Sale of Jackson Hole Twin Cinema marks 'end of an era’
JACKSON — It was December 1996, just before Christmas, and projectionist Doug Hagen had just started playing “The Preacher’s Wife” at the Jackson Hole Twin Cinema.
But when he went downstairs he found a woman in the last row, feverishly searching for something with a flashlight: She’d lost $60, and it was the last $60 to her name. Hagen went upstairs and paused the previews.
“I remember when he told me, I said, ‘You turned the previews off!?’” Frank Londy recalled.
“He said, ‘Frank, it was her last $60.’ I said, ‘All right, go on.’”
Hagen continued to tell the Twin Cinema’s owner how he went back down and let the audience know why he was pausing the film. How the audience waited and, when the money didn’t turn up, how the woman tearfully asked Hagen to start the movie.
But Hagen also told Londy about how, after the two went to search the bathroom, they emerged to find an audience member with $50 raised from other customers. Hagen threw in $10 or so of his own, and Londy told the story in a letter to the editor, crediting “those anonymous strangers, sitting in that darkened movie theater, who came together for a moment or two to aid another stranger.”
“It’s just a wonderful tale of human nature,” Londy told the News&Guide Monday. “Doug’s a stranger to the woman, the woman’s a stranger to Doug, the audience are strangers, they’re sitting in the dark. It’s all part of that communal experience that cannot be duplicated in any other way but at the movie theater.”
But that chapter of cinema history in Jackson Hole is ending.
For health reasons, Londy, 74, has sold to Noa Staryk the Jackson Hole Twin Cinema, the 44-year-old Pearl Street picture palace. It’s 45 if you count 1976, the year the theater broke ground.
The movie mogul is also in the process of selling the Movieworks Cinema, the newer four-screen cinema on West Broadway. And while he declined to name potential buyers for the Movieworks, he did say the larger cinema would keep showing films.
But the Twin, Londy said, will close.
Staryk was unavailable for an interview Tuesday about her plans for the property but said she would be later this week.
Selling the Twin was hard.
“It was my baby,” Londy said. “No question about it.”
The Jackson Hole Cinema, later the Twin, was the first theater he built, home to his memorabilia-laden office and his first-floor “movie museum” — a collection of keepsakes like figurines from the original “King Kong,” blaster rifles from “Star Wars” and a plastic Godzilla hungrily eyeing the Empire State Building.
It also became home to Frank’s Fall Film Festival, the movie festival Londy ran for 29 years, as well as the art house films and dramas he’s hand-picked for decades.
But without someone to run the theater, as well as his health problems, and the COVID-19 pandemic changing the movie industry, the movie tycoon decided to sell when Staryk made an offer.
The sale begins to close the door on four-plus decades of history in Jackson Hole — cinematic and otherwise — centered around Londy and his theaters. They outlasted cultural shifts, brought some of the biggest movies to the valley, contributed smack-talking sports teams to Jackson Hole’s ecosystem, and provided a home for moviegoers of all stripes in all seasons.
Londy said he hoped people remembered the theaters as “the showcase for the greatest art form of our time,” an art form that he said Monday, as he has in many interviews over the years, is meant to be shared “in the dark, with strangers in your community.”
“And I hope they had fun,” he said. “Because I sure did.”
Londy said he got into the movie business because “that’s just how life goes sometimes.”
He and a date went to see a movie in college, the spaghetti Western “Fistful of Dollars.”
When Londy came home he convinced his roommate to make a movie with him. They made a couple, and he and his friends ventured into different parts of the cinematic universe. Some went into production. Londy went into exhibition, running movie theaters and screening films.
He moved to Jackson in 1972 and, working with a friend and his wife, Maureen, who made cookies, showed movies around town: in Teton Village, and at The Virginian, St. John’s Episcopal Church and the Aspen Drive-In. The drive-in theater was close to what would become Movieworks, which Londy built in 1991.
But that was 15 years after Londy built his first movie house. Constructed in 1976 and opened in 1977, that property was his flagship theater with an iconic marquee on Pearl Street.
“It was called the Jackson Hole Cinema, and I believe it might have been the most beautiful movie theater on planet Earth,” Londy said.
