By Connie Daugherty
At the center of the Anaconda community, sits the Washoe Theater as it has for 81 years. And Jerry Lussy, soft-spoken, and always smiling, is the heart of this historic theater.
“It’s in my blood,” he says. He means it literally as well as figuratively. His great-grandmother was a major investor of the Washoe Amusement Company that started building the theater in 1929, rising from the ashes of the former Margaret Theater. “My father got her shares,” Jerry adds, and he ran the theater for several years. Jerry and his three siblings grew up there, and today, Jerry’s three-year-old grandson refers to the theater as, “Papa’s house.” It continues to be a family affair.
Anaconda’s Washoe Theater was the last theater built in the U.S. in the art deco style and is still among the most beautiful theaters in Montana. The doors opened for the first shows in 1936. Stepping into the lobby today takes you back to the glory days when a trip to the theater for a movie (talkies were new then) or a live performance was a special event where women wore their best jewelry and men their top hats. In the 1950s, a Saturday afternoon matinee cost ten cents.
Jerry Lussy dedicates his time to preserving that nostalgic allure while at the same time providing the small town of Anaconda contemporary entertainment experiences—changing from 35mm film to digital in 2013 including 3D movies. Even though they don’t need to change film reels any more, they kept the traditional intermission.
“We’re probably one of the few in the country that do it,” Jerry says. That pause during the movie isn’t something that younger audiences are used to, but it is a part of the charm of the Washoe. The intermission provides a few minutes to stretch, go to the bathroom, get popcorn, or chat with others around you, similar to a live performance and a pleasant holdover from a time when life moved at a slower pace.
While Jerry is the owner and the heart of the Washoe Theater, there are also stockholders, a board of directors, and some part-time employees including two long-time managers and custodial staff. “I call myself the one who is responsible for the books, rather than the owner,” Jerry declares with a laugh. Jerry also hires local high school students to work during show times.
He recalls his own high school days working at the theater—“the place to meet” and take a date in the 70s and 80s. He remembers sneaking in after hours with his friends. He also remembers being caught and his father threatening to take his keys away. “We never damaged anything,” he notes, and they didn’t make a mess they couldn’t clean up. It was a good growing up time.
After high school, Jerry went to Montana Tech and earned a degree in computers and finance. He continued working at the theater—commuting back and forth with other Montana Tech students. In 1986 just as Jerry finished college, his father died after a battle with cancer, and Jerry took over the family business.
“It was either take it or leave it,” he says. “So I decided to keep running it.” Though not an expert, he was familiar with running the projector and he had good mentors. And, he had already been in the process of developing computer programs to manage the routine business operations.
“I still use Lotus 1-2-3 and Word Perfect 5.0,” he says. “That’s the software I run the business on.” He produces the payroll and maintains meticulous records—volumes and volumes that he prints out on a dot matrix printer—that provide a history of the theater. He bought a “used computer in 1993” and is still using it today. “When I fill up a drive I just put another one in,” he says. No need to reinvent the wheel with new programs, new processes.
While preserving the historic theater is important to Jerry, he is also a businessperson who knows how to stretch his income. He keeps his prices low and offers excellent, but no frills service. He has applied for and received a few county Tax Increment Finance District grants to help with major maintenance projects like the heating system and the old neon marquee.
Keeping a movie theater going in this era of Netflix and hulu is a challenge. “It’s a fading industry but we’re hanging in there,” he says. Choosing which films will be successful in the community is a complex process and one at which Jerry has become quite good. “Because we are a small town and only have one screen you live or die on one movie,” he explains.
It is important to choose wisely because the production company gets a percentage of the box office—sometimes as much as 70%—so he has to know what shows will bring in the customers. “It’s just the way the business is.”
Also, because Anaconda is a small community with a small audience base, they generally get second run movies—the ones that have been out a few weeks. “It depends on the production and distribution companies’ deal,” he explains. Luckily for Jerry and the Washoe, there are plenty of people willing to wait a few weeks to see the new movies. And, “people still need somewhere to go to get out.”
For Jerry it is about the people. So, you will generally see Jerry cheerfully greeting customers at the front door and at intermission, he is often behind the concession counter helping the high school students.
“Working with the people is fun,” he says. “The people are happy; they want to be here.” He recognizes not only the locals, but other regulars as well. There are the summer people—those who come back year after year in their RVs. “Some tell me they don’t go to movies at other places,” he says.
Besides movies, the Washoe also serves as the entertainment center for live shows like community concert series, local nonprofit fund-raising projects, talent shows, special speakers for the schools, and even some boxing and MMA events. After 81 years, the Washoe Theater is still the place to go in Anaconda. And after twenty-nine years, Jerry Lussy is still the person who makes it all happen. If he isn’t hunting or cross-country skiing, he is at the theater.
You can find the Washoe Theater on Facebook or call 406-563-6161 to see what’s playing at this architectural masterpiece.