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Billings Symphony to move houses as Alberta Bair Theater closes for renovation

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Billings Symphony to move houses as Alberta Bair Theater closes for renovation
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The curtain closed Sunday at the Alberta Bair Theater for at least a year and a half, following a performance by the Billings Community Band.

On May 6, construction will begin on a $12.5 million expansion project to bring the 87-year-old structure up to code and modernize the facility’s services.

The bulk of the budget will be invested in infrastructure, including a new sound system, lighting, rigging, and acoustical treatments in the former movie theater-turned-performing arts center. The plan, developed by CTA Architects and to be executed by Langlas & Associates, also expands restroom facilities and doubles the size of the lobby and ground floor concessions while adding a new ticketing office.

Billings Symphony closes out 2018-19 season

The Alberta Bair Theater opened in 1931 as a movie house financed by the 20th Century Fox Corporation. The original Charles M. Bair family homestead sat on the corner of what is now Broadway and Third Avenue North, where the theater was built. Bair’s daughter, Alberta M. Bair, was a major figure in fundraising to renovate the facility in the 1980s, and in 1987 the renovated theater was named in her honor. The theater will undergo another extensive remodel, starting May 6, that will significantly improve the patron and artist experience with investments in infrastructure and facilities, as well as expand the main lobby. 

Fox Theater balcony, circa 1930s

The view from the balcony of the Fox Theater shows the painted walls that the theater featured upon its construction. The theater was designed by Robert C. Reamer, who was the architect behind the Old Faithful Inn and Lake Hotel in Yellowstone National Park, as well as a number of other theaters, mostly in Washington.

There’s still $1.5 million to raise before hitting the mark, said Jan Dietrich, executive director of ABT who has spearheaded the ABT Capital Campaign committee for the past 16 months. The total amount was increased from $12 million to include an acoustical on-stage shell to reflect sound toward an audience. 

The facility originally opened Nov. 13, 1931, as the Fox Theater, financed in part by 20th Century Fox Corp., and built on land purchased from Charles M. Bair. It isn't the traditional shape of a concert hall, so acoustical treatments and a high-quality shell help offset the limitations of the facility and how sound is distributed in the space.

“We need to have it acoustically meet all the needs of the performing arts,” Dietrich said. “It’s just different than a symphony hall.”

The theater was built on the Bair family homestead at the corner of what is now Broadway and Third Avenue North. Bair’s daughter, Alberta M. Bair, was a major figure in fundraising to renovate the facility in the 1980s, and in 1987 the theater was named in her honor. It has not been updated since then. 

Brian Ganz performs Beethoven

Pianist Brian Ganz returned to Billings to perform music by Beethoven with The Billings Symphony Orchestra & Chorale for its final performance of its 2018-19 season on April 13 at the Alberta Bair Theater. The Symphony will move its concerts to the Lincoln Center Auditorium for the 2019-2020 season, as the ABT will be closed for renovations throughout September 2020. 

During the ABT’s 2019-2020 season, which will be announced in late May, facilities including Petro Hall at Montana State University Billings, Lincoln Center Auditorium, MetraPark, and the Babcock Theatre will be used to stage performances.

Plans are to reopen the theater by September 2020. A gift of $2.5 million from the Charles M. Bair Family Trust in December 2017 ensured the theater will retain the name of Alberta Bair. 

“It’s going to be a transition year for all of us as we take shows around Billings,” Dietrich said. “As we keep saying, the show must go on, and everyone has been great and also looking forward to being back.”

Lincoln Auditorium

The auditorium at the Lincoln Center, built in 1935, will house the Billings Symphony's next season while the Alberta Bair Theater is remodeled. 

The Billings Symphony Orchestra & Chorale, Billings Community Band, local dance schools, and area promoters also present performances at ABT.

The symphony, which just announced its 2019-2020 season, will move concerts to Lincoln Center at 415 N. 30th. This isn't the first time the symphony has used the old school. In the 1950s, the organization performed at the auditorium, constructed in 1935.

John Green, who served on the Billings Symphony board in the 2000s, has an affinity for the Lincoln Center, based on its acoustics and shape. “It’s a proper music hall,” Green said.

Green said he has high hopes for renovations at Alberta Bair, including the investments in sound upgrades.

Billings Symphony in the 1950s

The Billings Symphony is shown in the 1950s.

Moving to the Lincoln Center has its drawbacks — original hard, wooden seats from the 1930s being one of them. But the location is convenient and the sound will be exceptional, which no other venue in Billings could offer.

“It’s not as if you had to drive for 20 miles or play in a place like the Metra. I mean, that’s really awful,” Green said.

Ignacio Barrón Viela, executive director of the Billings Symphony, has plans to address the downsides of the venue, including sponsored seat pads for season ticket holders, and has negotiated with Lincoln Center staff to provide patrons access to additional bathrooms that aren’t normally available.

Lincoln Auditorium

The auditorium at the Lincoln Center, built in 1935, will house the Billings Symphony's next season while the Alberta Bair Theater is remodeled. Pictured Tuesday, March 19.

Kelly Sharp, who oversees facility rentals at Lincoln Center, said the community utilizes the space frequently for live music, fundraisers and dance recitals. Many schools also use the auditorium for their programs.

“Having the symphony as a tenant is helping us upgrade the facility and get the community using it more,” Sharp said, indicating that they will add seat numbers to help patrons.

Few changes have been made to the Lincoln Center auditorium since it was opened in 1935, though a new sound system was added to the theater in 2017 and the building’s heating system was upgraded the prior year. The building is used for administration offices for Billings School District 2 and Billings Adult Education.

Billings Symphony in the 1950s

The Billings Symphony is shown in the 1950s.

Seating-wise, the facility has 1,636 seats, about 200 more than Alberta Bair Theater, which can seat 1,407. The upgrade to the ABT won’t change seating much. 

“Acoustically, every seat is good,” said Lorraine Marsh of the Lincoln Center. Marsh, a longtime symphony patron and member of the organization’s board of directors.

Lincoln Auditorium

The auditorium at the Lincoln Center, built in 1935, will house the Billings Symphony's next season while the Alberta Bair Theater is remodeled. Pictured Tuesday, March 19.

Marsh recalls singing and acting on the stage at Lincoln Center. “This is the kind of space that has so much meaning historically to those of us who love Billings and have lived here a long time.”

At age 77, Marsh said she’s looking forward to 20 more years enjoying the Billings Symphony. “Music is such an integral part of a healthy life,” she said. “It’s not just a frill. It’s a necessity. I could eat popcorn for a month in order to find enough money to pay for my real food, which is music.”

Billings Symphony closes out 2018-19 season

Billings Symphony Orchestra & Chorale conductor Anne Harrigan turns to thank the crowd during a standing ovation at the final concert of the 2018-19 season on April 13. This is also the final concert until September 2020 at the ABT, which is undergoing extensive renovations starting in May 6. 

Marsh, like many longtime supporters of the symphony, has held tickets for the same seats for decades and sits with a group of friends. Season ticket holders won’t have to worry about losing their prized seats if they subscribe to seats at the Lincoln Center. They’ll have first dibs on their season seats when the symphony returns to the Alberta Bair Theater for the 2020-2021 season.

The Symphony is hosting an open house on Thursday at Lincoln Center so ticket buyers can check out the space and select their interim seats.

Marsh isn’t bothered by the change in venue. “It’s going to be wonderful, mainly because I know what is coming in the future,” she said. “This makes a nice segue.”

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