In 1960, Bigfork was a far cry from the affluent artistic hamlet that it is today. There were a handful of restaurants and mom and pop shops that largely catered to the population of fishermen who frequented the area. In the winter months, the meager population depleted even further so that, as one resident said, you could roll a bowling ball down Electric Avenue and not hit a single car.
Despite its humble makings, the little town by the bay boasted a theater.
It wasn’t particularly large or particularly fancy. There were no modern-day luxuries like air conditioning or, perhaps slightly more concerning, fire exits.
“It had some charm, that building did, and it was a factor that drew people in,” said longtime producer Don Thomson. “Yes it was hot,” but patrons improvised and used their programs as fans.
However, the theater had the important things — a stage, a company and a community that, at first reluctantly, and then whole-heartedly supported its growth.
This year, the Bigfork Summer Playhouse celebrates 60 years of theater. The playhouse operates in the Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts and produces five musicals from May to September starring college performers from around the country. The playhouse’s mission is twofold: to bring quality entertainment to Northwest Montana, and to provide a strong learning environment and jumping off point for young entertainers.
“We always tell kids when we bring them here, if you do a summer of repertory theater, you’ll be able to do theater with anybody, anywhere, anytime,” said Thomson, who’s been with the playhouse since 1964. “I think that’s really true because of the sort of pressure they get put under here. To learn four plays in seven weeks of time and then perform them all summer long — that’s a significant amount of pressure.”
The Playhouse was founded in 1960 by University of Montana adjunct professor Firman Brown and his wife Margery Hunter-Brown, who made a stop in Bigfork one day on their way to Libby. The couple came across the original theater building, then used as an event center for local community groups, and decided it would be the perfect home for a seasonal playhouse. They hired students from the University of Montana to perform and to run behind-the-scenes operations such as lighting and set design. Their first season opened with the comedic play, “Blithe Spirit.”
Back then, the playhouse didn’t have the facilities it does now — like housing for company members and multiple off-site warehouses for set production and storage. Instead, they stored risers, sets and other equipment in various buildings throughout the downtown corridor.
In those early years, they’d build sets right along the sidewalk before moving into the back of the building where the Bigfork Arts and Cultural Center is today.
“The fire department was around the corner on the back street so we’d be building scenery out on the street,” Thomson recalled. “And when the fire alarm went off, we all had to run over there and pull everything off the street and get it out of the way of the fire truck.”
It was quite the grassroots operation — even local children were recruited to help assemble the theater back in the day.
“We used all of the young kids in Bigfork that we could get our hands on to help put that theater together because they could crawl underneath places,” Thomson said. “One would stay on top with a screwdriver and the other one would come up from the bottom with a wrench and tighten the seats into place.”
As the years wore on the theater went through a series of transformations. The original structure was built sometime in the early 1930s, according to Thomson, and offered seating for approximately 200 people. In 1988 a new building was constructed at a cost of $1.2 million, raised by the Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts Foundation, while Thomson donated the land to the nonprofit. In subsequent years, the theater underwent two additional renovations, expanding the women’s restrooms and main lobby to accommodate a growing audience.
They also began seeking talent from outside state lines and now hold auditions at different locations across the U.S., hiring a company of 50 each year from a pool of thousands.
Associate Producer Brach Thomson said the playhouse looks for triple threats — actors who can sing, act and dance — along with performers that can play multiple roles, starring as the lead in one show and dancing in the ensemble for the next.
Shows are produced on 10-year rotations and over the years, productions such as “Grease,” “Mama Mia,” and “Sound of Music,” have emerged as fan favorites. The theater focuses on musicals since they tend to draw the largest crowds and the playhouse is funded almost entirely through ticket sales.
Notable alumni include Oscar-winning actor J.K. Simmons, known for his role in the 2014 drama “Whiplash,” and the Farmers Insurance commercials, along with set designer John Shaffner, who has worked on the “Big Bang Theory,” “Friends” and “Two and a Half Men.”
“We call this a stepping stone theater,” Don said. “It’s somewhere between the education they’re getting at their colleges and universities, and the professional life that they’ll take up when they get done here.”
Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.