Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Magic Lantern celebrates 35 years

Movie theater is a cornerstone of community


By SABINA DANA PLASSE
Express Staff Writer

Magic Lantern Cinema owner Rick Kessler threads a film for exhibition. Photo by Willy Cook

The Magic Lantern Cinema in Ketchum opened 35 years ago at the Odd Fellows Hall, across the street from where the cinema is today.

"It was barely a standing wooden structure," said cinema owner Rick Kessler. "We had a bench in the front row and for a long time we had beach chairs, which were very popular."

Kessler found Ketchum much like most people back in the 1970s—he was driving through. Originally from St. Louis, he graduated from the University of Denver and tried his hand at working at a news station in St. Louis before he hit the road and landed in Sun Valley.

"I wanted to be Orson Welles or Robert Altman," he said. "I decided I enjoyed watching movies more than making them. I wanted to find some place to have a movie theater, and I wanted it to be in a small town—a mountain town."

Kessler went to Steamboat Springs and learned to be what the industry calls an "exhibitionist."

"In the '70s, Ketchum was like a college town. I stopped in and never left," Kessler said. "I wanted to do a repertory movie house and show all the films I wanted and not have to worry about competition."

Kessler came across the Odd Fellows Hall and the day he visited it just happened to be showing an instructional film for the fire department. He said things fell into place from there.

"The theater was done on a shoestring," he said. "It was a struggle. The Sun Valley Opera House showed films on weekends, the Liberty Theatre was showing films and things kept on changing."

In 1974, Kessler showed six different movies a week and on any given night in the valley there was a choice of five films to watch.

"When I first opened up, the biggest movie was 'Deep Throat' and the town was worried about me showing pornography," he said. "I said I would not show XXX."

Kessler said doing business in Ketchum is a struggle and he was lucky to "slog" through but he also said he had nothing else to do. After Kessler became a member of the community, the real fun started to happen.

"It was the '70s, and it was crazy," he said. "It was like going to camp for 10 years. The bars were going until closing every night at Slavey's, the Alpine Saloon and Cedar's Yacht Club. In 1976, it was the biggest drought ever and Baldy was hardly open, but it didn't make a difference—it was the biggest movie attendance I ever had."

Kessler decided to apply for a beer and wine license because so many people were bringing cases of beer with them to watch movies. He was one of the first theaters in the country to have such a license.

"I had a thank you party, Get Smashed with Mash, and $1 paid for the movie and all the beer one could drink until the keg ran out," Kessler said. "It was hysterical. I had 180 people and Steve McQueen was in the theater, but I didn't know it then."

For Kessler, the movie-going theater experience is extremely important, and it's why he has kept it going for 35 years. He said people talking with one another or at the screen, laughing or crying together, is a community experience.

"I had the porn-of-the-month club and people would show up in trench coats and paper bags over their heads," he said. "An event in town was a singular event with a long line. For 'Star Wars,' which was released on Memorial Day but did not play at the Magic Lantern until August, I had people lined up dressed in tinfoil and other costumes. It was an absolute blast."

Kessler said that when "Young Frankenstein" and "Animal House" were shown, the theater was packed and everyone was hysterically laughing, which he had never experienced before.

"It was remarkable," he said. "Certain films had an amazing response. It was a social experience. My friend from Jackson Hole said, 'What you do is you get paid to put people in a dark room and tell them stories.' It's primal. It's like a campfire but only better."

Kessler started his expansion in 1986 and said the film business became more sophisticated and was changing every day. The multi-screen tri-plex showed up and Kessler had a six-plex.

"People thought I was crazy," he said. "With the video revolution, the studios thought people would not go to the movies. In fact, people with home theaters go to the movies more often."

Kessler said real movie fans will always go to the theater because the movie experience is an emotional one and it involves interacting with people.

"Many good movies have come and gone without an audience," he said. "It's a double-edge sword."

Kessler was saddled with an unusual situation for the film business when another movie theater, Ski Time, opened below him in the same building in 1998.

"I thought for a long time this situation did not exist anywhere else in the world," he said. "I found one such situation in Canada."

When Ski Time eventually closed, it took Kessler two years to make arrangements to make the additional theaters part of the Magic Lantern. He decided the theaters needed to have their own personality. On Dec. 25, he opened the Magic Lantern Cinema Screening Rooms.

"I wanted to play art and independent films," he said. "It is comfortable, has great sight lines and is an intimate atmosphere. This is the movie theater I always wanted to have and enjoy."

Kessler said it's nice to walk into the theater and see Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Clint Eastwood or Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"We are fortunate that the movie theater is the neighborhood movie theater, and you will see someone you know. You can have beer, wine, pizza and yummy popcorn. I try to give the best experience I can. The whole experience is simply magic, and to be continued."

Sabina Dana Plasse: splasse@mtexpress.com




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