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Lantern Lighting 

Inside the future (old) Magic Lantern

Everything with Kathryn Graham is a sales pitch. Standing in the lobby of what will soon be the Magic Lantern reborn, the theater's executive director can't help but list the selling points. "We have a brand-new dishwasher so that we can use reusable cups," she says, playing the eco-friendly angle. "We have a brand-new, state-of-the-art popcorn machine," she continues, giddily pointing to the concession area. There, still partially wrapped in shrink-wrap, is, indeed, a popcorn machine. It's red sheet metal on the bottom and glass on top. There's a kettle thing dangling from the center -- new, but not exactly state-of-the-art. Next, Graham turns to beverages. "We're grinding our own coffee," she says, selling the freshness. "It's fair-trade," she continues, selling the sustainability. "It's Thomas Hammer," she concludes, selling the local-business angle.

After a decade of struggling to bring the Magic Lantern back to life, both Graham's enthusiasm and her salesmanship are warranted. Graham's old Lantern, located at 123 S. Wall St. (above Europa), died officially in 1997 after losing its lease. But the business in general, she told me, had been straining before that. It's perhaps not surprising to hear her describe running an art-house film theater for profit in a town like Spokane as a nearly impossible enterprise.

The fervor with which she sells the new Lantern (located at 25 W. Main Ave. in the newly renovated, ultra-green Saranac Hotel), then, is like a kind of Post-Traumatic Failed Business Syndrome. Graham remains haunted by the first failure and -- despite taking precautions like reorganizing the business as a nonprofit and finding a much more agreeable landlord -- doesn't want to fail again. Jim Sheehan and Dave Sanders (owner and building manager of the Saranac Hotel, respectively) though, don't seem worried in the least. That's partly because they haven't invested the emotional hours Graham has. The larger, more hopeful reason, though, is that Graham hasn't let herself take solace in what Sanders and Sheehan already know. The Magic Lantern -- as an environmentally conscientious, community-driven, nonprofit enterprise -- sells itself.

The two men realized as much almost immediately upon beginning the Saranac restoration. Sheehan's model for rebuilding the sub-100 block of West Main -- starting with the Community Building, then spreading to the Saranac and to the former warehouse that adjoins it -- has been to take a neglected block and create from it a self-contained, sustainable community. According to Sanders, before Sheehan decided how to outfit the building, he wanted to ask its future tenants and patrons what they wanted. The answer, Sanders says, was nearly unanimous: "People told us they wanted food service, residences and they wanted the Magic Lantern back." The community, or at least the subset that has flocked to Sheehan's sustainable development efforts, was sold on the idea of a new Magic Lantern the moment the old one closed 10 years ago. Because the people were onboard, Sheehan says, he got onboard. So, though Graham had been working since 2000 to find a new home for the Magic Lantern, it was ultimately Sheehan who approached her.

The intervening years have been laborious -- it's apparently kind of difficult to retrofit a 100-year-old building with a massive solar panel and an adaptive geothermal heating system -- but the result is gorgeous. The Saranac lobby, which provides access to the Lantern, Isabella's and an art gallery still to come, is authentic. The original wood floors remain, as does the weathered, rounded brick of the walls. The original pressed-tin cornice work remains, though the tin ceiling tiles now hang affixed to a drop ceiling that hides ductwork and ambient lighting. The movie auditorium gets the tin drop-ceiling treatment as well, adding a splash of ivory to the mostly plum surroundings. Art Deco light fixtures salvaged from the old Lantern ("These date to the '30s," chimes in Graham) adorn the walls, throwing indirect light in a flower pattern. Nearly everything, from the fixtures to the tile to the seats, is recycled. In the theaters, a deep orange light emits from behind beautiful, semi-circular copper sconces. The interior designer of the entire Saranac, Patsy O'Connor, has created inspired, vibrant, contemporary designs with refashioned cast-offs.

Not everything went according to plan in the Lantern's two theaters, though. Graham's original plan for the main screen called for 120 seats. As of Monday, there were 97. The smaller theater, similarly, was originally slated for 40. It has 31. Graham says they'll be up to the intended capacity by week's end, though Dave Sanders said he's pretty sure all the chairs are already in place. It'd be difficult.

Even 128 art-house seats, though, is something to cheer about in a town that hasn't had any in almost a decade.

Some of Graham's giddy energy will no doubt dissipate after this weekend. A test run in the form of the Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival begins Friday. (See sidebar.) It won't start feeling like old hat, though, until well after the grand opening on Sept. 21. For now, she and Sanders will want to tell you all about the historic, green aspects of the building, the d & eacute;cor, even the seats themselves. "They're from the Fox," Sanders remarked Monday, "We re-upholstered them with recycled materials."

"And we put in extra padding!" Graham interjected, looking at my notebook to confirm that I was writing everything down. "They've been re-padded. Put that in there."

The Lantern Reopens With Eco-Style

The new Magic Lantern Theatre (closed since 1999) is hosting the Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival, an event consisting of 25 local films spanning from one to 101 minutes.

Wild and Scenic is the largest environmental film festival on the West Coast. This is the first time the series has visited Spokane, and the first show for the newly reopened Magic Lantern. The festival touches on many notable concerns including energy problems, rare occurrences in the ecosystem, and human determination.

Kilowatt Ours, for example, follows the journey of filmmaker Jeff Barrie and his wife Heather to find power alternatives. They travel to coal mines and solar panels across the United States to explain their methods of energy conservation and alternate power sources. Part of their gain is to help viewers realize different ways to save money on their power bills.

Breaking away from the political and social powers, Ride of the Mergansers focuses on a literal leap of faith. This story chronicles the rarely seen Hooded Merganser ducklings; from their death-defying leap off the nest to the beginning of their maturity, the tale is heartwarming and suspenseful.

Proceeds from the festival will benefit the Lands Council and the Center for Justice's Spokane River restoration agenda.

A different festival program -- each containing about 10 films -- will be shown twice daily on Friday-Saturday, Aug. 17-18, at 4 pm and 8 pm, and on Sunday, Aug. 19, at 1:30 pm and 6 pm at the new Magic Lantern Theater, 25 W. Main Ave. Tickets: $13; $6, children (available at Auntie's Bookstore and Mountain Gear); $15 and $8, at the door. Visit www.landscouncil.org or call 838-4912.

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