In 1988 he “twinned” the cinema, dubbing it the Jackson Hole Twin Cinema. He built his office on the second floor and stacked it high with memorabilia.
Meg Petersen worked for Londy for 21 years and remembered the space as “movie eclectic.”
“Offices are very stark, and there was nothing stark about that office,” she said. “Pictures everywhere. And I mean, pictures on the doors. It had such history: the history of movies, the history of the employees that work there, the history of Frank having the cinema.”
Surrounded by neon and movie posters from flicks of yore, Londy made his mark in the Jackson Hole movie business.
“He seemed unique to me,” his son Nick Londy said. “He always made decisions with his heart. He wanted the theaters to be accessible to everybody. He wanted everybody welcome at the movies and always tried to keep prices as low as he could.”
The elder Londy made sure Jacksonites had access to a constant flow of new movies, leased “on a handshake” his competition, the Teton Theater, and made sure that the popcorn at the Twin and Movieworks was world class.
“That’s one thing I’m gonna miss about the cinema,” said Bob Schroth, who, along with his wife Linda, are some of Londy’s longtime friends in the valley. “It had the best popcorn — ever.”
At the Cinema, which later became the Twin, Londy screened films in showings attended by Harrison Ford, and got an apologetic letter from Charlton Heston when the actor wasn’t able to attend the premiere of “Mountain Men.” “A New Hope” played the year the theater opened, and Londy went on to project any number of blockbusters there: “Batman: The Dark Knight,” more “Star Wars” flicks, political documentaries like “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and pop hits like “Sex and the City.”
But the theater was also home to smaller, more artistic films. In the 2000s it became the mothership for Londy’s annual indie film fest, Frank’s Fall Film Festival, his vehicle for screening smaller, arty films that he loved along with community members who attended.
“I moved here from Atlanta 32 years ago, and loved the foreign films and that we could get absolutely stunning films here,” Leslye Hardie said. “It felt like Frank gave a gift for decades.”
And there was, of course, pomp and circumstance. In 1996 he received an innocuous message on his voice mail.
“It is I, Douglas Hagen, head of security, Jackson Hole Twin Cinema,” Londy recalled his longtime projectionist saying. “The president of the United States and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces is in auditorium number two. All is well.”
Londy ran over to the theater. Hagen, who worked at the Cinema more or less from its opening to its closure, recalls giving popcorn to the Secret Service officers with him in the projection booth. Londy recalls Hagen telling him that, when he asked the officers what they did while protecting Bill Clinton, they replied, “If anything happens, we kill everybody.”
Londy said that wasn’t a line from a movie: “It’s not,” he said. “It’s an original.”
For the community members who enjoyed the theaters — and what happened surrounding them — they were a place to gather, a place to meet people and, on the baseball diamond, a force to be reckoned with. Londy ran a Jackson Hole Cinema softball team that competed with teams like the one from Mateosky Construction. But the movie mogul said he didn’t think he had a particular rivalry with the construction firm.
“We had a rivalry with everybody,” Londy said. “They’d come out and try to beat us.”
Kasey Mateosky said Londy was a “fierce competitor.”
“He was a good smack talker,” Mateosky said. “But he can take it too.”
Londy’s quick wit aside (he once picked a bone with the Jackson Hole News for calling “Star Wars” fans “nerds”) the cinema was a cultural hub.
Thom Ross, a friend of Londy's, and the Schroths remembered how his recording of the “weekly playlist” — a Cinema voicemail that lined out the weekly showings — became a community conversation.
“When you called the cinema, you’d hear Frank’s squeaky voice go ‘Tonight, at the Jackson Hole Cinema,’” Ross remembered, recalling how dinner party guests wouldn’t say ‘Hi Frank.’ Instead, they’d repeat Londy’s words — and inflection — back to him.
“It became part of the lexicon,” Ross said.
As the years went on the Cinema became a cherished place for diehard moviegoers like Christie Laughery, who moved here 17 years ago and frequented the theaters with her friend Margene Jensen. Her friend passed away recently, but Laughery remembered going with her to see the Quentin Tarantino flick “The Hateful Eight” after Jensen saw an ad for the film in the paper.
