There’s a noticeable new glow along North Broadway, as a $13.6 million renovation is finally complete at Alberta Bair Theater. The original building, a former Fox movie theater built during the Great Depression, is now encased in floor-to-ceiling glass walls jutting nearly 20 feet from the original brick exterior.
The project, which brought the 89-year-old building up to code and enlarged the theater, tackled everything from upgraded lighting and sound to new seats, expanded restrooms, additional concessions, a new box office entrance on North Broadway, and numerous enhancements to the facility to support modern touring performances.
The theater now awaits its formal debut, a fate tied closely to the pandemic.
“This has been a long-awaited opening,” said Jan Dietrich, ABT executive director. “To not be able to do it after everyone has worked so hard and stuck in there … We are dying to open.”
Though the keys were officially handed over to ABT staff on Dec. 1 as construction crews exited the building, the theater will remain closed indefinitely.
“We weren’t certain we would get here,” said ABT Board President Ron Yates. “The mood today is euphoric with a bit of sadness, simply because we are not able to open.”
The theater’s reopening is dependent on restrictions due to COVID-19, as well as the touring schedule of the world's entertainers. Most acts booked for the ABT’s 2020-21 season were postponed, and the hope is to resume performances by fall 2021.
“We have lots of fixed costs,” said Yates, estimating the overhead just to open the doors exceeds $10,000, making it unreasonable to host even small gatherings — currently restricted to 25 people in Yellowstone County.
“We find ourselves in a situation where it’s less expensive for us to stay closed than it would be to open," Yates said. "It’s a real dilemma.”
'A history of compromise'
This isn’t the theater’s first go-round with troubled times. Designed in the 1920s by Robert C. Reamer and finished in 1931, the theater is the last of the Fox Corporation’s vaudeville and motion picture houses. By the time the theater in downtown Billings was completed, the country was well into the Great Depression and became the last of its kind to open.
Reamer, an architect who also designed the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park and worked on the Roosevelt Arch, had his hand in several other theaters in the 1920s in Washington, each with the splurge and grandeur many theaters and movie houses of the early 20th century were embodying.
Though some cuts were made to the Fox’s flashy opulence in Billings, the theater displayed a grand vibe, heavily influenced by the art deco movement. Throughout, accents of green, rose, and gold mingled among marble surfaces warmed by plush red and blue carpeting and thousands of glimmering lights. Hand-painted wall motifs of hunters armed with arrows pursuing gazelles were accented by silver clouds adorning the ceilings. Elegant chandeliers illuminated the nearly 1,400-seat auditorium, and outside, the flashy marquee beckoned people from the street.
On opening night, Nov. 17, 1931, the town celebrated with a parade and street dance on North Broadway. Inside, “False Rooms,” “Fisherman’s Paradise,” and “Merely Mary Ann” played on the screen.
The Fox became a hub for new movie releases while also hosting touring acts, ballet, and live music performances. The theater courted performers including actor Boris Karloff (who portrayed Frankenstein's monster) and opera and contralto singer Marian Anderson in the 1930s, soprano Gladys Swarthout and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky in the 1940s, and other top names of the time including Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, George Winston, and Judy Collins. Ballet troupes from L.A. to Chicago to Belgium took the stage, as well as local arts organizations like the Billings Symphony.
Though the Fox continued to be a venue for global arts and a place for many community plays and performances, the years wore heavy on the theater and it fell into decay. The grandeur of going to the movies dwindled in the 1950s and '60s as drive-ins became popular, followed by the black-box multiplexes in more populated suburban areas and retail malls. The neighboring Babcock Theatre, opened in the early 1900s as an opera house and later converted to a movie theater, was also showing films until it went out of business in 1981, and though it was eventually reopened it struggled to compete, closing again in the 1990s.
In 1978, Carsich Theaters purchased the Fox Theater with the intent to reboot it for movies, which spurred arts supporters to launch a “Save the Fox” campaign to purchase and renovate the building.
“The place was really a mess,” said Hewes Agnew, a founding board member of the Alberta Bair Theater. “It smelled and it was just run down, and it sat atop an underground river. It was just wet, with water running down the steps. It was unbelievable.”
