The Northern Pacific Railroad stopped nine miles short of Billings in July 1882, but that didn’t stop the fledgling newspaper’s publisher from hosting a performing-arts troupe from Boston.
While paparazzi would starve staking out Billings for celebrity sightings, the city has a long history of rolling out the red carpet for high-profile visitors. The Gazette has recorded many of those celebrity comings and goings as front-page news.
The Boston opera troupe, on its way to Portland, Ore., took a stage coach the last few miles into Billings to do several shows at an unfinished saloon.
Early-day newspaper editors were civic boosters, and Edward A. Bromley, founder of the Billings Herald, was no exception. He acted as the impresario for the opera troupe, putting together its saloon performance.
In September 1883, a year after Billings’ founding, a president and a former president passed through the city within a week of each other.
President Chester A. Arthur appeared on the rear platform of the train as the train left the Billings depot on Sept. 1, 1883. The president bowed in response to cheers as his train departed after a brief pit stop and headed back toward the White House.
On Sept. 7, rail cars full of visiting dignitaries stopped in Billings on their way to Gold Creek, to drive the Gold Spike signaling the completion of the Northern Pacific line joining the Atlantic coast to the Pacific. Former president Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Frederick Billings were among the contingent of VIPs.
The newspaper of the day described preparations for the travelers: “At the depot, a number of ladies and gentlemen had been working for several days and had reared a large and beautiful rustic bower, covered with wheat, oats and barley in ear, and surmounted by the Stars and Stripes waving over a brace of stag heads facing outwards from the highest pinnacle of the roof. The other angles of the roof were decorated with the flags of the different nations represented among the members of the excursion party.”
Since The Gazette’s birth in 1885, it has trumpeted the arrival of presidents and movie stars, controversial characters and beloved celebrities.
Covering those events has often meant weeks of preparation, securing access and mobilizing teams of reporters and photographers.
The entire Gazette staff helped cover President Ronald Reagan’s visit in 1982, the first incumbent president to visit Billings since John F. Kennedy came in September 1963. When President George W. Bush packed the house at Metra in 2001, The Gazette put out an extra edition, which rolled off the presses before noon and filled news racks across town.
Kathryn Wright, a reporter and editor for The Gazette from 1942 to 1977, helped cover JFK’s visit to Billings less than two months before his assassination.
She saved the Life magazine issue on the president’s assassination until her death in December 1999. On the magazine cover, which bore his photo, she wrote and signed this note.
“I met him at fairgrounds in Billings, Sept. 1963 and later wrote a story for The Billings Gazette — I shook hands with him and said a few words as he walked around a roped-off area at the fairgrounds. His eyes — fascinated me — gray — sort of blank as if they were not seeing.”
Through the decades, the procession of famous names through Billings included firebrands such as Carrie Nation, the ax-wielding temperance advocate, and daredevils such as the aviator Charles A. Lindbergh.
Nation, who stopped in Billings in February 1910, earned extra cash from her appearance by selling hatchet stickpins and books.
Before Lindbergh became famous, he spent three months in Billings in 1922 working as a mechanic in greasy coveralls at the Westover garage and using the Westover plane to perform barnstorming stunts as a wing-walker and parachute jumper.
When fame showered the Lone Eagle after his first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic in May 1927, he flew around the United States to promote aviation.
On Sept. 7, 1927, Billings residents hoped he would plant the wheels of his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, in the city. Instead, he tossed out a note of greetings at the City Hall and flew on to Western Montana, where he briefly hid from the world on a fishing vacation.
Humorist Will Rogers was named mayor of Billings for four days after he flew from Helena to Billings in an open-cockpit plane piloted by a friend. Rogers performed April 1, 1927, at the Babcock Theatre.
In July of the same year, the star of Western movies, William S. Hart, the Brad Pitt of his day, came for the dedication of the bronze Range Rider statue at the airport.
Some pit stops in Billings could be counted in minutes rather than hours.
In one of the shortest stops to draw a crowd, President Calvin Coolidge and his family stopped for 10 minutes at the train station, attracting a crowd so large that several store owners along the railroad tracks telephoned their employees to warn them to delay reporting for work until after the presidential train had left the city.
Amelia Earhart, who a Gazette reporter described as the “gamest girl in the air,” stopped for 2-1/2 hours at the airport at the end of January in 1933. The procession of cars heading up to the airport to greet the aviatrix looked “like ants crawling over a sugar loaf,” in the words of The Gazette’s reporter.
Earhart, who in May 1932 became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, stepped from the commercial airliner’s passenger compartment wearing a brown wool suit and long fur coat. She looked “for all the world like a school teacher coming home for the holidays,” the reporter wrote.