“I was like, ‘uhhh, Margene, that’s a Quentin Tarantino movie. That is going to be uber, uber violent,’” Laughery remembered. But Jensen convinced her that she’d seen “Django Unchained,” the previous mega-violent Tarantino flick. So they saw the film.
“I looked over at her partway through that movie, and she’s looking at the screen with an absolute look of horror on her face and her hand over her mouth,” Laughery said, laughing. “After the movie she said ‘Maybe I only saw the trailer for ‘Django Unchained.’”
Laughery said she was thrilled to be a part of the Twin Cinema’s history, in particular.
“On the one hand, even having been here 17 years, certainly I’m not a local,” she said. “But having participated in the history of the Twin is precious to me. The theaters are such a part of — and movie going is in my opinion such a part — of the pop culture related history in Jackson.”
“It’s definitely the end of an era,” Linda Schroth said.
Londy’s decision to sell the Twin — and, eventually, Movieworks — reminded family and friends of another episode in the history of the theaters: When he decided to cut down a couple of trees outside of the original Cinema to install the second screen and keep the business running.
Londy fought doing so for over a year. So in 1988, when he decided he had to cut them down, he ran an advertisement lamenting what he saw as a necessity.
“It must have been obvious to anyone who ever visited the Cinema the high value I have always put on those two trees,” he wrote. “I assume it is just as obvious the great pain I feel over what I believed I had to do. No one in this valley ... feels as deeply saddened as do I about their loss.”
Ross said that when he cut those trees Londy was “playing into the future’s world.”
“There’s got to be metaphors or allegories about ‘You kill the thing you love,’” Ross said. “That’s what Frank had to do.”
This time around, health issues and a changing business model were the underlying causes. The movie business changed over the past year, locally with the housing shortage making it difficult to hire workers and nationally with the industry shifting away from theaters and towards streaming.
“That was so intense for my family to let those trees go. So it was a sacrifice,” Londy’s daughter Meaghan said. “And that’s kind of what this is now too. You do the right thing for the stage of life that you’re in and the timing and what the industry is calling for.”
Depending what happens with Movieworks, the age-old staple of dinner-and-a-movie date nights could go by the wayside.
It will at the Twin, which Ross lamented.
“That was one of the places you went on a date. You took [your date] out to the movie, which, of course, people have been doing since cinema came along,” he said. “And now, you can live without it. You’re gonna have Netflix and all that other stuff.”
Jeremy Walker said he was sad to see the Twin go and “going to miss date nights.”
“Going and seeing the ‘Star Wars’ movies were pretty awesome in all those theaters, especially because Han Solo lives here,” he said, referring to valley homeowner Harrison Ford.
But he wondered whether the change could open up a hole for some other entrepreneurial, movie-loving spirit to fill. That remains to be seen, as do Staryk’s plans for the former theater.
Londy said he supports her purchase: “She couldn’t have been nicer and couldn’t have been more respectful of what we’ve been doing there for the 45 years.”
But for other film hounds in the valley — and friends and family of Londy — it’s a sad time.
Meaghan Londy said that, after her daughter heard the news, she tried to make a deal.
“My 6-year-old said, ‘I’ll give you all of my money in my allowance and we can buy it, and we’ll move there and we’ll run it,’” Londy’s daughter said. “I had to stay really steady for them but, inside, it’s really painful.”
She was, however, hopeful that the sale would give her father some “gifts” — “Less stress, or time doing the things that he loves, or being with grandkids.”
“But there are people who really look forward to retirement, and my dad is not one of them because he really loves his work,” Meaghan said.
But she and her father recognized it was time to sell, even if they didn’t want to.
“That theater made me who I am, for whatever that is, and provided for my family and gave me a life that had meaning,” Londy said. “I think we did a lot of good and had a positive impact, being, as they say, part of the fabric of the community. And I feel very much that we were.”
On Friday, when the deal closed, he sent a text to his family with a picture of the theater.
“Goodbye and thanks for everything you old movie theater, you,” it said.
And that was part of what he wanted cinephiles, moviegoers and community members to hear: Goodbye and thanks for everything.