Jack and Catherine Stephens look around the new LaSalle Grange Theatre and marvel at the many small miracles that came together to make their dream come true.
One could say it took a village to transform the 1940s-era LaSalle Grange Hall — a building that was languishing for lack of use — into an intimate setting that includes a recording studio and 75-seat theater upstairs and a vintage gift shop in the basement.
Throughout the revival of the old building along U.S. 2 near Columbia Falls, a variety of rare and what would normally be difficult-to-find items “showed up just when we needed them to be here,” Jack said.
The stage curtains, for example, were bought for a song through a Cal Poly University auction. The cushioned seats are restored movie-theater chairs from the defunct Gateway Cinema.
People — they call them “grangels” — appeared one by one at precisely the right time, the couple noted, helping facilitate their purchase of the grange hall, or providing building materials, musical instruments and their time and support.
The musical instruments assembled on stage are a treasure trove — a Wurlitzer “Wurly” piano, Fender Rhodes keyboard, Hammond C3, A100 and M3 organs, and a Leslie 122 Cabinet. Jack said he wanted a marriage of vintage and high-tech equipment, to give performers the best of both worlds. To that end he also has installed a state-of-the-art sound and lighting system.
LaSalle Grange Theatre will hold its first public venue on Saturday featuring Zino & the Bel Aires. They envision the restored grange hall being used for a variety of performances — music, theater, classic movies, Christmas concerts and special presentations.
Jack, a songwriter with Southern roots who spent 26 years in Nashville, said he’s already used the facility to record an album of hymns performed by a cellist and pianist.
“The acoustics are phenomenal,” he said. “This place is really built well.”
LaSalle Grange is one of a few remaining grange halls in the Flathead that harken back to the early 1900s. The National Grange was founded 150 years ago to bring farmers together to learn modern farming methods at a time when it wasn’t easy to disseminate information. Over time many grange halls morphed into community centers where neighborhoods still come together in some areas to hold events and orchestrate volunteer projects, from cleaning roadside ditches to raising money for scholarships.
The Stephenses bought LaSalle Grange four years ago through a set of serendipitous circumstances that led them to believe they were destined to get the building. Jack has worked on the renovations off and on, spending the past six months at full bore getting it ready for prime time.
Part of the building’s transformation involved removing the dropped ceiling to reveal the arched wooden ceiling, and insulating the walls.
Jack said he’d like to use his knowledge of the music business to help aspiring songwriters.
“I still write songs and help other songwriters,” he said. “Musicians want to be heard.”
Added Catherine, “He wants to make a difference.”
One of Jack’s plans for the place is to organize a gospel choir that would perform at the new venue. As he pauses to envision LaSalle Grange Theatre’s place in the Flathead arts scene, he puts it this way: “This will be somewhere between a bar and a church.”
Jack’s gospel roots have wound their way into his heart and soul in a big way. His father was a Southern Baptist minister who moved the family to Eastern Kentucky during Jack’s formative years.
“I grew up with that gospel thing — that root,” he said. “Dad was Southern Baptist in a dry county.”
The intimate feel of those small Southern churches always stayed with Jack. In fact, before LaSalle Grange came into his life, he harbored the notion of one day transforming a church into a performance hall.
The theater bug bit Jack when he was 18.
“My mom said ‘go see a play,’ so I saw ‘Brigadoon,’ and I said forget football,” he recalled.
He decided to study speech and theater at the University of the Cumberlands in Kentucky. He was drawn to the intimacy of the school’s small theater.
It wasn’t long before he was writing songs that were good enough for someone to tell him, “You need to move to Nashville.” So he did and spent 26 years there, writing songs that were published by big-name music publishing companies such as ATV Music, Sony and BMG.
Jack eventually moved to California for a change of pace and started working in construction. That’s where he met and married Catherine, an accountant by trade. Catherine was the Flathead Valley connection. While she was growing up, her family vacationed every summer at Flathead Lake Lodge in Bigfork.
The couple relocated to the Flathead six years ago. At some point during the restoration of LaSalle Grange, they accumulated more building materials and décor than they needed, so the excess has become “The Grange Shop,” displayed in the lower level. It’s an assortment of vintage and antique décor, with jewelry and other personal items worked into the eclectic mix. Jack likes to say the shop offers everything “from lingerie to door knobs.”
The lower level has a green room for performers to use when they’re not on stage, but it’s decked out with gift items as well.
Right now the gift shop is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, or if the “open” sign is posted outside.
For more information about LaSalle Grange Theatre, call 406-892-9033 or go online to www.lasallegrangetheatre.com.
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or email@example.com.