RED LODGE - Lee J. Hanchett stumbled into the movie business in the mid-1980s. Almost 30 years later, he's still at it, operating what he says is the oldest cinema in Montana built as a movie theater and still used for that purpose.
And though the Roman Theatre, built in 1917, is showing its age, it remains a popular part of the Red Lodge entertainment scene - popular enough to justify the installation of a digital projector and sound system, which is being done this week.
Hanchett said he's still operating the Roman because it's a business but also because its good for Red Lodge.
"It's a service that this community would suffer if this weren't here," he said.
Jeff Anderson is inspired by similar motives. He and his wife, former Red Lodge Mayor Betsy Scanlin, have owned the Roman Theatre building since 2000, and they are financing the transition to digital technology.
"Red Lodge: great place to make a small fortune - bring a big one," Anderson said.
Hanchett, Anderson and Scanlin are as much museum caretakers as business owners. They enjoy maintaining an important part of local history.
Anderson remembers going to the Roman Theatre as a young boy and being scolded by "Scary Mary" Roman, who was the daughter or possibly the granddaughter of Steve Roman, the Italian immigrant who built the theater.
Anderson's family moved to Billings in 1956 and went up to Red Lodge to ski almost every weekend in the winter. He said he's skied at Red Lodge Mountain every year but one since 1956.
"And I missed one year because I had a
broken leg," he said.
Hanchett was also drawn to Red Lodge by the mountains. A native of Michigan, he attended the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and earned a degree in psychology, with an emphasis on research methodology and analysis.
He spent his summers during college as a ranger in Yellowstone National Park, and though he worked for six years in academia after graduation, he couldn't stop thinking about the mountains.
When a friend suggested they move to Red Lodge and open a backpacking guide business, Hanchett jumped at the opportunity.
"If we weren't taking people somewhere, we were walking to find new places to take people," he said. He also worked on the ski patrol during the winters, as did Anderson.
Then, in the mid-1980s, the operator of the Roman Theatre asked Hanchett if he'd come in sometimes and help him run the place. …