What would you do if your business plummeted in the middle of a pandemic? This is a very real scenario for a number of Vermonters, and when it happened to Burlington resident Jenny Rooke, she decided to dance — in an inflatable T. rex costume.
Jenny Rooke co-owns Rookie’s Root Beer with her husband, Dave. Since 2005, the pair have been making soda in their converted one-car garage and selling it to around 100 Vermont bars and restaurants. But when Gov. Phil Scott issued his Stay Home, Stay Safe order in March, their business, Rooke says, was decimated.
“Ninety percent of our business is draft sales online, so when the restaurants shut down, we shut down,” she said. “Then when a lot of the things came up for the CARES Act, when that came through from the government, we didn’t qualify, because we needed to have at least one employee, and we’re both owners.”
Rooke, 46, teaches some Zumba as a side hustle, though the governor’s order meant she couldn’t do that for awhile, either. Around the time that normal life stopped, fellow Zumba instructor and friend Regina Patterson says she was late-night shopping on Amazon when a suggested item popped up: an inflatable costume in the shape of a tan and very top-heavy T. rex.
Patterson explains that she and Rooke have an inside joke about the song “Walk The Dinosaur.” Naturally, she decided to buy the $60 dinosaur suit for her friend.
“I put it in my checkout box and had it sent to her as just sort of a little funny pick-me-up,” Patterson said.
Rooke received the package around April Fools’ Day. When she and her husband opened it, Rooke said they were “belly-laughing.” Right away, Rooke decided to don the 7-foot T. rex — she’s 4’11”, by the way.
“I said, ‘I’m going for a walk,’” Rooke said. “And so I got my sparkly paper together, and I made a sign, and it said, ‘Be kind, and stay safe.’ And I just marched around the New North End every day for about three weeks.”
Rooke says she logged 60 miles on her Fitbit during those three weeks in the costume.
She started delivering root beer while wearing the suit, dropping off 32-ounce soda cans to local homes and then starting driveway dance parties with customers, their kids and neighbors who wandered over. This eventually grabbed the attention of several local TV stations.
Rooke and her costume also made regular stops outside Birchwood Terrace — a nursing home in the New North End. In the spring, Birchwood suffered a COVID-19 outbreak that killed 22 residents. One woman in the dementia unit, Rooke says, knew exactly what to do whenever the T. rex showed up outside the window.
“That woman, dancing with me, even though she had dementia, like that brought her so much happiness,” Rooke said. “And she would tap the window and have me lower my nose and she kisses my nose, like that’s her thing… and this guy took a little video clip of it, and he sent it to me, and I’m like, ‘This is everything.’”
As the pandemic continued, so did Rooke. Patterson joined in after she recovered from a bout with COVID-19, wearing a bright pink, rainbow unicorn costume. And some of Rooke’s Zumba students got in on the act.
Which is how on a recent Sunday, a chicken, a unicorn, a cow, a hippo in a tutu, a polar bear in a scarf, an alien, a mouse, a shark, Sully from Monster’s Inc., plus the T. rex ended up outside of Elderwood, the long-term care facility in Burlington.
See the full dancing crew in the video below:
The group calls itself "The Inflatables." Carting a portable loudspeaker from window to window, they found a few residents to dance with, and staff too. For an hour, they shimmied and conga-ed and even twerked a little.
See the The Inflatables do a little twerking in the video below:
The visit to Elderwood was especially poignant for Rooke, since a friend’s stepfather recently died there after contracting COVID-19, and the friend, who lives out of state, couldn’t travel to Vermont. The facility has been the hardest-hit by the recent surge, and the day The Inflatables danced there, the Health Department had recorded 115 cases and 12 deaths.
“Having to not be able to go home to love and support the ones that we love the most, you know, is hard,” Rooke said. “So we’re all just trying to pick up the pieces and to help everybody out by acting silly, and making [my friend] smile, which did make her smile, because it was something we could do for her, for him, to remember him.”
It’s been about nine months since Rooke first donned the T. rex suit. People keep requesting The Inflatables — for birthdays, weddings, graduations — and Rooke says they keep showing up.
“In the beginning, clearly, it was always just a joke, and we’re like, this can’t keep going, but it is,” she said. “We’re just out to be happy, to spread joy, and like, we’ll keep doing that. I can’t believe we're gonna have to get snowshoes for these suits.”
In the meantime, Rookie’s continues to offer driveway deliveries-slash-dance parties, and they’re hoping the business can hold on through the end of the pandemic.
When this is all eventually over, Rooke says she wants to throw a great big root beer float party.
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