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An Austin movie theater owner's family fled Ukraine. Now he's keeping vigil onscreen.

Eric Webb
Austin 360

When tragedy strikes, some people hold vigil with a candle in their window. Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In owner Josh Frank is keeping a light on for the people of Ukraine.

His window just happens to be an outdoor movie screen. 

Around 10 p.m. on nights that the East Austin cinema is open, a projector plays Ukrainian cinema until it shuts off. The gesture is meant for anyone who passes by “to see and take a moment to remember that while we sleep others are fighting for their lives,” according to a post on Blue Starlite's Instagram late last month.

"I feel guilty just going through my daily life while this is happening to millions of people,” Frank told the American-Statesman, speaking about the deadly conflict in Eastern Europe. Since Russia first invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, experts estimate that thousands of people have died. The war has displaced millions from their homes, too. 

Frank has followed updates out of Ukraine from hour to hour since the war started. That’s not typical for the drive-in operator, who usually tries to turn off the "white noise of politics.” 

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Half of his family came from Ukraine — Kyiv, actually — and half came from Russia. He has ancestors who fled their homes in the 1930s and ’40s, some because of the threat of German invasion and the Holocaust. Frank describes himself as coming from a Jewish background. 

His great-grandfather emigrated from Eastern Europe to America. Frank grew up hearing stories of his early days in America, coming in through Philadelphia and not knowing what to do with his life. As family legend goes, a friend asked Frank’s great-grandfather what he did for work in Kyiv. He said he roped the tops of churches, climbed up and cleaned the crosses. 

The friend told him to go to Texas and be a cowboy. He settled in the South Texas town of Taft, where he opened a dry goods store. It started a family tradition of entrepreneurship. The theater owner's grandfather ran a Houston toy store, and Frank opened the first Blue Starlite more than a decade ago. 

"Atlantis," a film by Ukrainian director Valentyn Vasyanovych, plays at the end of the night at Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In on April 7 in East Austin. The drive-in holds a nightly vigil where they play a Ukrainian movie and leave it running into the night.

He sees dark symmetry between the war in modern Ukraine and the conflicts that forced his family out of their homes decades ago. In the past and in the present, he sees “an invasion of another country whose aim was to level any person that would not become whatever the invader wanted them to become."

Frank asked himself: "How does a drive-in show its support for something like this?” 

First, he booked a 2019 Ukrainian film called “Atlantis.” This is Blue Starlite’s slow season, he said, and just a couple people came to the screening. He lost a little money on the licensing. But the money would go to the film’s distributor, he said, and then support a Ukrainian filmmaker.

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Then Frank came up with the idea for the vigil. 

“After the movies each night, our place is dark, but we still have these giant screens,” he said. “What if, at the end of each night, we put on ‘Atlantis’ or some episodes of a Ukrainian TV show? And we just let them play for as long as they'll play, and the thing will switch off at some point.” 

It will be worth it if just one person sees, he remembered thinking.  

Frank added to the mix some episodes of “Servant of the People," the TV show that starred Volodymyr Zelensky, now the Ukrainian president. 

It's an easy way to make a statement, Frank said. He tells whoever is closing the Blue Starlite on a given night to press play on the right file before the close up. There’s a marquee in front of the drive-in, and Frank put the right radio frequency on the sign in case anyone wants to tune into the audio. The timing depends on the night and what’s showing at the drive-in. Sometimes the vigil might play just an hour or two. Sometimes it might play through the night. 

Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In has put the radio frequency for its Ukrainian film vigil on its marquee sign.

Frank doesn’t know how long he’ll keep the vigil going, but he has no plans to stop soon. 

“We don't really know what 'good news' is going to be,” he said of developments in Ukraine. Is good news that Russia is calling off its invasion, he wonders, or is it that Kyiv has held? 

“As long as they can save Kyiv and Zelensky can remain the leader, because he's earned it, that would be the mark I am hoping for and waiting for,” Frank said. "Obviously, we're looking at years before the country can rebuild, even if it stops today."

He sees in Ukraine a people outgunned, with the odds against them. It reminds him of the kind of cinema Blue Starlite might show, except it’s all real. Frank is in his 40s, and  he said he can’t remember the last time he found a moment so “horrendously painful” but also inspiring. 

“These are real heroes. These are real people,” he said, “that are having to uproot their lives live through things that we over here just don't have to worry about. How they've fought, and how they've not given up hope — that alone is this hope.” 

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Coming across images from Ukraine of cultural sites decimated by Russian attack hit Frank particularly hard. He mentioned a theater in Mariupol where children had taken refuge before it was shelled by Russian airstrikes.

“It made me think about just how much we take for granted with the country that we have,” Frank said. “This is such an example of how delicate that is and how easy it can go away.” 

“It made me think about just how much we take for granted with the country that we have,” said Josh Frank, owner of Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In, about the war in Ukraine.

He thinks of his family around the time of the Holocaust. Frank knows that recent history can feel far away. "I think we all just need to think about these things regularly, and maybe it would put some other things into perspective," he said.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away from Kyiv, a drive-in theater in Texas remembers.

“Just because the odds are not in your favor, it doesn't mean you're going to lose,” Frank says.