Agnew, who was active in the initial renovations of the 1980s, said the theater has a history of compromise. “A decision was made early on not to recreate the original theater,” Agnew recalled, in part because it was going to add a hefty price tag to the already desperately needed improvements. It was decided by the committee that restoring the theater to its original state “was not important,” Agnew said. “We were going to make it a performing arts center.”
Saving the theater
Downtown Billings in the 1980s was pretty rough. The community was struggling from bottoming out oil prices. Rail travel was declining, and the last passenger train had departed the Depot in 1979, leaving the area vacant and deteriorating. Revitalization along Montana Avenue was still years away.
“The town was in terrible shape,” said Agnew, a heart surgeon who joined up with the Save the Fox committee, formed in 1978 to raise funds for the revitalization of the theater.
Yet, there was good reason to believe Billings was ready to support such an ambitious project. In 1971, the original Parmly Billings Library along Montana Avenue was saved from demolition to become the Western Heritage Center, and in the mid-'80s the Billings Preservation Society acquired the Moss family mansion and set about restoring the home, built in 1903.
Ann Miller, one of the founding board members for the Alberta Bair Theater, described the drive to “Save the Fox” as a remarkable collaborative effort.
“Business was in an economic down cycle. The building was to be torn down and asphalted for parking. Though we had a talented and connected performing arts community — community concerts, Billings Symphony, Studio Theater, local performers, writers, presenters, patrons, and participants of all kinds — we were faced with limited performance space and certainly not much technical rigging to attract traveling shows. There was urgency.”
The project totaled $5.3 million, about a third of what they would need to build new at that time.
“There was commitment and vision,” said Miller. “This theater would spark energy in downtown. It would anchor touring companies to route to a region marked by Minneapolis, Spokane and Denver.” And, there was hope that investing in downtown would spur further development and growth in the area.
Yet, the costs to bring the theater to its original state were deemed too high. "The overarching goal was to encourage a culturally relevant city with a strengthened downtown core," said Don Olsen, of O2 Architects, who was on the city council at that time. "The Fox was much more convenient than architecturally significant."
Christene Meyers, the arts and travel editor for The Billings Gazette, who was also part of the Save the Fox committee, wrote at the time, “the building is neither a parking lot nor a bank, and for that we can all be grateful.”
The Bair family
On the corner of North Broadway and Third Avenue North, the theater sits on land that was originally owned by Charles M. Bair, who came to Montana in 1883 working as a conductor for the railroad. He then became one of the region’s first sheep ranchers and wool producer. He was involved in the coal industry, Alaska’s gold rush, founded Midland Bank in Billings, among other enterprises.
Bair and his wife Mary had two daughters, Alberta and Marguerite, and they maintained residences in Portland, Billings and a ranch in Martinsdale. The Bair family fortune was shared with museums and hospitals across Montana. Alberta, who was unmarried and lived to age 97, was the last surviving member of the family and continued that tradition. She had a deep affection for Billings, and because she grew up in the area where the theater now stands, she was long interested in the future of the building. In 1984, after donating $625,000 — the largest single amount for the campaign — the Fox Theater was officially renamed for her.
Reopened as the Alberta Bair Theater on Jan. 24, 1987, the focus heightened on courting traveling productions, theater, and live concerts. Local arts and dance organizations, including the Billings Symphony, the Billings Community Band, and Rimrock Opera, also continued to use the stage.
“Alberta would be proud,” said Miller, founding board member, of the newly renovated theater, 30-some years later. “She always said when responding to a request, ‘It had better make cents.’”
Angew, who initially approached Alberta in the 1980s with a group of about seven others to ask her about funding the theater, described Alberta as a delightful lady.
“I’d never ask her for money again,” he laughed. “We just would talk away. She had more stories. She really loved the theater.”
Though Bair, who passed away in 1993, was touted as the final push for the building, donors ranged from those contributing $10 to a community campaign to major backers including area banks, The Billings Gazette, and others invested in artistic improvements to the city. The purchase of the building was also facilitated by tax increment financing, and the building became a city property, leased back to the newly established Alberta Bair Theater organization for $1 per year.
