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Deer Lodge's Rialto is truly a community theater

The small Montana town's single-screen, 1921 movie house burned in 2006. Residents' determined fundraising and manual labor efforts have brought it to the brink of reopening.

August 28, 2011|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Steve Owens' grant applications have raised significant funds. He stands before one of the original 1921 painted backdrops, which survived the fire.
Steve Owens' grant applications have raised significant funds.… (Patricia Williams / For…)

Reporting from Deer Lodge, Mont — If you live in a big city, movie theaters are places you complain about, despair of, maybe even avoid. In this small town 80 miles southeast of Missoula, however, the single-screen Rialto Theatre is so essential to residents' sense of place — often in unexpected ways — that it's almost impossible to imagine life without it.

So when the Rialto caught fire on Nov. 4, 2006, the entire town of 3,400 had its heart in its throat. Despite 3 million gallons of water poured on the blaze by firefighters, the theater burned for three days, with 50-foot flames visible for miles.

Two weeks later, a community meeting was held, and the sentiment to rebuild, remembers Steve Owens, president of the Rialto Community Theatre Board of Directors, was "just overwhelming. One or two people said 'don't bother,' but the other 200 said, 'You just need to do it.'" A highlight of the meeting was an appearance by a group of seventh-grade girls who held an impromptu bake sale in front of the Safeway the week after the blaze, and "donated $300 before anyone got their act together. That had an impact."

From those modest beginnings came a juggernaut of passion and commitment to rebuild. "I can't explain it," says board member Ron Mjelde, "but when this gets into your blood, you live it."

Deer Lodge is a not a booming place (its per capita income is $14,883, according to the 2000 census), but when the cost estimate came in at $3.5 million due to strict building codes for theaters, the town did not flinch. "It was never that we wouldn't get it done," says Owens, a pharmacy technician, "it was that it would take the rest of our lives."

But now, five years later, the impossible is close to happening. The town is only $300,000 short of its fundraising goal, and the theater is nearly rebuilt. So how did a city without great wealth or a corporate presence make something like the Rialto revitalization happen, and, equally important, why did they put in the effort?

A town treasure

Deer Lodge is a classic Western small town. Birthplace of former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, it's best known in Montana as the home of the state prison (the high school's sports teams are nicknamed the Wardens). Its friendly downtown invites you to eat at the Broken Arrow Steak House and Casino, shop at New to You ("Fine Used Clothing for All Ages"), appreciate the "Navy Seals 1, Bin Laden 0" sign outside an insurance office and admire the Rialto.

The theater opened on May 2, 1921 and is a Beaux-Arts reminder of the days when Deer Lodge was a booming trading center. Its pink and white neon marquee now says "Send Donations to P.O. Box 874, Deer Lodge, 59722" instead of listing films, but its cream-glazed brick and terra cotta facade still gleams in the sun the way it did when original owner Jens Hansen promised the Silver State Post he would show "the very best pictures regardless of the high royalties he has to pay."

In recent years, movies were shown Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. "It was a place people could drop their kids off and know they'd be safe," Owens says. "If the parents were late after the show was over, someone would wait with the kids until they showed up." Admission was $4 for adults and $3 for children, plus "people love our popcorn," he says. "Cars would double-park three deep to get some."

Theater board member Gayle Mizner, whose newborn great-grandson is the seventh generation of her family to live in town, points to the theater's balcony and says, "right up in the corner is where I had my first kiss. My heart is in Deer Lodge."

As the largest auditorium in Powell Country, the Rialto has served as a theatrical space as well. One week in May 1929, it showed Buster Keaton's "Spite Marriage" and welcomed the Los Angeles Philharmonic on its Northwest tour. In recent years, it has hosted plays, concerts, lectures, dance recitals, graduations, even funerals.

Deer Lodge came close to losing the Rialto in 1995, when the original owner's family wanted to sell it and a casino operation was rumored to be interested. The asking price was $90,000, but it was offered to the community for $65,000; a nonprofit organization was formed and the funds raised in a few weeks. Headlined the Post, "Congratulations Deer Lodge. The Rialto Is Yours."

For 10 years, some 300 volunteers ran the Rialto, and the town put $350,000 into upgrading it. (Surround sound speakers were in boxes ready to install when the fire broke out.) The sense of community ownership that had built up over that decade, plus the knowledge of how hard people had worked to maintain and improve the facility, added to the impetus to rebuild. That, and something more — a sense that having a theater is important for the community's youth.

"People here should have the same opportunities for their children as people in other communities," Owens says. "If we can make it happen, make a place for them to sing on a stage, do their plays, we should."

Community spirit

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