Arts and Entertainment

The Drive-In perseveres in the Digital Age

Kitsap's Rodeo Drive-In remains delightfully old school in the new world of entertainment.

Amidst a dizzying world of digital gizmos and gadgets, there's a 13-acre plot of land between Bremerton and Belfair that is still delightfully old-fashioned.

In the daylight, it almost looks ancient. It's a little rough around the edges and absolutely retro. The air of a ghost town whispers across the slightly sloping dirt-and-grass ampitheaters, through the long dormant cement-based speaker posts all the way up to the towering wood-framed movie screen that anchors the property.

Even as the sun goes down and the sound comes up over the FM radio, the resonance of times gone past permeate the dusk. A 50's-era moviephone voice entices listeners with "hot dogs cooked over an open fire," "cripsy, crunchy popcorn," and "jumbo cups of ice cold Coke" at the concession stand while big band and doo-wop soundtracks fill the time typically spent watching previews and on-screen ads.

With the right set of eyes, it's all pretty nostalgic. Even if you weren't around to experience it "back then."

As darkness falls, the 21st century reappears in the form of the 2009 flick "Monsters Vs. Aliens," rolling on one of three outdoor screens at Kitsap's Rodeo Drive-In.

The Rodeo (though no one's really sure how it got that name) is one of the last remaining relics of a dying cultural icon.

"Motor Movies," they used to call them, harkening back to the days post-World War II when automobiles were first becoming American status symbols. At the height of their popularity, at the dawn of the 1960s, there were an estimated 7,000 drive-ins across the country. Now, the Rodeo is one of six remaining in Western Washington, one of eight in the state and one of fewer than a dwindling 400 drive-ins across the country, according to the latest counts from the United Drive In Theatre Owners Association (UDITOA).

"It's a very isolated and independent group," said Jack Ondracek, UDITOA member and co-owner of family owned and operated Rodeo Drive-In.

He and his wife Cindy bought the Rodeo on a whim in 1986, after literally stumbling across it while driving along Highway 3, visiting Jack's parents in Port Orchard.

Though his parents were both teachers, Jack said he virtually grew up in the business, working at the Wheel-In Drive-In Chimacum since he was about 12, becoming a projectionist in his early years and later going onto a career in radio broadcast.

He and Cindy had even tried their hand at running a 350-seat indoor theater in small town Southern Oregon.

"After all these years in the biz, I thought sure, we can run a drive-in," Jack said.

"I thought he was crazy," Cindy added as Jack nodded and smiled.

While the drive-in was the perfect intersection of Jack's professional interests, employing both projection and broadcast, the industry was already in decline when they decided to buy the place.

By the early 80s, the advents of cable television, VHS and the corporate indoor multiplex chain and rapid land development had nearly delivered the death nail to the drive-in. Even into the 90s, some Hollywood studios' antagonistic views toward drive-ins would make it difficult for them to compete for mainstream films, Ondracek said.

Still 24 years later, having weathered the good times and bad, becoming one of the first drive-ins in the country to employ the FM-radio sound system and later the cinema quality digital audio soundtrack, not to mention having raised and put their four daughters through school by virtue of the drive-in, Jack and Cindy are looking forward to yet another summer season at the Rodeo. All the while, families, couples and friends are still turning out for the $8 double features under the stars.

"And she doesn't think I'm crazy anymore," Jack laughed.

The Rodeo Drive-In is located off Highway 3 near the Bremerton Airport south of Port Orchard. It's open at 7:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday, seven days a week once school lets out, and again on weekends after Labor Day until the end of September. Find show time and double feature information at www.rodeodrivein.com or by calling the movie line at (360) 698-6030. And check out the Rodeo Drive-In swap meet, starting Sundays after Labor Day.

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