Rick Kessler is a diehard movie enthusiast. He opened his first movie theater at age 25 and he’s been introducing Sun Valley residents and guests to the first takes of “Harry Potter” and “Star Wars” since.
He has 20,000 movie posters, dating back to the 1960s, and some of those posters lining the walls of the Magic Lantern Cinema in Ketchum are quick to jog moviegoers’ memories about their first date or where they were when they saw Luke Skywalker for the first time.
But, now, after nearly 50 years of life revolving around the silver screen, Kessler and his wife Cherie are reluctantly saying it’s time to pass the movie projector to someone else.
“I think movie theaters are essential to the community,” Rick said. “And this is a strong movie community—moviegoers here will go see films that aren’t necessarily popular because they want something that makes them think. We serve as a babysitter for children on summer afternoons. We get tourists who want something to do when the chairlift has stopped running. And we’re there when the new blockbuster hits the market.”
Kessler began showing movies in 1974 in the original Magic Lantern in a remodeled Odd Fellows Hall, which also served as the site for ski swaps and Halloween parties. As the town and valley grew, he set about building a new theater across the street at 100 2nd St. W.
The original plans called for a restaurant on the bottom floor and a four-screen theater on the second. The restaurant fell through as a partnership dissolved, but Kessler moved across the street in March 1995 to the new four-screen Magic Lantern. The original Magic Lantern was renamed The Movie House and continued to operate until the lease ran out in November 1998.
“The prototype for motion pictures was called the magic lantern,” he said referencing the 17th century when magic lantern technology encompassing specialized lenses and movement of painted images lay the foundation for modern movie projectors.
The charge of finding someone to buy the Magic Lantern has been a bittersweet, even emotional, one for Rob Cronin and others at Rixon + Cronin.
While they hope the right someone will come along and continue the Magic Lantern as a movie theater,   they realize it’s entirely possible an investor more interested in the location and the value of the dirt will purchase it and the Wood River Valley will lose its only fulltime movie theater.
“The potential of losing a beloved landmark that has been a staple to the town’s vibrant arts and culture scene and a decades-long haven for local moviegoers is heartbreaking,” said Laurel Holland, director of operations at Rixon + Cronin. “Losing the theater means obliterating the Sun Valley Museum of Art’s  entire film program and eliminating a major screening venue for all manner of special events in this town, least of which is the Sun Valley Film Festival.
“It means one less kid-friendly activity available to working families in the busy summer months. And it means a giant blow to arts access in our community,” added Holland, who was the assistant to the late film critic Judith Crist.
Cronin has been meeting with valley residents who have ties to Hollywood and with theater operators that have experience in small towns to drum up interest. Perhaps, he says, a philanthropic group might even step forward to operate it.
“This sale really puts us in an emotional quandary,” he said. “This is our business: We sell real estate. But we don’t want anything to take away from the community. I’ve been coming here for 20 years—I think ‘Pulp Fiction’ was the first movie I saw here.  And I know there’s absolutely no comparison to seeing a movie at home, especially if it’s a big blockbuster like ‘Top Gun.’ I was telling my kids it’s so much more impactful when you’re in the theater and hearing others scream and cry.”
The theater contains 8,200 square feet, which is considered a big space in downtown Ketchum. The projectors and refreshment counter would be left intact—heck, Kessler might even throw in a couple of his 20,000 movie posters.
“People have said, ‘Why not build a theater somewhere else?’ But where would you go? And at the $500 a square foot we’re selling this for—you can’t build another for that,” Cronin said.
 His years in the movie business have been great, Kessler said, with the exception of the beginning of the COVID pandemic when movie theaters went dark.
He saw a strong rebound in June and July on the shoulders of “Top Gun Maverick” and “Elvis.” And he expects to be busier than ever this fall since the family-owned Big Wood Cinema in Hailey closed just before Labor Day.
Already, Sun Valley Opera has switched The Met: Live in HD series to the Magic Lantern, and Kessler is putting the finishing touches on his always popular Fall Film Festival spotting foreign and other sometimes overlooked films.
The theater’s digital technology is sound, he said.
“If I had laser projectors, people would not be able to tell the difference. I’ve got customers who are upset we don’t have film projectors anymore. But digital projectors are great—they don’t break, they don’t have film that gets scratched.”
Kessler said he hopes he can find a buyer who will love the theater as much as he.
“But I’m also excited about what’s coming up. Even if we don’t sell the theater right away, I’m going to be very busy.”
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