The Roxy Theater, which first opened in 1937, celebrates its grand reopening this week. “Everyone has these big-screen TVs and they can get movies almost as soon as they come out,” says historian Alan Mathews. “But there’s still an experience you get that’s totally different when you go out to the theater.”
Photo by Chad Harder
For most of the 1970s and 1980s, the Roxy Theater could best be called a dive. Some of the most memorable moments of $2 third-run movies or double features included beer fizzing from cans purchased at the nearby gas station and the clanking of bottles rolling down several aisles during the show. The aged speakers crackled, blown out to the extent the movie was nearly inaudible. It served as a make-out room for young couples. People offered dramatic warnings before the film like, “Watch out where you sit so you don’t sit on a needle.”
“It was a cheap place to come for a movie,” says local historian Allan Mathews. “You’d go in there and the sound of the movie at the beginning was almost overwhelmed by the popping of beer can tops. It was kind of a wild place and pretty run down by then.”
But in 1994, the Roxy burned in an arson fire. If anything, people remember that singular event when asked about the Roxy—punk rockers playing a Poverello benefit show across the street, for instance, watched it go up in flames. The fire gutted the venue.
“It was just a shell and really nobody thought that it would be rebuilt,” says Mathews. “They said it would be rebuilt but it was a theater that wasn’t making much money. But it left that hole right in the middle of this neighborhood.”
In 1997, the Preservation Commission of Missoula helped rebuild the Roxy. But after a short run of cheap movie nights ownership fell through and the building stood abandoned.
In 2002, the International Wildlife Film Festival (IWFF) took over the space. Now, with help from donations and a grant, and support from the Historic Preservation Society, the Roxy will have a grand reopening to celebrate the building’s new façade, featuring a 1930s style marquee.
“The M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust gave us a top-off grant in order to do a historic restoration,” says Janet Rose, IWFF’s executive director. “We were planning a much more modified version of the marquee.”
However, Tim Skufca, an architect from Kibo Group in Missoula, decided he wanted to lend his expertise to recreating the art deco/art moderne style of the original Roxy. “It did end up being more expensive,” says Rose, “but it was much more beautiful. And we ended up with a historically accurate marquee. It should last for another 100 years or so.”
The push for historic restoration wasn’t easy. After the fire, the Roxy was listed as “non-contributing.”
“And it was simply a mistake,” says Philip Maechling, the preservation officer and planner for Missoula’s Office of Planning and Grants. “It may have been done because the building wasn’t finished yet, and the fire really gutted the building. But what happened was the concrete façade remained…and the side walls were intact and that allowed the building to be completely reconstructed essentially how it was.”
Maechling says that in the first remodel some windows were bricked in, but since then all of the original openings have been re-opened and the building now maintains its original symmetry.
Oscar and Joan Paisley built the Roxy in 1937 during the Great Depression for $35,000 and named it after the famous New York City venue. It opened as a cheap seat theater—25 cents for adults, 10 cents for children—but at the time the sound equipment was top-of-the-line, the 630 seats were trimmed in chromium and it boasted new air conditioning. In addition to a stylish mezzanine, the Roxy featured a coffee shop, known as a “dairy bar.” According to Mathews, the Wilma was queen in Missoula, but the Roxy offered entertainment at a walkable distance for students from the University of Montana. And even during times of depression—especially during depression—people still spent money on film as an escape from the daily grind.
“In the ’30s almost every movie had a happy ending,” says Mathews. “It was because they were trying to get people’s minds off the economic conditions and so the movies were this great escape—musicals and westerns and things like that, just to take people out of their present situation, away from their troubles.”
Emily Johnson-Burns worked at the Roxy between 1945 and 1999. She went to the Wilma to sell war bonds and ended up as the bookkeeper for both the Wilma and Roxy.
“Well, we did real good business because the theater was all paid for and we didn’t have any rent,” says Johnson-Burns, who still lives in Missoula. “I loved working for the theaters, always interesting times especially when you had to ship your film in by bus, or when it came in by train. You’d see a few blackouts when you didn’t get the film on time. There was always something exciting going on.”
And Johnson-Burns saw the Roxy go through its darker times too, specifically when television came along and later, after the 1994 fire.
“It really didn’t do much business after it re-opened, even though the admission price was just $2,” she says. “We went through TV slumps, too. Around 1949 is when television came in. And it was mostly wrestling and stuff like that, but it was new and people were beginning to buy televisions and so it naturally cut into the business.”
When the Roxy opened on Sept. 24, 1937 it played a double feature of Silent Barriers and Tex Ritter’s Arizona Days. For its grand opening a few days later, it showed the comedy Three Smart Girls. In tribute to the 1930s, this week’s grand re-opening will play The Grapes of Wrath.
“Everyone has these big-screen TVs and they can get movies almost as soon as they come out,” says Mathews. “But there’s still an experience you get that’s totally different when you go out to the theater.”
The Roxy Theater celebrates its grand reopening Friday, Dec. 12, from 5–9 PM with a screening of The Grapes of Wrath at 7 PM. $10.