We like going to movies at the Wilma because the Wilma reminds us of what going to the movies must once have been like. But when the Smead-Simons Building, as it used to be called, opened in 1921, its biggest attraction was not the theater but an indoor swimming pool, billed as “one of the most modern natatoriums in the West.” It kept attractively long hours: 10 AM to 11 PM every day.
The pool is still there, accessible by key through a hatch in one of the downstairs theaters, but it hasn’t held water for 75 years. It’s one of many things about the building that just didn’t work out—done in by mold and rot and rust from its own condensation. Down the hallway are the remains of an opulent restaurant that didn’t work out, either—done in, ultimately, at the whim of owner Tracy Blakeslee, whose 13-year tenure has been marked by dutiful but unglamorous infrastructure spending, a few adventurous impulses and a pitiless aversion to nostalgic kitsch like the Chapel of the Dove.
Missoula has changed around the Wilma in dramatic ways. The north channel of the Clark Fork no longer laps against the south wall of the building as it did up until the early ’60s, before the massive public works project that made room for Caras Park. Events inside have been equally dramatic at times: the theater, held hostage for most of the ’30s by coercive distribution practices, was completely trashed by departing Fox henchmen in the late ’40s. Unlike its neighbors, though, the building has changed relatively little on the outside.
The recently announced change in ownership will probably do little to alter what Missoulians like about the building: its reassuring, downtown-defining presence. The theater, the new owners say, will continue to operate as a theater, which is as far as most locals venture into the building. The conversion of the commercial spaces and rental apartments to owner-occupied condominiums seems almost like a formality, considering that much of the building above the theater remains as remote and mysterious to Missoulians as it’s always been.
There’s always the possibility that the theater will someday end up in the midden-heap of amenities, like the swimming pool, that ultimately didn’t work out. But in the meantime, the impending changes seem hardly for the worse. The addition of condos looks simply a new chapter—a natural and stabilizing one, at that—in a saga of ongoing change.