen, using blankets or the two small tables provided by Blue Starlite.
To drive-in virgins, the setup at Blue Starlite might have seemed sparse. It's essentially a large screen set up in an open lot, with a few speaker stands jutting out of the ground and a central hub, comprising the concession stand and projection area, made up of a vintage truck.
But drive-in movie theaters are supposed to be sparse; logistically, you have to leave room for all the cars, and philosophically, it's the only way to walk the fine line between sharing a communal movie experience and retaining a sense of privacy -- something only drive-in theaters can do. (When was the last time you felt comfortable snuggling with your partner or sending a quick text to a friend in a regular multiplex?)
In fact, by drive-in standards, Blue Starlite is downright swanky. The lot is lined with stenciled images of classic pop culture characters: Audrey Hepburn, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis. String lighting helps guide visitors way to and from the concessions and the restrooms. Owner Josh Frank promised authentic vintage speakers, and he delivered -- the look and sound they create is genuinely old school. And that cherry red vintage truck at the center of it all adds an extra retro touch.
The intimacy of a boutique drive-in works in Blue Starlite's favor, too. Each car was led to its parking spot by a theater attendant; Frank made a point of welcoming each ticketholder to the theater personally, thanking them for checking out the place and making sure they were happy with their experience so far. When was the last time a multiplex theater employee appeared to care about your feelings?
The Mad Men-era feel continues on screen. Before the film began last night, old black-and-white commercials advertised products like Wheaties and Pepsi ("just five cents!"). Retro cartoons encouraged audiences to stop by the concession stand, which served candy, popcorn, smores, ice cream, and, as the menu advertised, "soda pop." It really did help to create an ambiance of years past -- an first-time experience for many South Floridians.
There were, of course, a few drawbacks. The current restrooms are port-a-potties; not exactly ideal for audiences used to the large, brightly lit facilities at the mall. A street lamp located just outside the entrance cast a yellow glow over the yard, compromising the clarity of the picture on the screen. And the theater is located in a high air traffic area; airplanes taking off or landing at MIA created noise pollution that, from where we sat, sometimes blocked out the sound coming from nearby speakers.
But there are plenty of benefits, too. Blue Starlite allows audiences to bring their own food and drink to the drive-in; a couple sitting at one of the tables on the lawn enjoyed a bottle of wine in fancy glasses they brought from home throughout Pretty in Pink. (That option could help balance the drive-in's relatively high ticket prices, which range from $15 to $20.) Well-behaved small pets can come along for the ride, as long as they stay in the car and are quiet. And though it's an outdoor movie theater, the Blue Starlite is a smoke-free zone.
Besides, this isn't a place for moviegoers interested in the latest film technology or razor-sharp surround sound, anyway. It's a place where you can drive in, park, and catch one of your favorite cult films in a unique setting. It's a place where the smell of fresh popcorn wafts past you with each breeze, and where the spectacular heat lightning in the sky above you is a welcome, temporary distraction from the movie on the screen.
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And it's a place that encourages patrons to make out in their cars. Literally. But please, management requests, "keep your clothes on."
Follow Ciara LaVelle on Twitter @ciaralavelle.