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More than a century old, the Babcock's past looms large

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More than a century old, the Babcock's past looms large
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When the Babcock Theatre was completed in 1907 it was the second opera house in Billings. The original theater, built along the railroad tracks in 1896, burned down, an ominous foreshadowing of what would happen to the second opera house as well.

The Babcock Theatre’s expansive history mirrors the evolution of Billings, a railroad town eager to prove itself as more than a quick stop, with plenty of hardship and loss as it grew.

"A city without an opera house is a city with no enterprise,” proclaimed The Billings Gazette upon the completion of this first building. By the late 1800s, traveling theater productions had become a primary source of entertainment for communities, and Billings was well-positioned to attract these roving performers who were using the Northern Pacific Railroad to move about the country.

Wanting to attract top-tier talent, enterprising resident A.L. Babcock set out to construct one of the “handsomest opera houses in the state,” not the “sort of a barn” that was used prior, as described in November 1895 in The Billings Gazette. The opera house was set to open along the tracks at the end of that year, placing the community firmly on the map of progress.

Opening a bit behind schedule in February 1896, the Billings Opera House cost $10,000, could seat 600 patrons and boasted first-class amenities to attract large companies, including five dressing rooms, a 14-foot space above the roof to accommodate scenery changes on a pulley system, and a large stage.

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Billings Opera House, 1899

The Billings Opera House as seen in 1899.

That opera house burned down in 1906. Babcock rebuilt quickly, and within a year a new theater was opened, one that rivaled other playhouses of the West. Copper Kings in Butte and folks in the expanding city of Great Falls were also building cultural palaces for traveling theater companies.

As Billings expanded north of the tracks, efforts to move development up North 28th Street pushed Babcock to rebuild on what would become North Broadway. Other notable buildings, including Montana Power Co. and Montana Bank, had been established on what was then North 28th, solidifying the community’s commercial growth to the north.

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A.L. Babcock Theater block rendering, circa 1907

The original plans for the Babcock block envisioned a four-story building, later expanded to a seven-story structure with "a roof garden on top." The final building was only two stories high.

Designed by prominent Seattle theater architect E.W. Houghton, the Babcock Theatre could seat 1,350 people in a curved horseshoe shape with two balconies and elevated box seats on the side walls. Its neo-classical style gave the theater a feeling of luxury and rich antiquity, with a palette of creamy ivory and lush green, seats upholstered in wine-colored velvet, bronze and brass accents, massive oak trim, with statues framing the stage and angels dotting the ceiling, as described by filing documents for the National Register of Historic Places.

The stage was one of the largest in the country at the time, as reported in the Billings Gazette, with plans for the latest in fire-proof construction.

The Babcock building was originally going to be seven stories tall. It was the One Big Sky Center of its time, a well-intentioned idea that never got more than two stories off the ground. Billings wanted to live up to the hype of becoming the “Chicago of the Northwest,” as prophesied by the Polk city directory in 1909.

Growing city

There was good reason to be optimistic. Billings in the early 1900s was expanding quickly. The population tripled from 1900 to 1910, and the census that year ranked Billings as one of the fastest growing communities in the U.S.

By 1920 there were 15,100 residents in Billings, making it the third largest city in Montana behind Butte and Great Falls. Yet, it was Billings that showed the highest rate of increase (nearly 211 percent) during the previous decade. The well-to-do of Billings were hungry to prove themselves with a theater that would rival their industrious neighbors.

Billings’ early growth mirrored the expansion of theaters in the city. After A.L. Babcock opened his second opera house in 1907, a flurry of theatrical establishments followed. By 1913, seven theaters existed along Montana Avenue and North 27th and 28th streets.

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North Broadway, circa 1915

North Broadway is shown in the mid-1910s. At the time, seven theaters were in operation downtown, including the Babcock Theatre and the Acme Theater in the 100 block of Broadway.

That year, North 28th was renamed North Broadway. Mrs. Edgar B. Camp is credited with renaming the street. Camp was from New York City and her husband was active in the Chamber of Commerce. When renaming the street was suggested, she “insisted on calling it Broadway after one of the principal streets of her home city,” reported The Gazette. 

