Alberta Bair’s name will remain on the downtown Billings performing arts venue, after $2.5 million was donated through the Charles M. Bair Family Trust.

CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff
From left, Alberta Bair Theater board chair Brooke Murphy, board chair John Jones of the Charles M. Bair Family Trust, ABT executive director Jan Dietrich and incoming ABT board chair Ron Yates, pictured Thursday, December 7, 2017.

The announcement was made at the start of the sold-out "Jersey Boys" performance Friday night at the Alberta Bair Theater. Jan Dietrich, ABT executive director, said she found out about the donation just before Thanksgiving and kept it quiet so she could announce it on a big night.

The donation is a significant addition to the capitol fund campaign to raise $11 million for renovation of the theater.

“This is really a transformative gift from the Bair Foundation,” Dietrich said. “This reaffirms the commitment by the Bairs and provides a visible gift for an organization that Alberta supported.”

HANNAH POTES/Gazette Staff
The Billings City Council watched a presentation in 2016 by architects and members of the board of directors of the Alberta Bair Theater concerning renovations and expansion.
LARRY MAYER/Gazette Staff
Alberta Bair stands in front of her namesake theater shortly before its opening in January 1987.

Bits of the theater's history are up in the lobby, including a photo of Alberta Bair wearing her trademark red wool hat. Three large marble panels recovered from the walls of the old Fox Theater restrooms have names of the founding board members and major donors etched into them. And a package under the Christmas tree is wrapped in paper with Alberta's photo on it.

The lobby will be renovated and more restrooms and an elevator will be installed so patrons with disabilities have access to the balcony.

Beyond patron comfort, Dietrich said the renovations are necessary to bring the theater up to industry standards with the lights and sound systems. Half of the renovation costs will be used for those upgrades.

The ABT has had several sold-out shows this fall, including Bonnie Raitt and "Cinderella." The theater is an entertainment anchor in the area, and keeping Alberta Bair's name on it keeps her family's legacy alive.

“Other than Meagher and Wheatland County, when people think of the Bairs, they think of the Alberta Bair Theater,” Dietrich said.

Another significant funding source for the renovations is the city of Billings, which in July approved a $3.5 million tax increment financing allocation. Dietrich said $6 million of the $11 million goal has been raised. She plans to take fundraising up a notch in early 2018, soliciting more patrons for donations.

Brooke Murphy, chairman of the ABT Board of Directors, said the donation allows the board to move forward with confidence.

The Bair home was on the same corner of North Broadway and Third Avenue on which the theater now sits. The Fox Theater was renovated 30 years ago, turning the movie theater into the ABT, which opened in 1987. Alberta was a frequent patron of the theater, and she enjoyed hobnobbing with celebrity performers.

HANNAH POTES/Gazette Staff
The Pointer Sisters perform during the Billings Clinic Classic in 2015 at the Alberta Bair Theater.

John T. Jones, of the Charles M. Bair Family Trust, said it means something to the Bair trustees that the theater is on the Bairs' former property.

"The legacy of Alberta is something we guard very fiercely," Jones said.

The ABT estimates that it has an impact on the Billings economy of more than $4 million annually. During the 2015-16 season, the theater held 84 events attended by more than 84,000 people, including 9,300 people from outside Yellowstone County.

Renovations are expected to begin in April 2019 and are scheduled to be completed by September 2020. The ABT will provide programming during that time at other Billings venues, potentially including the Babcock Theatre and the Lincoln Center Auditorium.