The Charles M. Bair Family Trust was a major donor to the 2020 renovation, providing a gift of $2.5 million in Dec. 2017, ensuring the theater will retain the name of Alberta Bair. Other significant donations include a $1 million gift from private donors Jim and Chris Scott, the largest private donation in the organization's history. Jim is a founding board member of the ABT and chair of the board at First Interstate BancSystem Inc. The downtown banking community has been generous to the campaign, with Stockman Bank giving $285,000 toward the campaign and First Interstate Bank and Foundation donating $250,000. Support has also come from the city, which approved a $3.5 million TIF allocation in July 2017 from the downtown fund.
Board members, individual donors, community groups and grants have also supported the project. Dietrich said they’re about $250,000 shy of meeting the $13.6 million mark and have launched a name-a-seat campaign to spur additional donations.
The next generation
Nearly half of the funds raised for renovations went to sound, lighting, and technology enhancements, as well as a new rigging system to accommodate large stage productions, new boilers, updating the electrical system and bringing the building to code for the Americans with Disabilities act. An elevator was added to the facility, as well as an ADA accessible dressing room on the main floor, seating in the balcony to accommodate patrons with disabilities, and four unisex ADA bathrooms on the main floor.
Dan Dooley, of Langlas & Associates Inc. and superintendent of the renovation, said some of the most significant changes took place backstage, where the original roof deck 80 feet above the stage had to be removed to accommodate the new rigging.
“There was 100,000 pounds of concrete that had to be chipped out by hand,” Dooley said. There’s also 40,000 feet of cable running through the theater and plenty of attention to technology details — most of which the public won’t see but will get to experience.
“You’ll see the new seats, the new cheek walls, but all that stuff that makes it work, you don’t see that,” Dooley said.
What you will see is a nod to the building’s roots throughout design, a mix of clean and contemporary lines alongside a vintage art deco vibe. Interior designer Madeline Rajtar with Cushing Terrell, architects for the renovation, said the goal was to create a “welcoming theater experience for the next generation, while referencing and acknowledging the past generations.”
The only remaining features of the historic theater — ornate terracotta panels and chevron detailing on the exterior brick wall — became the design inspiration, Rajtar described.
The selected palette is understated with muted copper and blue colors slinking among punches of red in the main theater.
“The color palette of the building interior is modest,” said Rajtar. “Within the theater, a classic theatre red captures the pageantry of theatrical performances — a nod of respect to decades before.”
Dimensional white tile along the concession areas with black edging adds elegance, with honeycomb tile accents around the marble-backed concession areas, as well as large tiles mimicking the exterior chevron details, a style traditionally found in the art deco era.
Gone is the 1980s kitschy palette of rosy pinks and greens in the main theater, replaced with near-black walls to give the space a performative focus. Red cheek walls to help absorb sound are accented with minimal black lines.
Fixtures throughout also hark back to the pops of light throughout the original building. Bulbous lighting illuminates the facility, including a “starry night” ceiling in the old theater lobby and an enormous chandelier in the new mingling area created when the building was bumped out.
“We are dressed up with no place to go,” lamented Agnew.
In the interim, staff plan to begin testing the systems and dial in operations, said Alex Heyneman, a technical consultant for the theater.
“The theater’s capacity for being flexible is incredibly expanded. We need to be able to support any kind of variety of things that are coming," Heyneman said. "They’ll be back. It’s too bad that we can’t open, but we can work through some things and get this fine-tuned before those events come.”
The theater brings about $4.5 million into the Billings economy a year, said Dietrich, citing a 2015 study by the Americans for the Arts in similar sized communities. And she’s optimistic that the touring arts industry will return.
Miller described this expanded capacity an important part of the local economy. “A quality performance space also encourages musicians and artists to be here, and I like to think has contributed to the vibrant and diverse music community that enlivens downtown Billings, even when we are allowed to be out and gathering.”
Eventually, the shows will go on. “Hopefully by then, Broadway shows will be touring and we will be back to a reasonably normal life,” Agnew added. “I don’t expect to see it for a year or two, but I think we can weather that storm.”