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July 31, 2014
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Goin’ to the Spud

Back and Forth at the Spud

The drive-in movie theatre, in summers past, was a place of first dates and family nights out. The Spud Drive-In south of Driggs served such a role beginning back in 1953. But as countless drive-ins around the country have shuttered, the Spud is a rare tale of survival and transformation, having entered the twenty-first century alive and kicking, with the volume turned up higher than ever.

Ronda Hammer has witnessed this transformation firsthand, from behind the Spud’s stainless steel concession counter (on the other side of which customers gaze up at a ceiling tiled with classic vinyl LPs). For twenty-three summers, six nights a week, Ronda has taken food orders and flipped the drive-in’s famous Gladys Burgers. Over the years she has also pitched in to help with various other duties, but the one place you would never find her was on the projector.

“That was an art all in itself,” Ronda says, referring to operating the twin carbon-arc lamp, reel-to-reel projectors used for decades at the Spud. But no longer: In July 2010, the Spud became the first drive-in theatre in the nation to install digital technology. For moviegoers, this means improved image quality and more reliable showings. It also opens up the Spud as a potential venue for a wider variety of events. 


Ronda reminisces about the pre-digital days of yore. Most moviegoers would enjoy the feature sitting outside, either renting a radio for a dollar or listening to the sound from the speakers on the concession stand’s roof. Many would bring sleeping bags to spread out on the lawn, or recline in one of the chairs in the rows of seating brought over from the local indoor theatre.

Today, a new generation of clients can be found on many nights at the Spud. It is this crowd, Ronda says, that is the catalyst for change. “They are going to want more concerts, while the older crowd enjoyed the movies,” she says. “It was a real different atmosphere [in the old days].”

Considering that even July nights can be chilly in Teton Valley, the uninitiated may be surprised to learn that the Spud’s season is not limited to the summer months typical for drive-in theatres. Opening its gates amid sub-freezing temperatures and even snowfall, for the past three years the Spud has hosted action-film producer Teton Gravity Research’s (TGR) ski-movie premieres. It’s an “epic venue,” says TGR cofounder Todd Jones, adding that it’s the only drive-in on the company’s tour schedule.

“As residents of Teton Valley,” Todd says, “the Spud has always played a huge role in our lives. Whenever anyone goes to the Spud, there is a sudden realization that you are somewhere special.” He sees potential in the Spud as a host to various other events: “I like to think that doing the TGR special events helped manifest the idea that the Spud can have multiple different uses as a venue.”

Music producer Dom Gagliardi, CEO of Poppa Presents, likewise appreciates the Spud’s appeal. For the past ten years, Dom has been searching for the best music venues in the area. The Spud, he says, perfectly meets the top two characteristics that sell a space for him: lots of space and something unique.

While the Spud had been in Dom’s sights for many years, he had shelved the prospect of utilizing it because he knew the owners would not allow alcohol to be sold there. With a change in that policy in the summer of 2009, the Spud quickly made its debut as a music venue. In partnership with former Spud owner Richard Wood, Dom arranged for a concert on August 12, 2009, with the Grateful Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra (DSO) and singer-songwriter Keller Williams.

The kickoff show was a success, attracting more than 1,500 fans. It also turned out to be a fortuitous evening for concertgoer Lenny Waban and for the Spud itself. After attending the DSO concert, Lenny recognized potential in the Spud for even bigger events, and he purchased the drive-in theatre later that fall. His and Dom’s belief in the Spud as a music venue proved right on, as their next show was a sellout: On July 4, 2010, the wildly popular jam band Widespread Panic played to a crowd of some 4,000 people.

Dom admits, though, that it’s not easy to sell bands’ agents on the idea of playing a drive-in movie theatre. “Most agents respond, ‘You want us to play where?’” Dom says. “It takes a lot of convincing [for bands] to play a drive-in, because it’s not a full-time music venue.”

One reason he has successfully booked big-name bands at the Spud is due to Teton Valley’s location, which is central to many musicians’ Rocky Mountain tours. The on-site camping available is also a huge benefit.  For bands with a large fan base like Widespread Panic—and like the Rhythm Devils, who played the Spud on July 24, 2010—camping provides convenience and low-cost overnights.

Despite the extra work involved in holding a concert at the Spud, Dom says the rewards are worth it: “You can’t take away its character, and that’s why we did it.”

Extra work and tangible rewards were two things ultra runner Lisa Smith-Batchen was intimately familiar with when she chose the Spud as the finish line for her record-breaking cross-country run. In June 2010, Lisa wrapped up her odyssey—running 50 miles in each of 50 states in 62 days—by taking her final steps into the grounds of the Spud [see “Reaching Beyond,” page 28]. After Lisa ran from Victor to the drive-in, accompanied by violent thunderstorms and a small crowd of friends and fans, she was greeted by the Spud’s marquee, which read, “Welcome Home, Lisa.”

Lisa’s goal in her Running Hope Through America project was to raise money for AIDS orphans. In support of her mission, the Spud stepped in to sponsor the cost of Lisa’s support vehicle. With the Spud logo emblazoned on the RV, she says it became a topic of conversation around the country. “It was amazing how many people in the fifty states knew about the Spud,” Lisa says.

Keith Zednik may not have known about the Spud while living in Chicago, but becoming its general manager was an opportunity he couldn’t resist. He accepted the post in the fall of 2009, in time to help organize the big events of summer 2010. Keith points to benefits of these large events that stretch far beyond the gates of the drive-in, citing an economic boost to Teton Valley in general—like that which occurred over last summer’s 4th of July weekend, when Widespread Panic played the Spud. Also boosted by the very different crowd brought in by Glenn Beck’s July 3 appearance at Huntsman Springs, many local businesses enjoyed their best weekend ever.

While the bigger events may be a primary goal of the new owners, Keith says it is imperative to keep the same “vibe” at the Spud. Hosting smaller affairs, such as last summer’s Wydaho Rendezvous mountain-bike festival, helps to accomplish this—as does continuing to use the drive-in theatre for its intended purpose.

“A night at the Spud is a venue for everyone,” says Keith. Maintaining the family atmosphere is essential to him, the owners, the concession workers, and, most importantly, the public.

Whatever crowd is gathering there—from moviegoing families to Widespread Panic’s devoted “Spread Heads”—the Spud is finding ways to thrive in the new century.

 

Addendum: On May 19, 2011, the Spud's new owners announced that they were closing the Spud (for some rather lame-sounding reasons) and that they had already sold the new digital projection equipment. Then, on June 1, it was announced that former owner Dawnelle Wood and longtime Spud employee Tyler Hammond had struck a deal with the owners to reopen the drive-in, utilizing the old projection system. Gladys Burgers are back, and so are post-sundown flicks ... and Teton Valley residents could not be happier.

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