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Rodeo Drive-In theater is good summer fun

There are three screens at the Rodeo Drive-In theater and patrons can watch two movies for the price of one. - Seraine Page
There are three screens at the Rodeo Drive-In theater and patrons can watch two movies for the price of one.
— image credit: Seraine Page

It’s the stuff summer memories are made of.

Whether it’s that time when your mom and dad piled you and your siblings in the car with the bag of just-popped popcorn, or whether it was the time as a teen, when you met all your friends there, drive-in movies have been a part of many of our pasts.

It’s nostalgia at its best.

And although the number of drive-in theaters has sharply been reduced —from 4,000 at their prime to just more than 350 now  — Kitsap County residents don’t have to go far to enjoy a night at the drive-in theater.

Just outside Bremerton sits the Rodeo Drive-In Theatre, with three separate screens and space for more than 1,000 cars. After more than 60 years, it’s still going strong. It’s open from around mid-March until late September, and offers first-run movies on the giant screen.

In fact, at the Rodeo Drive-In, movie-goers get two movies for the price of one.

One of only six drive-ins left in Washington, Rodeo Drive-In has been around since the height of drive-in popularity. The first drive-in theater was established in 1933 by Richard Hollingshead, Jr., and at one point there were over 4,000 drive-in theaters in the country. Now, there are 357, according to the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association.

In the spring and fall, the Rodeo Drive-In is open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. In the summer, it’s open seven days a week. Movie tickets are $9 for  adults, and $6 for children 12 and under, and seniors 55 and older.

“It’s a good price to watch two movies,” said Amber Etchells, a regular visitor to the drive-in theater.

The Rodeo Drive-In was first opened in 1949 and started with just a single

screen, and is now the only drive-in movie theater in Kitsap County.

By the time the current owners bought it in 1986, there were already three screens and a concessions stand, but renovations did not stop. Recently, updates were made at the Rodeo Drive-In to switch their movies from film to digital.

“The studios have decided that they are going to use digital as their medium of choice, and within the next year, we expect them to stop providing motion pictures on film,” said Jack Ondracek, owner of the Rodeo Drive-In.

Because of the studios’ decisions to go digital, without following suit, the amount of movies available to Rodeo Drive-In would have soon decreased, he said. Eventually, no new movies would have been made available.

According to Ondracek, the conversion cost about $250,000.

“We’ve known this project was coming for 10 years,” he said. “We’ve been planning for this for a long time. We bought and paid for this with the support of our customers.”

Everyone is welcome at the drive-in, and Field 1, with the largest screen at 43 feet by 86 feet, is used to show the new movies, especially family movies. Kids can run around on the playground at this location before the movies start.

“We like that, while we’re waiting for the movie, they have a place to play and keep themselves occupied instead of getting antsy while we wait,” said movie-goer Kysa Burch. She was at a show recently to celebrate her son’s sixth birthday. “It’s more comfortable, more relaxed.”

Etchells was also visiting the drive-in with her son, who is a year and a half old.

“We have a kid, so if he starts screaming, we’re inside a car,” laughed Etchells, and said that’s one reason why she prefers the drive-in over the regular, indoor movie theater.

Ondracek said drive-in theaters and indoor theaters each have their “fans,” but that there’s a bit of a crossover.

“I think the drive-in is an environment that is not quite so formal,” he said. “The kids can play in their playground. The experience is different. Part of it, too, is the personality of the theater. Every drive-in is different. Most indoor theaters are built pretty much the same.”

Some drive-in theaters have speakers out in the parking areas, but Rodeo Drive-In plays the audio for the movies over radio waves, so anyone attending can hear the movie on their car radio and adjust the volume to their own liking.

And, just in case of a dead car battery, the staff keeps equipment on hand to jump-start any cars that need it.

Since 1986, Rodeo Drive-In has been a family-owned and operated business. Ondracek said during the months when the theater is open seven days a week, he and his family are working seven days a week.

“Every night’s different out here. We have a huge number of fans,” said Ondracek. “We really enjoy it a lot. We’ve raised our family here. The kids have all worked the snack bar.”

Ondracek’s daughter, Cheryl, still works there, managing concessions, staffing and security.

While drive-in theaters seem to be disappearing with the passing of time, Ondracek hinted that the Rodeo Drive-In plans to stick around.

“We’re planning on being here for a lot of years,” he said.

 

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