In an age before home surround-sound systems, Mike Steinberg grew up with a movie theater in his basement. His father, a film collector, decked out the family's St. Louis home with a large movie screen and a 16mm projector that he kept in use even after videotape became available. Every Halloween, Steinberg and his friends would take their seats in the theater as his father would try and scare them by showing classic monster flicks. The Creature from the Black Lagoon and King Kong were fun but not scary, Steinberg recalls. But then his father introduced them to Night of the Living Dead.
"We were maybe only 9 or 10 and we were all completely terrified," he says, laughing. "It was great growing up with this really oddball, passionate dude who loved movies so much."
Steinberg's childhood fostered a love for film, but it wasn't until college, when he watched the 1902 movie A Trip to the Moon in a film class, that he fully committed to the art form. Now, at 41, after crafting a career focused on movies and filmmaking, he's ready to launch a new project that he hopes will make a similar impact on Missoula as his father made on him: reopening the Roxy Theater as a year-round venue dedicated to art house and niche films.
Steinberg envisions using the main two theaterswhich seat 120 and 150, respectivelyfor screening films. A third theater with a large stage and seating for 75 will host intimate live performances like concerts, plays and stand-up comedy.
Steinberg is working with Chris Sand (a musician known as the Rapping Cowboy) and theater manager Jen Putnam to curate the venue's programming and promote the space. They have already lined up films for August, including A Band Called Death, about one of the first punk bands; A Fierce Green Fire, a documentary about the environmental movement; and From Up On Poppy Hill, a Japanese animation. At the end of August, Missoula indie folk band Butter will play in the performance space.
While the full schedule has yet to start in earnest, some cosmetic changes to the venue have already taken place. The lobby walls and ceiling were painted from what Steinberg called "suicidal sea foam" to vibrant orange and oxblood red. The concession stand countertops are made of redwood reclaimed from a water pipe at Georgetown Lake. The new logo sports a moon for the "o" in Roxy.
"It's subconscious, but it's a nice twist that 25 years ago I saw A Trip to the Moon and decided this is want I want to do," he says.
Steinberg's stature in the local arts scene bodes well for the Roxy's ambitious new plan. Starting in 2008, he served as festival director for Missoula's Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, helping it become one of the most anticipated events in the state. For the past 10 years, he also worked as the Film Series Director for Webster University in St. Louis. (He traveled back and forth to do both jobs). Recently, Steinberg left the positions and took a new post as the festival director for Missoula's International Wildlife Film Festival. It was his work with IWFF, which is housed in the Roxy, that helped him realize the venue's potential. Aside from IWFF, which takes up two weeks of the year with its festival, and occasional rentals for screenings of live theater and opera, the Roxy sits unused about 10 months of the year.
"When I got here in March there hadn't been a lot of activity and so it really felt like a rental hall," Steinberg says.
It didn't use to be that way. When Steinberg first visited Missoula in 1989, the Roxy was a dive, but regularly screened second- or third-run movies for $2 a ticket. The speakers were blown out and the crowd usually sneaked in cans of beer, but for a film connoisseur it had an allure.
"There was the Chapel of the Dove [in the Wilma], the Go West Drive-In and the Roxy, which was a funky, weird theater," Steinberg says. "We had crazy old theaters in St. Louis, too, but actually at the time they were being devoured, torn down for parking lots. So seeing these, I was delighted. Of the three spaces, the Roxy stuck out to me as the most dilapidated."
In 1994 the Roxy burned in an arson fire. It remained gutted and abandoned for three years until the Preservation Commission of Missoula helped rebuild it. After that, it continued to show cheap features until ownership fell through and it was once again abandoned. In 2002, the IWFF took over the space and, with grant money and funds from the Historic Preservation Society, refurbished the façade, providing it with a 1930s-style marquee.
Steinberg says he hopes the year-round programming will not only bring in a new revenue stream for IWFF, but also revive the venue as a central spot for the arts scene. He talks about featuring local filmmakers, hosting family friendly events and planning other programming that taps into Missoula's core values. He even has partnered with local businesses for concessions; for instance, Great Harvest Bakery is creating "The Kubrick," a brownie that will only be available at the venue.
"Missoula really likes to support Missoula," Steinberg says. "Our tagline is 'Missoula's Community Cinema,' and that's what we want it to be."