Silver screen escapism: It’s once again showtime at Kitsap County’s sole drive-in theater

Silence your phone and don’t forget the popcorn.

After a strong start to the season during a time when many businesses were struggling just to keep the lights on, followed by a brief temporary closure by government order, it is once again showtime at Kitsap County’s sole drive-in theater.

Bremerton’s Rodeo Drive-In was forced to close in April after being deemed non-essential under Gov. Jay Inslee’s order calling for Washington residents to stay at home. Prior to that, however, things were looking good for Jack Ondracek, the Rodeo’s owner, as the cars lined up in front of his three-screen drive-in theater along State Route 3.

“It’s an unexpected surprise,” Ondracek said. “We had a line going halfway down the street there.”

At the time, just the second weekend of the theater’s 2020 season, the stars looked as if they would align for a lucrative season ahead.

“This is huge for us this time of year, this is our second weekend,” Ondracek said, surveying the steady stream of cars trickling into the fields and setting up their respective vantages back in late March.

“We normally open up this time of year to warm everything up and get the new staff trained … We had no idea what to expect or, frankly, if we’d even be open tonight because things are changing so fast.”

Initially, it seemed that by its very nature a drive-in movie theater would satisfy Inslee’s calls for social distancing, with patrons mostly staying in their vehicles to watch their film. It also seemed that as one of the few businesses still allowed to operate, Rodeo could stand to see a significant uptick in ticket sales, though Ondracek remained skeptical.

“I never look at things in terms of windfall, it could rain next week,” he said. “Whatever we gain today could be wiped out tomorrow.”

As it turned out, his estimation was sadly correct.

The “rain” came only three days later, in the form of an order from the governor calling upon all Washington residents to stay home and do their part to curb the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19).

The Rodeo Drive-In Theatre closed, announcing via Facebook that it would be observing Inslee’s order.

During an April 2 interview, though, Ondracek remained positive.

“We had a couple of good weekends and we were able to operate under the rules that they set out, but once the governor did the stay-at-home order and closed everything that was non-essential, we couldn’t see where that would fit us anymore.”

Ondracek said the Rodeo Drive-In was ready to get back to business as soon as the governor gives the “OK.”

“If they back off, we’ll be ready to go again,” the owner said. “For now we’re watching what’s happening like everybody else.”

When asked whether the Rodeo Drive-In could stand to be closed for the rest of 2020, Ondracek said he hoped things wouldn’t come to that, but if they did, his business would still be around come 2021.

“My daughter and I are contract radio broadcast engineers and we take care of about 40 radio stations across three states. So if for some reason the drive-in had to close for that period of time, we’d work on that other operation of ours and kind of put the blankets on the drive-in until the next year. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but we’ve got a contingency in the works if we have to.”

Fortunately, it didn’t come to that.

Movie lovers hungry for a unique experience can once again cruise into the drive-in — while respecting current safety guidelines, of course.

A full list of currently offered films, COVID-19 requirements, and advance ticket purchasing can be found at www.rodeodrivein.com.

Gates open at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 8:15 p.m. Sunday through Tuesday (the theater is closed Wednesday and Thursday).

The show starts at dusk.

Currently, all patrons must stay with their vehicles except for travel to and from restrooms and the snack bar. As such, walking, playing catch, and use of the playground is not be allowed at this time.

Also, all pets must be left at home.

There is no restriction against sitting in the bed of a truck or laying in an SUV with the back hatch open as long as patrons keep their distance from others. Lawn chairs, immediately between your vehicle and the screen, may be used.

“As usual, for safety reasons, we can not allow sitting on top of your vehicle or on blankets on the ground,” said theater officials.

Masks or other appropriate face coverings should be worn when away from your vehicle or when you can not maintain 6-foot distancing from others outside your party, however you are required to wear a mask or face covering when inside the concession building, including the restrooms.

The only exceptions are children younger than 2 and those with medical conditions that prevent such use.

The concession stand, always a take-out service, is open.

According to theater officials, the restrictions will be vigorously enforced and, “as this is private property, anyone unwilling to adhere to the following can be ejected without refund. If you feel the conditions we are required to meet are too restrictive for you to enjoy your evening with us, we suggest you wait to attend until we are able to operate in a ‘more-normal’ environment.”

Regarding the decision that temporarily closed his business, Ondracek said he has no hard feelings.

“Actually I don’t have a problem with [the closure] because I’d hate to have the drive-in associated with having something bad happen to the community just for the sake of us being open,” he said. “We’re satisfied to wait it out with everybody else.”

Still, there were losses.

Though temporary, with the closure of the Rodeo Drive-In Theatre also came a lost chance for visitors to escape from the anxiety surrounding such an uncertain period, something Ondracek said was not lost on him.

“When I was growing up in Port Townsend, we were a paper mill town,” he said. “Every once in a while the workforce in Port Townsend would go on strike and you would see the economy just take a nosedive in town. Every business would have real problems except for the grocery stores and the movie theater, the theater was always packed.

“I remember asking the family I grew up working for, I asked why that was and the owner said, ‘during times when strikes are on and nobody’s making a paycheck and things are kind of depressing, this is where they go to get away from it all for a while.’”

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The Rodeo Drive In Movie Theater, Kitsap County’s sole drive-in movie theater, recently reopened after a brief closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nick Twietmeyer / Bainbridge Island Review
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