Saturday, December 7, 2013

Performing arts hall appealed to pioneering philanthropist Bair

Corby Skinner and the writer, aka Cookie, were instrumental in the
 saving and resurrection of the programming at the "old Fox", now ABT.

Fox Theater's renovation to the Alberta Bair Theater is told

Egyptian and Art Deco touches marked the 1931 Fox.
PHOTOS from archives and BRUCE KELLER

'ALBERTA dozens of venues are named after the Bair family," I pleaded. "You're the theater lover. Let's name this one after you!"
It was 1980, and the "Save the Fox" campaign had been underway since 1976.
This is a first-person story, because I was a "first person," if you will.
One of the first to suggest, publicly, through lectures and newspaper stories, that the building be saved.  I was also the first one to write about the possibility of its name change.
The 1986 renovated Fox:  the ABT. 
THE FOX Theater, built in 1931, had been a much loved movie house and performing arts center.
Community Concerts used it as a forum for their world class acts: famed singers, musicians and symphony orchestras, ballet troupes and other entertainments made up a five-or six-part season.
The theater was a gorgeous, Art Deco building with ornate carpets, chandeliers, curtains and adornments.
People dressed up to go to the concerts, which were cultural highlights for many of us living in small towns surrounding Billings -- Roundup, Red Lodge, Big Timber, Laurel, Absarokee and more.

The former Fox opened as the Alberta Bair Theater
with much fanfare in 1986.  At right, famed cellist Gregor
Piatagorsky, who played the Fox, and below, in 1931. 

Each town had a membership chairman who sold tickets. In my hometown of Columbus, my parents,Richard and Ellen Cosgriffe, bought season tickets to Community Concerts for the family. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Cosgriffes drove the pre-freeway highway -- rain or shine, sleet or snow -- for concerts at our beloved Fox.
SO WHEN I, as a young reporter, heard rumblings that the building might close, that it could be chopped up for a multi-movie complex, be razed for a banking endeavor or, worse, be leveled for a parking lot, I sprang into action.
The Billings Gazette encouraged me to write editorials and news stories explaining the plight of
the building, whose film clientele had dwindled with the spread of suburban movie theaters.
I RESARCHED, and reported, the building's rich history.  It hosted the famed cellist Gregor
Piatigorsky, violinist Jascha Heifetz, singers Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson, trumpeter Harry
Rancher, philanthropist Alberta
Bair was born on the Fox site.
James, Metropolitan opera stars and many jazz and classical greats.
I learned that Martinsdale based traveler Alberta Bair had been born in 1895 in a brick home on the site that would host the Fox. In 1976, I organized the Fox Committee for the Performing Arts, a group of
The entrance to the Fox in the 1930s.
civic minded folks from the arts and culture community. Building owner Carisch Theaters had considered expanding the longtime movie house into a three-movie-theater complex, but many of us believed
that the downtown needed a live performing arts hall more.
WE WERE long on ideas and enthusiasm but short on money.  We sold $500 patronships to keep the
building afloat, put on plays such as "I Do! I Do!," our first Fox Committee production, in the
autumn of 1977.
The 1931 Billings Fox was one of the
 last Fox theaters built in the nation.
In the leading roles of the married couple were my late husband, Bruce Meyers, and Cathy Hansen
Brown.  We made enough money to keep the utilities paid another year, and by 1978 we were
producing a string of popular fundraisers -- "Grease," "The Fantasticks," "Promises, Promises,"
"Anthing Goes" and many more.  In 1979, the "save the Fox" endeavor attracted some movers and
shakers, along with our faithful arts patrons from the museums and other music and performing

Jazz great Dave Brubeck
helped save the Fox.
COMING NEXT:  The fund-raising effort includes sell-outs for Dave Brubeck and many other big names.
A corner is turned, the renovation begins and the Fox is saved -- although with a new name! What went on behind the scenes?  Remember to explore, learn and live, and check us out Wednesdays and Saturdays at:

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