BLACKFOOT — Local high schoolers once crowded the movie theater in Blackfoot to catch the latest Hollywood blockbuster.
These days, dozens of teens crowd the building to learn.
Since 2013, Bingham Academy, a local charter school, has occupied the Riverside shopping plaza’s corner space, which once housed the town’s old Plaza Twin Theater.
The school is one of several Idaho districts and charters to occupy unorthodox spaces.
- The West Jefferson School District, also in highly rural East Idaho, is housed in an old church built by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
- Nampa-based charter school Pathways in Education occupies space in a local strip mall.
- Until last school year, Idaho Falls charter school Alturas International Academy occupied space in the old headquarters of Melaleuca, a multi-level marketing company that sells nutritional supplements, cleaning supplies and personal-care products.
“It’s not where we want to be forever,” said Bingham Academy director of operations Kelly Jo Fisk of her school’s current location, which features two separate, bygone movie theaters dating back to 1974. But with a few structural tweaks, the space has been surprisingly accommodating for students, she added.
Lockers now line the theater’s old corridor entryway, where chip-tune melodies from 1980s-era arcade games once filled the air. A small commons area lined with tables and chairs now sits where a hot-oil popcorn popper once belched out buttery goodness. Nearby, movie-goers once gazed over glass cases packed with overpriced sweets.
Growing up in Blackfoot, the Plaza Twin Theater was a staple of my youth. It introduced me to some of my favorite Hollywood films and actors. It’s where I watched the blockbuster hit “Titanic” and first held hands with a girl. It’s where — sorry, Mom — I snuck into my first R-rated movie with some middle school friends.
Fun at the theater extended into high school. Late one summer night, I climbed the Riverside shopping plaza’s roof with a few other curiously emboldened freshman. We admired the streetlights twinkling over our small town, then swiftly rearranged the letters on the theater’s old marquee into swear words for all to see the next morning.
Sorry again, Mom.
Now, the space’s two spacious theaters aren’t theaters. They’re “caverns” — a play on the school’s dragon mascot. During the school year, Bingham Academy’s band and choir students file to the front of the former theaters for music classes.
When not accommodating music students, the caverns serve as auditoriums, each still capable of seating the school’s 120-plus students for assemblies and other school functions.
“We use them regularly,” said Fisk.
Exposed cinderblocks now line the caverns’ tall walls — the result of a school-safety directive to strip away the theaters’ former fire-friendly acoustic paneling.
It was just “one of those things we had to do” to make the theater an inhabitable school, Fisk said.
In a room above the caverns’ main-entrance doors, where film reels once sputtered and spun to cast moving images onto the big screens out front, the school’s information technology officer stashes equipment. The old theater equipment “might” still be up there with the modern computers, Fisk said, but if it is, it no longer works.
Past the caverns’ doors, more lockers line a hallway that leads to a large entryway into the plaza’s neighboring unit. Workers joined the two units years ago by knocking a large hole in the wall separating them. The added space gives Bingham Academy room for additional classrooms.
Like the theater, this part of the plaza has a storied past (at least for me).
Once occupied by a grizzled sports-card dealer named Dave, the theater’s neighboring unit was a regular stop for me and my two older brothers.
On summer days, we’d ride our bikes to Dave’s Sports Shop and drool over the owner’s impressive cache of athletes’ pictures plastered onto little glossy squares: Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, Nolan Ryan.
The space has since been remodeled into classrooms, including a computer room where some Bingham Academy students now engage in a more modern pastime: competitive e-sports, a form of organized, multiplayer video game competitions.
There are scholarships for it, Fisk assured me as we left the bygone card shop.