“If you have these places to go that bring people together in an entertaining format, it shows a healthy, vital community,” Kevin Kooistra, executive director of the Western Heritage Center, told the Gazette recently.

Daniel Helfgot, who recently directed Rimrock Opera Company’s production of “Nosferatu,” said it wasn’t uncommon at that time for small towns to have an opera house. “It used to be the center of life. In mining communities, the first thing they built was an opera house.”

Yet, by the late 1920s, just a handful of theaters were still operating, and the Babcock was struggling to find its place in the community. The opulence of grand opera houses were in stark contrast to the bleak daily realities of life in the approaching Great Depression, and the community’s entertainment tastes were shifting with the advent of movies. By 1917, motion picture houses began to pop up in Billings, and the vast number of live performances across multiple theaters became a relic. Spectator sports were also drawing people’s attention away from live theater.

Evolving theater

The Babcock transitioned from stage performances to silent films. In 1920, a large pipe organ was installed to add accompaniment. By the end of the 1920s, movies also had sound. “The Jazz Singer,” released in 1927, was the first “talkie” to show at the Babcock.

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North Broadway, circa 1920s

A night photo shows North Broadway as it looked in the mid-1920s. An electric sign for the Babcock Theatre can be seen hanging over the street.

Even with movies, the theater was part of the show, so its decadent interior remained important to create a feeling of escapism. In 1923, the Babcock was renovated to embrace the cinema age, earning its title as a movie palace.

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1955 Babcock Theatre remodel

The Babcock Theatre was heavily remodeled in 1955 in the so-called "Skouras" style popular in California theaters at the time.

The following year, Hyme Lipsker, a merchant and business man who had invested in the Babcock, purchased the theater from Babcock’s son, Lewis, and wife, Mrs. A.L. Babcock (Babcock died in 1918). The Lipsker family would own the Babcock until it was sold in 2008.

In total, the Babcock Theatre has seen four renovations, the latest being a 1955 update to “Skouras” style of theater design, featuring sweeping and pillowed plaster elements and scrollwork in red, blue, and gold throughout, named for its creator, Charles Skouras, a motion‐picture executive and brother of 20th Century‐Fox's Spyros P. Skouras.

This style is remarkably preserved and remains one of the only examples outside of California, where the Skouras brothers primarily worked. The facelift came in 1955, updating an art deco style that the theater underwent following a devastating fire.

Out of the ashes

The fire broke out in 1935 during a boxing match. The roof and the ornate proscenium arch collapsed, the stage was ruined, as was the pipe organ. Charred remains of the fire can still be seen above the reconstructed proscenium.

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Babcock Theatre fire, February 21, 1935

A fire gutted the interior of the Babcock Theatre in February 1935.

Coincidentally, boxing would be the last sport to survive in the Babcock Theatre before it changed hands in 2008. By then, the grandeur of the Babcock was a distant memory. It had carried on through a changing economy and remained in use even after the opening of a second movie palace just two blocks north, the Fox Theatre (now the Alberta Bair Theater) in 1931.

The Babcock Theatre would eventually come under management of the Fox West Coast Theaters. Since the advent of film, the movie moguls had built a powerful monopoly of production, distribution, and exhibition of movies (broken up in 1940 when the government intervened). Drive-in movies would also contribute to the decline of movie palaces.

Suburbia compounded the struggles of the Babcock and Fox. By the 1960s, land values were climbing and drive-ins were declining, but malls were adding multiple-screen movie theaters, emphasizing sound and removing any distractions in a black-box experience, plus ample parking. The era of movie palaces was over.

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Babcock Theatre, 1990

Former Babcock Theatre manager Sean Vale removes lettering from the theater's marquee in November 1990. The following year, the theater came under the management of Carmike Cinemas, who closed it in March of 1991.

The Babcock hobbled on, but life in Billings had fundamentally changed. Television sets were in most households, multiplexes boasted a blockbuster lineup of movies, and in 1981 the Babcock Theatre closed. It reopened briefly under management of Theatre Operators Inc., showing first-run movies, but it just couldn’t compete. The stand-alone theater was too large and too expensive to operate.

Preserve or repurpose?

