Save the Spud

Spud operator Dawnelle Mangum laughs with customer LeeAnn Wagner on Saturday evening as Wagner picks out a "Save The Spud" sticker at the counter. PRICE CHAMBERS / NEWS&GUIDE

A maroon Suburban pulled into the Spud Drive-In’s front row Saturday night, backing into a prime spot.

The doors opened and five Teton High School students piled out, ignoring the below-freezing temperature. They lifted the tailgate and arranged dozens of pillows and blankets. After much discussion, Kenzie Calderwood hopped back in the driver’s seat, pulled forward and backed up again several times until the teens sitting in the rear OK’d the precise viewing angle.

It’s a process they have down to a science, high school sophomore Bryce Beard said. “Grab as many cushy things as you can,” he said of their trunk padding prep.

Without a plan on a Saturday night, their thoughts naturally turned to the drive-in theater halfway between Victor and Driggs, Idaho, Andee Calderwood said.

“We wanted to do something,” she said. “We wanted to save the Spud.”

“Save The Spud” has been on the minds of many Teton Valley residents lately.

Keeping the 60-year-old drive-in theater open has been a struggle in the three years since the business changed hands. After running the Spud for a single season in 2010 and banking on concert revenue in addition to family films, Wydaho Group LLC announced in May 2011 that the business would close.

Dawnelle Mangum, who with former husband Richard Wood ran the drive-in from 1987 to 2009, negotiated to lease the theater from Wydaho Group and operate it with partner Tyler Hammond, co-owner of a towing company and auto body shop in Driggs.

Another challenge to the Spud’s future is technology. This month most Hollywood studios are stopping production of 35mm film prints in favor of digital versions. Without a digital movie projector, the Spud won’t be able to operate.

“We’re not going to be able to get film any more,”  Hammond said.

The movies Hammond and Mangum were able to secure for Saturday, “Wreck It Ralph” and “The Great and Powerful Oz,” are dinosaurs by entertainment standards, the first released in November and the other in March.

Since September, Spud operators have raised more than $15,000 toward the purchase of a digital projector, Hammond said, the bulk of that from T-shirt sales. The “Save The Spud” page on Facebook had 3,667 friends at press time.

“Our original thought was that if every Facebook friend bought a T-shirt, we’d have our projector,” Hammond said.

New projectors cost about $65,000, but Hammond found a used one for $33,000 and has put a down payment on it. After Friday and Saturday’s fundraising flicks, Hammond thinks they may be about $15,000 away from their goal. He’d like to be open on weekends in May if they can secure the projector.

With T-shirts saturating Teton Valley, Hammond is turning his sights to advertisers. A 4-by-4-foot sign on the Spud’s corrugated tin privacy fence can be had for $350, and 4-by-8-foot signs under the screen are priced at $1,000.

“If we could find 15 advertisers we’d have it made,” Hammond said.

Last week, the partners got their first $1,000 ad sale, and not from a business. Laura and Randy Curtis, who own a home in Driggs, bought a space to show their support for the theater.

Getting a loan to buy the projector is a last-ditch option, Hammond said. Banks are loath to loan money to businesses with year-to-year leases, and margins are not high when you operate only six nights a week in June, July and August.

“That’s why we’re reaching out to the community for help,” Hammond said.

Spud supporters are plentiful in Teton Valley. Residents use it as a landmark when giving directions, as in, “If you pass the Spud you’ve gone too far.” It’s a spot for first dates, family bonding and birthday celebrations. For most of the past 60 years it was the only movie theater for miles. The Spud is listed on the National Register of Historic Sites and the Idaho State Historic Registry.

Saturday, Tetonia resident Rex Hansen phoned in a dinner order to the Spud’s Snack Shack and stepped into the 1950s-themed building to pick it up. He’s enjoyed the Spud’s burgers since the era of the Gladys Burger, from 1967 to 1987, when Gladys and Leo Davis ran the business. They were the second set of owners; Ace Wood built the Spud and ran it from 1953 to 1967.

“There’s something about having the burgers cooked on this old flat-top grill that’s been here forever,” Hansen said.

From his $20 bill, Mangum handed Hansen $11 in change, which he refused.

LeeAnn Wagner also came in for a burger and an order of Spud Buds (deep-fried hash browns, also known as Tater Tots).

“I just want to support it and get some food,” Wagner said. “I can’t stay awake for the movie.”

Nostalgia is everywhere inside the popcorn-scented Snack Shack. Vinyl records on the ceiling battle black-and-white checkered floor tiles for attention. The walls feature vinyl album covers. Kevin Bacon bops on the “Footloose” soundtrack cover just three spaces over from a smiling, suitcase-swinging Julie Andrews on “The Sound of Music.”

With their white Denali parked just in front of the Snack Shack, Victor residents Kortnee and A.J. Woolstenhulme enjoyed cheeseburgers and caramel popcorn with their three children, Haddie, Sage and Gunner. Both of them grew up in Teton Valley.

Kortnee remembers coming to the Spud in her parents’ brown station wagon.

“It would be sad if it closed,” she said. “It’s a tradition.”

For Mangum, the Spud “has been my life for 27 years,” she said. Although neither she nor ex-husband Richard Wood wanted to sell the business, it was a casualty of their divorce. Seeing it in peril saddens her, but she thinks the public will help keep it open.

“I think people will step up,” Mangum said. “We’re really close.”

Summer nights at the Spud follow a predictable pattern: Gates open and food is served starting at 6 p.m. People eat and visit with friends and neighbors. At dark, a family film begins, sound piped through car stereos. Kids, often in their pajamas, fall asleep in the back seat. As soon as the credits run, a second feature, aimed at adults, starts to play.

Fence advertising, season passes and T-shirts are being sold online at SpudDriveIn.com. A selection of T-shirts also is available at Corner Drug in Driggs.

If fundraising fails and the drive-in shutters, “I would be devastated,” Andee Calderwood said from the back of her cousin’s Suburban, Her friend Wyatt Christensen agreed.

“I think the world would be a smaller place.”

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