Slowly but surely, the Babcock Theatre is shaping up ahead of its grand re-opening in November.
On Saturday morning, volunteers armed with cloths and cleaner washed walls and windows in the lobby of the downtown theater. Over the next three Saturdays, that work will expand to including painting the floor inside the theater and touching up some walls.
A 4K digital projection system and a new screen will be installed, a concession stand constructed, new carpeting will be added and lighting in the theater’s interior will be upgraded to better show off the majestic design of the theater built as an opera house in 1907.
“We’re working hard to provide a brand-new cinema experience with the historical preservation of this place,” said Matt Blakeslee, founder and president of Art House Cinema & Pub, which is leasing the 750-seat theater from the city of Billings.
Once the doors open in early- to mid-November, the Babcock will show first-run movies seven days a week, Blakeslee said. Since he announced the intent for the theater to return to showing films, Blakeslee has gotten a lot of positive feedback.
“We’ve had so many people approach members of our staff and share their memory of the Babcock — a film they saw or their first kiss,” he said. “It’s one of those things that continues to put fuel in our tank for why we think this matters so much.”
When the ownership of the Babcock Theatre was given to the city of Billings by the owners of the Babcock Building, the city put out an RFP for an organization to assume a 15-year lease to run the theater.
Blakeslee said the idea caught his imagination when the Art House Cinema helped host an event there and he could see it as a downtown centerpiece. He approached his board with the idea, and it agreed.
“To have the marquee lit up seven days a week dramatically changes the face of downtown,” he said. “We see this as a once in a 15- or 30-year opportunity to step in and fulfill a vision we think uniquely serves the community.”
Art House Cinema was chosen by the Babcock Committee and approved by the city council. After lengthy negotiations, a lease was signed this month, although Blakeslee’s organization already assumed interim management this fall of previously scheduled events.
Much of the funding for the renovation come from the city, and expenditures must be approved by the Babcock Committee. Work in the theater will be done in phases, Blakeslee said.
The two biggest projects right now are installing the needed technology “and what we’re calling lipstick and rouge.”
“How do we make this shine as best we can in the next two months?” he said.
On a tour of the theater that's listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, Blakeslee pointed out some of the immediate improvements that will be completed by the time the theater opens. A concession stand will be front-and-center on the first floor, decorated with a quilted blue-and-gold finish to mirror the theater’s interior.
The decorating will be in keeping with the Skouras-style of design the theater adopted in 1955. The Babcock was one of a number of theaters in the Western U.S. redesigned in the 1950s, and that look will be retained with the renovation, he said.
New aisle-runner lights will be installed. Some plumbing and electrical issues will be addressed.
A new stage face will be completed to spruce up the front of the theater, and the ticket booth will be readied for use. Painting the ceiling will come later, as will a repair of plaster that was damaged previously when the ceiling leaked water, before it was fixed.
“Ultimately this is a five to 10 year plan,” Blakeslee said.
The precise opening date will be decided this coming week, he said. After showing a few old-time movies as part of the grand opening, the Babcock will begin showing all-new offerings that Blakeslee hopes will bring people who normally might not venture downtown to the neighborhood for a meal and a movie.
“We’re just building on the legacy of what this place has been all the way to the early 1900s when it was built,” Blakeslee said. “We hold it as a high honor to pick up that baton and run with it.”