Digital at the Drive-In: Transforming Idaho's Iconic Spud for the 21st Century

Posted on: July 1st, 2013 by Sarah Heffern

The Spud Drive-In. Photo courtesy jpc.raleigh, Flickr.
The Spud Drive-In

Anyone who owns -- or has tried to buy -- a camera any time in the past 10 years knows that digital photography has replaced film almost entirely. This transformation has not been limited to still pictures; digital is now king at the movies, too, which has created challenges at many older movie theaters.

The Spud Drive-In in Driggs, Idaho, is no exception. The theater, which opened in 1953 (and celebrates its 60th birthday this week) has long been a beloved part of the community, but has faced closure twice in recent years -- first from management changes, and then from the transition to digital projection.

Local fans rallied with Facebook outreach that reached thousands, and to date enough "Save the Spud" t-shirts have been sold to cover half the cost of a new digital projector. (They're still available -- get 'em while they're hot!)

When asked about the transition, the Spud's manager (and former co-owner) Dawnelle Mangum found both pluses and minuses to the change. On the upside, the new projector's bulb, at 6,000 watts, is twice as powerful as its predecessor, allowing them to start movies 10 minutes earlier. She says that "10 minutes is big -- 9:40 as opposed to 9:50 for our longest day."

The giant spud at the Spud Drive-In. Photo courtesy jpc.raleigh, Flickr.
The giant spud at the Spud Drive-In

The trade-off, Mangum says, is in the frequent updates the projector requires (which she says are fairly equivalent to a typical computer) and the life expectancy of the new machine.

"The projector we replaced for hummed along for well over 60 years," she says. "It was purchased used in 1953. No digital projector has that kind of life expectancy."

Saving the Spud as a drive-in theater has also preserved one of its most beloved attractions: a giant potato on the back of a truck, which Roadside America calls "a novelty postcard come to life in three dimensions." And indeed, Mangum and her former husband -- who designed and built the potato and set it on the back of a 1946 flat bed truck in 1990 -- were inspired by classic postcards.

She takes great pride in its ongoing appeal: "People in the valley claim that more pictures are taken of the truck with the potato on it than the Teton Mountains here on the west of our valley."

Mangum and fans of the Spud are planning a big celebration for the drive-in's birthday this week, featuring hula hoops and slinkies (two other American icons that arrived on the scene in 1953). And thanks to those devoted fans, the Spud has many more birthdays to come.

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Sarah Heffern

Sarah Heffern

Sarah Heffern is the social media strategist for the National Trust’s Public Affairs team. While she embraces all things online and pixel-centric, she’s also a hard-core building hugger, having fallen for preservation in a fifth grade “Built Environment” class.

Local Preservationists, Pop Culture, Restoration