Despite strong start, Rodeo Drive-In Theatre closes due to coronavirus

Gov. Inslee’s March 23 order prompted the previously-operating theater to close

Despite a strong start during a time when many businesses are struggling to keep the lights on, Bremerton’s Rodeo Drive-In Theatre was forced to close after being deemed non-essential under Gov. Jay Inslee’s order calling for Washington residents to stay at home.

Things were looking good for Jack Ondracek, Rodeo’s owner, as the cars lined up in front of his three screen drive-in theater along State Route 3 while the sun was setting on March 20.

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

At 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. “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 the 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, but Ondracek still remained cautious.

“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, Jack’s estimation was 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.

“In compliance with the governor’s March 23 order, covering the operation of non-essential businesses, we are temporarily closing the drive-in,” the post read. “We’ll let you know through our website, phone line, email list and Facebook page when the order is lifted and we are able to re-open.”

In an April 2 interview, 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.”

Ondracek added that he holds no contempt for the governor’s decision.

“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,” the owner said. “We’re satisfied to wait it out with everybody else.”

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

“When I was growing up in Port Townsend, we were a paper mill town,” he said. “Every once in awhile 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 awhile.’”