Two groups with different visions for running the historic Babcock Theatre — one more event oriented, another with an eye toward screening films — made their case Thursday to an ad hoc committee advising the Billings City Council.
Committee Chair Larry Brewster said the committee will meet once more in the next week or two to determine which management group to recommend to the council.
Vintage Theater Partners
Rebecca Gairrett of Outward Media Group; Peter Manning of Knitting Factory Presents, which books acts around the country; and Harvey Singh, a Billings contractor, real estate agent and restaurateur, said they’ll use Billings’ proximity to places like Spokane, Washington, Boise, Idaho, and Eugene, Oregon, to attract top talent to play the Babcock.
“Billings is a routable city,” said Manning, a senior talent buyer with Knitting Factory Presents. “We often block-book these artists.”
Singh said his downtown restaurant, Seva Kitchen, “is slammed” on nights when large crowds attend events across the street at the Alberta Bair Theater. Since he began his career years ago in the music industry, “it makes sense to get back into the music business” by bringing acts to the Babcock, he told the committee, meeting at the Billings Public Library.
Gairrett, who lived in Nashville a few years before studying entertainment management at the University of Montana, said her cousin was married “in a rock and roll wedding” at the Babcock.
“The style is cool, and we want to reinvigorate that,” she said. “We want to restore the best parts of the theater and give people another place they can go and have an experience.
“What people (elsewhere) don’t recognize is that people in Montana will drive for five hours to do something fun,” she said. “We will help fill hotels and restaurants, and we want to be open to corporations and citizens who want to rent the space.”
The group didn't present any financial estimates for their plan.
Art House Cinema & Pub
Founder and President Matt Blakeslee said his 85-seat downtown venue has in nearly three years screened 251 films, hosted 315 events and sold more than 29,000 tickets. The Art House board plans to raise $2 million to add three screens, which Blakeslee called “a huge expansion.”
“We love the Babcock and we hope it works out, because we think it matters for downtown Billings and for Art House,” he told the committee.
“Something happened,” he said. “The screen was lit up, and there was something magical about that space as a cinema. This place matters, and we needed to throw our hat into the ring.”
He said if his proposal is accepted, Art House will manage the Babcock from its home one block away, screening films in the 750-seat theater seven nights each week — two more nights than the Art House does.
A New York-based film booker told him there’s enough space between the Babcock and the West End multiplexes that the Babcock could book popular first-run films, too.
He presented profit and loss estimates indicating the Art House, a nonprofit, making $26,000 annually, excluding donations, with the Babcock losing between $13,000 and $26,000 annually for the first few years.
A group of 40 people who volunteer at the Art House would be available for similar work at the Babcock, he said. He said he’d also work with 11:11 Presents at the Pub Station to secure live acts to play the Babcock.
“This is our work, because we believe art matters,” he said. “Utilizing the space that’s best for art is what we are all about.”
The city has $500,000 worth of capital improvements slated for Babcock this year, having spent some of the money already.