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1983 "Return of the Jedi" premiere at the Babcock Theatre

A line forms outside of the Babcock Theatre in downtown Billings during the premiere of "Return of the Jedi," the third film in the original Star Wars trilogy, on May 25, 1983.

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff

Billings is on the cusp of a back-to-the-future leap for a century-old downtown landmark. The Babcock Theatre, 2812 Second Ave. N., could soon be screening big, first-run movies.

Longtime Billings residents will recall that the Babcock was a movie theater 30 years ago before going through a dark period when it was mostly closed. The Babcock was reborn five years ago thanks to a creative public-private partnership between the city and Babcock LLC, whose principals were Kim and Don Olsen, Kay Foster and Mike Mathew.

The opera house, built in 1907, was added to the National Historic Register. The $2.89 million Babcock renovation project was partially funded through a $480,854 federal historic preservation tax credit. The private investors designed and oversaw the restoration work. The project reopened the 750-seat theater, created 14 second-floor apartments and seven retail business spaces. The Babcock agreement called for the private investors to keep the residential and retail space while returning the theater to city ownership in 2017.

The city is in the process of taking back the theater, and the city council wisely sought a good private partner to manage the building. The council created a committee that included Councilmen Larry Brewster and Dick Clark and several other citizens to review proposals for running the Babcock.

Last week, that ad hoc committee settled on an excellent proposal from Art House Cinema & Pub. This nonprofit organization already operates an 85-seat theater at 109 N. 30th St. — about two blocks from the Babcock. In nearly three years, Art House Cinema has screened 251 films, hosted 315 events and sold more than 29,000 tickets, executive director Matt Blakeslee told the committee.

Art House Cinema volunteers transformed an old bowling alley into a classy, fun entertainment venue that brims with personality. Blakeslee or another staff member usually introduces the films, sharing insight with the audience. The tickets, popcorn and snacks are reasonably priced. The pub sells beer and wine along with soft drinks.

From its opening nearly three years ago, Art House Cinema leaders envisioned eventually buying that building and expanding to three screens. Fundraising is underway for that project. If Art House manages the Babcock, Blakeslee expects the nonprofit organization will be fundraising to upgrade that theater, too.

Billings native Blakeslee envisions lighting up the Babcock marquee for movies every night, as well as working with local promoters to present concerts and community events.

The Art House board of directors was expanded last week in preparation for the hoped-for Babcock management agreement. New members joining the board are Steve Wahrlich, Doug Wagner, Ethan Kanning and Corby Skinner. Kirk Porter, Andrew Lindley, Shelli Theroux, Dennis Deppmeier and Blakeslee will continue their board service.

Ad hoc committee member Jack Nickels said he is pleased that Art House Cinema “has a board that can look out for the community in a proactive way.” We agree wholeheartedly.

Art House Cinema, its board, dozens of other volunteers and its audiences have already given new life to one old downtown building. They have built a thriving entertainment venue over the past three years.

We’re betting Art House Cinema’s energy and talent will revitalize the Babcock, enhancing the volume and array of entertainment that draws people downtown for art, culture and fun.

We strongly encourage the Billings City Council to follow its committee’s recommendation and work out a contract that will turn up the lights at the Babcock.