A parade of famous names trod the boards of the Babcock Theatre and the theater that morphed from the Fox into the Alberta Bair Theater.
Boris Karloff appeared in Billings in 1933, and opera singer Marian Anderson played at the Fox in 1939. In the 1940s, singer, actor and civil-rights activist Paul Robeson appeared at the Fox, as did virtuoso violinist Jascha Heifetz.
Babe Ruth’s star shone briefly at a Billings ballpark on Aug. 19, 1947, when he arrived for the opening of the American Legion junior baseball tournament at Athletic Park. The aging Bambino got a stagecoach ride through downtown and was a guest of honor at a Northern Hotel banquet.
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The Shrine Auditorium has also witnessed a long history of superstar appearances from Louis Armstrong in 1955 to Bob Dylan in 2000.
Christene Meyers, who retired in 2004 after 41 years with The Gazette, interviewed nearly enough celebrities over the course of her career to fill the Alberta Bair Theater.
During her tenure, she danced with Fred Astaire, pestered Hollywood agents for 14 years to secure an interview with actress Katharine Hepburn and lifted a pint with the Queen Mum before attending a London premiere of a James Bond movie.
To cover the stars, Meyers paid her own travel costs to New York, Los Angeles and other locales, giving Gazette readers a peek into celebrity lives.
“The best interviews should be conversations,” Meyers remembers Hepburn saying during the long-sought interview before the premier of “On Golden Pond.”
Meyers tracked down the elusive Marlon Brando during filming of “The Missouri Breaks” and briefly followed Dustin Hoffman on the set of “Little Big Man” for Gazette features. Parts of both movies were shot on the Earl Rosell ranch east of Billings.
As a leading advocate for the arts, Meyers was instrumental in saving the Fox Theater from becoming a parking lot and also in its transformation into the Alberta Bair Theater.
When MetraPark staged its first show in December 1975, it opened another venue for performers in Billings and for fans drawn from hundreds of miles away.
Superstars — such as Johnny Cash in May 1976, Neil Diamond in December 2002 and Cher in April and June 2003 — left lasting impressions with fans.
When Billy Graham, the world’s best-known evangelist, preached at Metra on the final night of his four-day crusade in June 1987, it was front-page news in The Gazette.
The crowd filled the arena to the rafters, and an overflow crowd of 1,500 watched Graham on six huge television screens set up in the downstairs exhibition hall. Attendance, pegged at 13,500, set a record for Metra that still stands.
Organizers described the crusade, which involved 106 area churches, as “one of the most important religious milestones in Montana’s history.”
James Van Arsdale, then Billings’ mayor, likened Graham to the frontier circuit riders who came to Montana to preach. But Graham was a “worldwide circuit rider,” he said.
Some of Billings’ renowned visitors have gotten a chance to taste Montana’s bounty.
President Woodrow Wilson, who enunciated the principles of the League of Nations in a speech at the fairgrounds in September 1919, was given baskets of fruit and mountain trout.
President Bill Clinton stopped for coffee at the former Kit Kat Café.
Actor Clint Eastwood, who knows the owners of the Rex, swept into Billings in September 1998 to dine on ostrich fillet at the opening of the restaurant’s patio bar and grill and to play golf.
Country music star Garth Brooks and his crew liked their taste of Wilcoxson’s fudgesicles so much during their performances at Metra in 1998 that they requested six dozen of the frozen fudgesicles shipped to them in dry ice.
At least one performing artist has captured images of Billings on canvas.
Before Tony Bennett’s Gala appearance at the ABT in 1994, the crooner painted the view looking toward the Beartooths from the former Sheraton Hotel’s Lucky Diamond Restaurant.
And at least some famous actors took up temporary residence in Billings.
During the filming of “Little Big Man” in August 1969, Dustin Hoffman stayed in a rented house on Virginia Lane, moving in with his Labrador dogs and a cook.
Ron Howard, Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise also stayed in Billings during filming of “Far and Away.”
Since Jaci Webb took over as the arts and entertainment reporter for Enjoy in 2004, she has profiled a younger generation of up-and-coming performers.
In September 2009, indie rock band Modest Mouse ushered in a new era at the ABT when a packed house of 1,200 teenagers and 20-somethings jammed against the stage.
And, just down the street, the renovated Babcock Theatre has taken on new life as a niche venue for smaller shows, including a concert by the Indigo Girls on April 16.
The Shrine Auditorium, entering its sixth decade this year, has been a hot spot for shows since it was rejuvenated by a remodel in the late 1990s. Acts as diverse as Taj Mahal and The Wailers have already played there this year.
Contact Donna Healy at email@example.com or at 657-1292.