Thursday, September 16, 2021

Fox now ABT celebrates 90 years with grand re-opening this weekend


 

Finishing touches are complete as the Alberta Bair Theater, formerly the Fox Theatre, opens its doors
 once again. The 1931 building celebrates its 90th birthday with a grand reopening and gala concert.

The Fox Theater, after the first renovation,
circa 1990, and before the most recent "redo."

BUILDING'S 90TH BIRTHDAY, GALA CONCERT CELEBRATE A TOWN'S PERFORMING ARTS LEGACY


STORY By CHRISTENE MEYERS
PHOTOS By BRUCE KELLER, and courtesy ABT, 20th Century Fox, archives of CM

HISTORY IS made this week with the grand “reopening” of the Alberta Bair Theater in downtown Billings, Montana. The $13.6 million renovation salutes the building's 90-year history. Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth headlines a gala  concert in an evening of nostalgia and celebration.

Kristin Chenoweth will sing
at a gala concert at the ABT. 
For me and thousands of others, the ABT will always be “the Fox.” For here as a wide-eyed youngster, I heard many of the great artists of the 20th Century. 
In this 1931 building – and the slightly older Babcock -- I developed my love of the performing arts. As a child, I was spellbound at cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, violinist Yascha Heifetz, singers Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson. Community Concerts hosted a string of Metropolitan Opera stars, dancers, singers, jazz greats Tony Bennett, Harry James and Mel Torme.
  AS A YOUNG reporter and arts reviewer,  I interviewed legions of these performers in the shabby basement green room: Virgil Fox, Robert Merrill, Alvin Ailey, Bella Lewitzsky, Martha Graham, Arthur Fiedler, so many more.  
The all-male Les Ballets Trockadero de
Monte Carlo sold out a pair of performances.
 I GREW UP with "our Fox," one of hundreds of movie palaces named for film mogul William Fox, whose empire numbered into hundreds nationwide.
WHEN I launched the campaign to save the building in 1976, I recruited many of my newspaper sources -- museum and library heads, professors, actors,  ranchers, bankers. We were fortunate to woo talented director Skip Lundby as manager and artistic director during my 10-year tenure as president of Fox Committee. 

The 1931 Fox Theater, above, and below left.
  
         

Skip Lundby's passion for
the arts and the building
helped save it for posterity.

 We were all sentimental about the venerable old building  and wanted to save it from the wrecker's ball.  My artistic tastes were sharpened here and my Fox Committee shared my passion. Not a single person declined to join and quickly, initial opponents of the project were clamoring to join the board. It had become a "fashionable" cause. The Fox Committee took over utilities at the building which Carisch Theaters was still running as a movie house. We struggled to book a regular "imported"
season, and did so, including two sold-out shows
of  Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. Our first big locally produced show was in 1977, the charming "I Do! I Do!" for which 
I played pit piano, enticing my old friend and violin teacher Jim O'Brien, to conduct. My late husband Bruce Meyers and Cathy Hansen played the leads.
Our wonderful orchestra included then Billings Symphony concertmaster Eloise Kirk and 
with our own private funds, Bruce and I offered a small stipend. I charmed the
musicians and they loved the musical's storyline. Once again, no one said no to me. 
Christene "Cookie" Meyers
and Bruce Meyers in period
garb for "Our Town."
 
Alberta Bair wanted to name the
building Bair Family Theater but
we convinced her to honor herself. 
WE SOLD OUT a three-night run, followed by "Promises, Promises," "The Fantasticks," "Man of La Mancha," "Our Town," and many other shows. All featured respected local actors and musicians, always including Bruce. I conducted, did  musical arranging, played piano and beat the drum at the Gazette to encourage support.
IN 1979, I approached two of the smartest people I knew -- Hewes Agnes and Ray Hart -- to lead a  fundraising charge. Our now non-profit Fox organization had an abundance of artistic acumen but needed business direction to raise $5.6 to renovate the building. (That was less than half the cost of this latest renovation but a daunting sum 42 years ago with the economy in a serious slump.)
Proud 80-year history 
Christene "Cookie" Meyers was honored by
Dana Gioia and the National Endowment
for the Arts for her tireless efforts to "save
the Fox." (Gioia was NEA chairman.)
Hewes and Ray came aboard, recruited Larry Martin and other bright minds, and formed the Fox Corporation, later naming it after Alberta Bair. That same summer, Bruce and I took out a second mortgage on our home, via friend Bob Waller at then Midland Bank.
Jazz great Dave Brubeck played the Fox Theater
helping turn the fundraising corner in 1979
.

We needed $25,000 to secure Dave Brubeck and The American Conservatory Theatre of San Francisco. It was a gamble, but Bob believed in our cause. On four warm days, summer of 1979, we sold out three ACT performances and Brubeck’s packed one-night run.
THE ACT WON a Tony that fall for best regional theater and its director William Ball thanked Billings, Montana, and the Fox, for the warm hospitality. Brubeck was still in his prime, soon to be awarded a Kennedy Center honor. When I interviewed him during intermission in the seedy Fox dressing room I wore two hats: concert reviewer and president of Save the Fox. I asked him to plug the campaign and when he came back on stage, he gave a rousing plea, "You must save this theater," which was greeted with thunderous applause, cheers, whistles. The next week Skip and I opened the mail to several thousand dollars in donations. (Badly needed because our AC had just failed and in winter, we wore our coats for lobby meetings because we couldn't afford the heat bill.)
LUNDBY WAS living on a shoestring inside the theater, a modern day phantom of the
opera, warming hot dogs and TV dinners on the stage footlights and sleeping bundled up in the light booth, the warmest corner of the drafty old 1931 building.
I was one proud Cookie in 1987 at the first gala reopening. Later, Dana Gioia visited as head of the National Endowment for the Arts, joining opera friend Doug Nagel and a packed house in honoring me. I treasure that evening and await this latest party.
So come celebrate with me. Long live the arts. Long live the ABT. Long live “the Fox."

Photographer Bruce Keller and Christene "Cookie" Meyers
cap an autumn drive through lovely Yellowstone Park.
UP NEXT
:  Yellowstone National Park in autumn. Right now is our favorite time to visit the nation's first national park.  The air is crisp and clean, the sun shines brightly but is not too warm, and critters are on the move. Consider driving through at least part of this national treasure. And if you're too far away, pull up a seat as a time-honored armchair traveler.  Remember to explore, learn and live and catch us weekly for a fresh look at travel, the arts, nature, family and more: www.whereiscookie.com

2 comments:

  1. Wonderful retrospective. You have played an integral part in saving this tremendous building -- and the down town for that matter. The theater plays a huge part in the survival of the restaurants, stores, etc. BRAVA, girl!

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  2. I, too, remember the Fox, and the theater will always be the Fox to us. We watched the fundraising effort from the late 1970s and commend all involved, especially Ms. Meyers! She took the old bull by the horns......

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