City council visits the Alberta Bair Theater

On Monday, the Billings City Council watched a presentation by architects and members of the board of directors of the Alberta Bair Theater concerning renovations and expansion.

HANNAH POTES/Gazette Staff

The Alberta Bair Theater plans to raise up to $10 million to enhance the experience it offers up to 1,400 guests during any given performance.

But first it has to convince the Billings City Council of the importance of the planned 3,200-square-foot expansion. 

The ABT seeks permission to vacate portions of Third Avenue North and North Broadway, which the Billings City Council will consider on June 13.

The city-owned theater wants to increase the number of restrooms, beef up concessions, expand and update the lobby and install an elevator to improve seating options for patrons with disabilities.

A number of other improvements are also in the plan being developed by CTA Architects, including installing sound and lighting systems, reupholstering the seats, expanding and improving the green room, resurfacing the stage, installing a new band shell, creating new office space — and enhancing the Art Deco building’s exterior, including hanging a metallic scrim on the building so that interesting shadows and lights will make it apparent that fun is going on inside the halls of a building constructed by 20th Century Fox in 1931 and designed by Robert Reamer, who’d earlier designed the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park.

During a Monday presentation to five City Council members, ABT board members and staff said the need for more bathrooms is critical. 

CTA Architects' Mike Tuss said the building currently has facilities for 22 patrons at a time, but just two on the ground floor. After the upgrade, 25 additional restroom facilities are planned for the balcony, and the two restrooms on the ground floor will be expanded.

“There’s been little done here in almost 30 years” since the theater was remodeled in 1987 after being purchased by the city in 1982, said Michael Sanderson of Sanderson Stewart, and an Alberta Bair Theater board member. “It’s starting to show its age.”

“We are poised to move forward with a significant capital campaign,” Sanderson said. “But we need to get the owner — the city — on board first.”

During the 2015-16 season, the Alberta Bair Theater drew nearly 100,000 people to events there, including more than 23,000 youngsters who attended student matinees.

The theater’s $1.7 million operating budget supports more than 60 jobs in Billings, including restaurants, hotels and other businesses that benefit from people going out for the evening or visitors spending the weekend in town.

The most recent season resulted in the most sellouts in history, said William “Woody” Wood, the theater’s executive director. The Alberta Bair plans to announce its 2016-17 season Thursday morning.

Under the current plan, the concession area on the ground floor will double in size, and the queue to the ticket office will be moved indoors.

The balcony will be enhanced and will be available for outside events, from wedding receptions to business functions. A new concession area is planned for the balcony as well.

A new heating and air-conditioning system will keep big crowds cool. “The air conditioning just can’t keep up when the building’s packed,” Tuss said.

While improvements to the green room — a new kitchen, restrooms and showers — won’t be readily visible to most theater-goers, “it’ll be more respectful of performers,” Tuss said.

Sidewalks would be extended along Third Avenue North and Broadway, eliminating a small number of curbside parking spots, but presenting no problem for walk-up traffic as well as pedestrians passing by.

“A big part of the experience is walking up to the theater,” Sanderson said. “Preserving sidewalks and circulation is an important part of that experience.”

Vacating a portion of Third Avenue will also alter the exiting experience, so that the current exit onto the busy street won’t be as abrupt.

A more transparent exterior is part of what Tuss calls “a sense of pageantry” being brought to the design portion of the project. “People will see there’s something going on inside. It’s an effort to grab people and pull them into the theater.”

An electronic sign will be erected outside the theater, and video monitors throughout the interior will alert patrons to what’s occurring on stage while they’re away — and when it’s time to return to their seats following intermission.

As they’ve been revealing their plans to potential donors, board members described the feedback as “positive and strong.”

“Billings deserves — yes, needs — to update its crown jewel of our downtown and performing arts community,” the board said in a news release. “The time is now.”

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.