In the fall of 2006, after sitting empty 15 years, a boxing promoter leased the theater for Thursday Night Fights, promising patrons "bikinis, beer and blood.” At that same time, Kim and Don Olsen began eyeing the building. After helping restore the Moss Mansion and the Acme Hotel, they were focused on historic preservation.

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Babcock Theatre marquee, 2007

The Babcock Theatre was briefly home to Thursday night boxing matches.

“It was the white elephant downtown,” said Kim Olsen. “Everything else was starting to look good but this.” They had asked owner Ruth Moss, daughter of Hyme Lipsker (who purchased the building from the Babcocks in 1924), several times to sell the behemoth, but could never get her to seal the deal. Nor could they convince banks to lend them the money. The economy was sluggish, and lenders were wary of the property. Many thought it was too far gone.

Indeed, it was a derelict building with just two tenants: Rock Creek Coffee Roasters and Montague’s Jewelers, leaving a large portion of North Broadway vacant. Only six of the 16 apartments upstairs were rented.

Kim and Don weren’t deterred. “Owning retail downtown is nice, but the theater is an irreplaceable icon,” said Don, who knew the building was at risk of being torn down. “Even people who cared about preservation were saying perhaps it’s too late.”

The city had eyeballed the property for a parking garage. “They studied the theater itself to see if you could put parking ramps and decks in there. It didn’t pan out, but that was the kind of thinking that was going on,” Don said.

In 2008, it seemed it was finally time for the Babcock to receive some TLC. With fellow investors Mike Mathew and Kay Foster, the Olsens formed Babcock LLC and entered into a deal with the city to buy and restore the Babcock building, utilizing funds from the downtown tax-increment financing district, and then after an agreed-upon list of improvements, transfer the theater portion to the city.

At that time, three projects received TIF funds, including the courthouse and Northern Hotel.

The foursome focused on restorations, making the building sound for retail and residents. From electrical to plumbing to heating and cooling to a new roof and installing a fire system, most of the improvements were desperately needed infrastructure.

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Babcock Theatre renovation, 2010

The Babcock building underwent renovations in the early 2010s.

Back to life

The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.

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A view of the Babcock after alterations in the 1960s

The Babcock building was modernized in the 1960s, and a facade of green metal was placed atop the historic brick structure. 

“We couldn’t have done it without support from the city,” Don Olsen said. He recalled the early days of renovations, when opening a closet door in one of the apartments unveiled a sheet of water running down the wall. “It’s been a lot of work, a lot of time and trouble,” he said, but work that has paid off. The building’s fourteen apartments and seven retail spaces are fully occupied, and earlier this year, Babcock LLC transferred the theater portion of the building to the city’s ownership.

One of the most visible changes to the building resulted when the exterior green metal was removed, a relic of “modernization” that started in the late 1950s. Where original bricks were jackhammered away, special bricks had to be ordered from Tennessee to match the existing bricks. “We jokingly referred to them as our gold bricks, because they were so expensive,” Don Olsen said.

The arcade on Second Avenue North, which served as the original entrance to the theater, was also restored. Babcock LLC retains ownership of that space, though the handicapped accessible bathrooms will be available for theater patrons.

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Babcock arcade, 2011

Renovations to the arcade portion of the Babcock building are shown in 2011.

The full stage was restored, as well. When the theater transitioned into a movie palace, the large stage was no longer necessary, so two-thirds of the space was sectioned off for retail, which would be the back portion of what is now Belle en Blanc on North Broadway.

Surprisingly, the fly space still existed, a bragging right for theaters that allow scenery to be pulled above the visible opening.

In taking possession of the Babcock Theatre, the City of Billings is now the owner of both historic theaters in downtown. Because they're city properties, the organizations that inhabit the buildings have generous leases — $1 per year. 

With a return to cinema, the Babcock is fulfilling its historical purpose while giving the city a path to its future. With each reopening, the Babcock is a reminder of resilience. Its charred and theatrical past mirrors the city’s progress and struggle as it continues to grapple with being the biggest small town in the west.

“It’s lived through drive-in movies. It will live through Netflix too,” Kim Olson said.


Photos: Babcock Theatre

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Arts and Entertainment Reporter

Arts & Entertainment Reporter at The Billings Gazette.