For no visible reason, I'm going to tell a story from my past. Back around 1970, our local comic book club would sometimes adjourn its Saturday meeting and then a band of us would car pool to a local movie theater and take in a cheap double feature. One time, we caravaned to the Meralta in Culver City for the parlay of Kelly's Heroes — starring Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Don Rickles and Donald Sutherland — followed by House of Dark Shadows.
I think it was a buck to get in and I hate to think what they could have charged us to get out. The Meralta (seen here) had probably been a lovely theater at some point but by the time we got to it, it was the kind of place where the cashier wore No-Pest Strips for earrings and the ushers were just cockroaches in uniforms. The seats were shabby and one out of every four was either broken, missing or filled with a dead body. The curtains no longer operated so (and this is critical to our story) the screen was open between films. And out in the lobby was a refreshment stand that sold popcorn that was stale when you could have purchased it to munch throughout D.W. Griffith's latest.
There were about ten of us there, crammed in a section of two rows with a gap or two where the seats were unsittable. We watched Kelly's Heroes and I don't think any of us particularly enjoyed it. Then came intermission. Some of us went out to the lobby but one of our group (a guy named Gary) stayed in his seat — he may have become permanently affixed by then — and handed some coins to another of our group (a guy named Barry). Said Gary to Barry, "Hey, while you're out there, get me a candy bar. Any kind." Barry was annoyed at being treated like an errand boy so he decided to go out and spend Gary's money on the lousiest candy bar he could find.
The Meralta refreshment stand had many to pick from but when Barry spotted a display of Idaho Spud bars, he knew that was it. The Idaho Spud is a popular candy in some parts of the country but apparently not in Southern California. None of us had ever heard of it before and I've never seen one since even though it has been manufactured since (their website says) 1911. The site also explains that it's "a wonderful combination of a light cocoa flavored marshmallow center drenched with a dark chocolate coating and then sprinkled with coconut."
And maybe it is. But you know what it looks like, in or out of its wrapper? It looks like a chocolate-covered potato.
Isn't that the first thing you'd assume? It's called an Idaho Spud and it has eyes all over its packaging. So what's the first thing you thing of? Chocolate-covered potato, right?
And the Idaho Spud people have no one to blame but themselves. No one forced them to call it that. There isn't even a logical reason to call it that except that they're made in Idaho where, contrary to popular belief, not everything is a potato. In fact, I developed a theory that the guy who invented it turned to his wife and said, "Muriel, I've invented a new candy bar but I don't know what to name it" and she asked, "Well, what is it?" To which he replied, "It's a wonderful combination of a light cocoa flavored marshmallow center drenched with a dark chocolate coating and then sprinkled with coconut."
Muriel said, "That's easy. Call it an Idaho Spud." And the inventor, who was drinking to celebrate his new invention, was so plastered by this point that it sounded good to him. Especially because people would think it was a chocolate-covered potato. "That'll be great for sales," he said just before he passed out, face down in a bowl of vodka.
Anyway, Barry bought Gary an Idaho Spud, took it back to where we were sitting and handed it to Gary. "Here's your candy bar."
Gary looked at it and said, "What the hell is this?"
Barry said, "It's an Idaho Spud. I think it's a chocolate-covered potato or something."
Gary recoiled in horror. "I didn't ask for a chocolate-covered potato."
Barry replied, "You didn't say not to get you a chocolate-covered potato." Gary had to concede the point. Sadly, he pulled the wrapper from his candy bar, took one bite, hated it and hurled the remainder of the Idaho Spud at the screen...
...where it stuck.
This was still during intermission and the curtains were open, the screen was exposed. We all saw the Idaho Spud sail onto the screen of the Meralta and just stay there, about two-thirds of the way up, slightly to the left of center. Then House of Dark Shadows started. For us, House of Dark Shadows starred Jonathan Frid, Grayson Hall, Kathryn Leigh Scott, Nancy Barrett and an Idaho Spud candy bar. And the Idaho Spud should have had top billing because it was in every damn scene. Prominently featured, in fact.
My friends and I paid no attention to the movie. We just stared at the Idaho Spud. Every time the camera cut, it had a new role in the film. Sometimes, it was a beauty spot on one of the actresses' faces. Sometimes, it was a fly on a wall. There was a shot of a door where it looked like the doorbell. At one point — I don't recall the exact dialogue — one of the actors said, "What is this thing?" And we all answered, referring to the brown lump on his face, "It's a chocolate-covered potato." This was years before The Rocky Horror Picture Show and home video made yelling back at a movie screen a national and annoying fad.
Other members of the audience picked up our fascination with the alleged candy bar and by the end of the film, I don't think one single person at the Meralta was paying any attention to what the actors were saying or doing; only to how the lump figured into each shot. At one point, there was an odd lighting effect that made it look like the Spud had fallen off and a moan of disappointment echoed through the theater. But then, in the very next scene, you could see it was still there and a little cheer went up. It was still there when we left, having little idea what House of Dark Shadows was about. In fact, it was still there three weeks later when I took a date to the Meralta to see Airport. On the sheer strength of superior acting ability, the Idaho Spud stole the movie from Dean Martin.
That's about all there is to this story. I'm not sure I ever went back to the Meralta so as far as I'm concerned, the Idaho Spud remained in place until they tore the place down, maybe even after that. It probably didn't but I'd like to think it did. Even now, when I find myself trapped in a particularly boring movie and my mind wanders from the storyline, I find myself wishing I had something of the sort to focus my attention on. A good movie, of course, needs no external help. But a bad movie can always use a chocolate-covered potato somewhere.