SPRING 1997 Montanan - Volume 14, Number 3
by Rita Munzenrider
For decades, the University Theatre's stage has been graced by some of the top entertainers of the day-Joan Baez, Ray Charles, Arlo Guthrie, B.B. King, Pearl Jam-even though production crews had to haul performers' equipment up the building's front steps and down the steep aisles to the stage. Patrons were jammed together in tattered, squeaky seats and endured long lines for one of the building's two toilets.
"Despite its state of dilapidation, we were still able to get world-class talent," says Tom Webster, a twelve-year veteran of music promotions (including University of Montana Productions), who now directs the University Theatre.
Last summer the curtain came down on the University Theatre when it closed for a season to undergo a desperately needed face lift. By next October, production crews will be able to load equipment into the back door and directly onto the stage. Patrons can stretch out comfortably in newly refurbished seats with refinished wooden arms and elegant burgundy and gray upholstery. At intermission, they can visit the expanded lobby and twenty-one new toilets. The drab auditorium walls will have a fresh coat of paint, the floors new coverings. A 6,000-square-foot rotunda will be built on the building's north side, ringed by columns that match those in the present lobby.
All are part of the $2 million renovation project that began this spring on the 62-year-old campus landmark. "This is going to be an incredibly wonderful space," says James Kriley, dean of UM's School of Fine Arts. "People will be amazed that it was done for that amount."
An architect's rendering of the redesigned University Theatre, showing the new rotunda.
The newly dressed theater was designed by Missoula's Paradigm Architects. Realizing that UM alumni hold "a warm spot in their hearts for that space and the history it has on campus," architect Carl Posewitz says he carefully created the theater's new design so its historic charm remained intact. Many remember hearing K. Ross Toole's eloquent Montana history lectures in the packed 1,400-seat auditorium. Actor Carroll O'Connor got his start on the theater's stage playing Othello and the narrator in Our Town. For years, Missoula audiences gathered several Sundays a year to hear the Missoula Symphony Orchestra.
Originally built in 1934-35 as the Student Union, the building once housed the campus bookstore in its basement and the campus ballroom upstairs. Students voted for a $1 per quarter fee increase to pay for it. When funding came up short, the building became the first in the country built on a college campus under Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration. Its Art Deco style was also the first on campus to deviate from the Renaissance Revival style.
The theater-for many years, the largest in Montana-has always been the most magnificent part of the building. "It's not going to be a new theater," Kriley says. "We're redoing a wonderful old place."
The $2 million, which will come from bonds sold by the University in November 1996, won't cover everything. The UM Foundation has mounted campaigns to establish a theater endowment and to raise $590,000 for a new concert shell, rigging, lighting and miscellaneous expenses, such as drapes and building adornments. Patrons can "buy a seat" to pay for the refurbishing.
It will be Webster's job to fill the theater by bringing in world-class entertainment, including Broadway shows on their way to Spokane. "We've always been successful filling seats in the past," he says. "Once we make the theater more comfortable, it'll be another reason for people to come."