Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Performing arts center has proud history hosting world's top performers


PHOTOS from archives and BRUCE KELLER

THE ALBERTA BAIR Theater site was almost a parking lot.
Or yet another bank. And Billings, Montana, did not need another bank when we set our renovation plan in motion on a cold day back in 1976.
The "movers and shakers"
who helped create the fund-
raising effort for ABT,right.
It was winter, and the heat was turned low so we met in our coats beside the silent soft-drink machine in the once grand Fox Theatre lobby. Because of the stalwart efforts of volunteers and activists -- including (full disclosure!) myself -- the 1931 building reigns as the largest performing arts center between Spokane and Minneapolis, Denver and Calgary.
In the late 1970s, when we were struggling to save the building, we approach rancher-philanthropist, world traveler Alberta Bair, hoping she would contribute a large sum
"Sleeping Beauty"
was a big Fox hit.
to an endowment with the thought that changing the theater's name might entice her.
Businessman Ray Hart, surgeon Hewes Agnew, rancher Earl Rosell, hotelier Con Carter, art directors, librarians and many others helped convince Alberta that the theater should be saved -- and  carry the Bair name into its future. We volunteers successfully lobbied the Billings City Council to help us with a renovation effort. How proud  I was when the building opened with much fanfare in 1987.  Alberta contributed nearly a million dollars toward the nearly $6 million project.
The late director William Ball
brought his famed San Francisco
acting company to Billings.
Skip Lundby, actor
and director, played
a key role.
THE BUILDING serves an arts minded community of more than 400,000 and  was saved by the blood, sweat and tears of activists and actors and, yes, even some of those bankers who originally wanted the land for their own endeavors!  Actor Skip Lundby, who acted as the "Save the Fox" managing director for years, cooked hotdogs on the stage lights and slept in one of the dressing rooms -- a la "Phantom of the Opera," a fitting reference.  Skip directed many of the plays which raised seed money for matching funds and grants:  "I Do! I Do!", "The Fantasticks," "Promises, Promises," and a raft of others.  We produced local shows and imported many big name talents.
ONE OF MY many treasured memories of the performances I reviewed was when the late jazz pianist Dave Brubeck sold out the house in summer of 1979, urging the standing-ovation audience to "save this
Marian McPartland, the late,
 great jazz pianist, played the Fox.
The late jazz pianist Dave
Brubeck, helped turn
the corner for the Fox/ABT.
wonderful building." That same summer, William Ball and his recent Tony winning American Conservatory Theater did three sold-out performances in Billings.  We hosted the actors to a pitchfork fondue and became fast friends with the actors and stage hands.  We also made $20,000 profit which added momentum to our effort and encouraged donations.
Bernadette Peters headlined one of
the ABT's sold-out galas.
Jazz pianist Marian McPartland endorsed the effort, as did Judy Collins, below, and a string of "ABT
Gala" performers praised the building and preservation effort right from the stage: Bernadette Peters, Harry Belafonte,  Burt Bacharch and many others.

had fun. 

The conversion of the 1931 building, the last of the great Fox Theaters built in the country, presented challenges, but a crack architectural effort resulted in a theater that pleases people on both sides of the curtain.
Performers praise the lighting control booth, which was relocated at the rear of the main floor, and the sound control booth, which sits at the front of the balcony.

 THE FRONT APRON of the stage has its own hydraulic lift, and the orchestra pit can hold 40 musicians and their instruments.  For private events and receptions, a custom designed orchestra shell and large vinyl dance floor provide versatility.
Burt Bacharach loved the venue.
I remember that first fundraising production of "I Do! I Do!" and the shabby dressing rooms, paint peeling and no adequate heating for a cold winter's night of costume changing.
Now, two large chorus dressing rooms and two star dressing rooms can accommodate more than 40 performers.
BECAUSE OF AN enlarged lobby space, the main staircase to the loge and balcony was moved, and is now visible beyond the main shell of the building adding style and function with via an eye-catching glass stairwell.
I'm proud of my  part in the effort, and I hope Alberta is smiling down on us with pride, too!

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