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Rodeo helping to fuel drive-in revival
"After years of dormancy, drive-in theaters are steadily making a comeback.More specifically, the Rodeo Drive-in in Port Orchard has recently been rated nationally as one of the 10 great drive-ins to cuddle by co-authors Don and Susan Sanders.The Sanders are authors of two books, Drive-In Movie Memories - and more recently its sequel - The American Drive-In Movie Theater.The couple traveled through 43 states in 10 years to compile a thorough examination and storybook about an American cultural icon that flourished in the 1950s and 1960s - and all but died in the 1980s.Don Sanders, 49, said the idea of writing a book on drive-ins came 11 years ago.I grew up going to drive-ins as a child, and in 1990 I thought my wife and I would try and do a book on drive-ins, he said. Nobody had done a book on the history of drive-ins. Now we have two books and a film coming out this fall.The Sanders made a list and praised various drive-ins based on total experience.Sanders said the Rodeo Drive-in, for example, is not appealing to look at in the daytime, but at night it transforms into a memorable experience.It doesn't need to be fancy, Sanders said. (Rodeo) does a great business. It has a great sound system and you get a good picture because there's very little ambient light.Sanders said what is exciting to see about drive-ins is the resurgence in popularity.Jack Ondracek, owner of the Rodeo Drive-in since 1986, said he's seen a growth in popularity over the last five years.(The drive-in) is a pendulum that's swinging back towards attracting families, Ondracek said. Indoor houses are becoming a little less friendly to young people. With the drive-in, they can put on the pajamas and fall asleep. It's becoming an event again.The near death of the drive-in theater came between the late 1970s and early 1980s with advent of cable television and the VCR, Ondracek said.Sanders said many drive-ins went out of business because of daylight savings.It wouldn't get dark until 9:30 or 10, he said. People didn't want to stay out that late.Ondracek said many drive-in owners replaced the family movies with X-rated movies as an effort to make money.That didn't help its image, he said. It polarized the community, but the theater owners were making money.The X-rated drive-ins didn't last long because the adult industry saw a straight-to-video business as cheaper and more profitable.But it left drive-ins with a black eye.At the height of the trend in the 1960s, Washington state had 125 drive-ins.Today, there are only10, seven of which are on this side of the state.But Ondracek said the growing costs of entertainment are leading customers back to the drive-in where they can view two movies for the price of one.Movies are the main attraction, but Sanders said people go to the drive-in for the experience and not necessarily to watch the movies.You go to the drive-in to have fun, Sanders said. You'll be lucky if you see 75 percent of a movie. There's too many distractions to see a whole movie.Ondracek said he's noticed a bigger clientele if the movies are more recent and obviously popular.For instance Pearl Harbor and Atlantis came and went, but Shrek continues to hold a strong contingent of customers.Ondracek said he has two waves of customers.The first wave will come in right when he doors open, which is usually two hours before showtime, he said. They get a good parking space, the kids play on the playground and everyone just soaks up the atmosphere. The second wave comes about 15 to 20 minutes before showtime. I wish they'd come earlier, though. We get lines all the way down the street but that's human nature.Ondracek said the resurgence in drive-in theaters has led to the formation of the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association, where owners share ideas and always strive to give customers a better product.While Ondracek has upgraded equipment, he said the next biggest goal is to improve the cosmetics.We've put a lot of money into the concession equipment and sound and light equipment, Ondracek said. Because we're a family-operated business, we have to gat a slower pace, but we are working on that.One of the non-drive-in attractions on Ondracek's property is the weekly Sunday swap meet.While many drive-in theaters would charge a percentage, Ondracek said he's proud he can make a living without having to charge a dime.It's something we inherited and we let it continue, he said. We never attempted to organize it because this is a drive-in that we've been able to support without businesses.The most perplexing question Ondracek tackles is what town can lay claim to calling the drive-in its own.It's a running joke, he said. We have a Port Orchard address, the phone listing is Gorst, the phone number is Silverdale's and the water comes from Bremerton. "