DEER LODGE – The Backroads boys came back to the Rialto this week, wagging 25 years behind them.
In a lighthearted live shoot Thursday night that had the air of a Hollywood premiere, the four men who’ve made “Backroads of Montana” a staple on Montana PBS celebrated the 44 episodes they’ve produced since 1991 and looked forward to more.
With cameras rolling, an audience of more than 200 joined host William Marcus in his signature sign-off promise: “As long as you keep watching us, we’ll keep covering the backroads of Montana.”
Then they did it twice more to get it right for the show’s 25th Anniversary Special, which airs on Dec. 5.
Producers and cameramen Ray Ekness and Gus Chambers joined the wisecracking, tuxedoed Marcus and John Twiggs in front of the stage of the historic Rialto, a fitting place to stage the big night.
Marcus hosted a previous “Backroads” show from the Rialto in 2007, a year after it was ravaged by fire on a November night. He talked then about the spirited community effort to rebuild, one bolstered by many of the people who showed up for Thursday's celebration. They included Steve Owens, the president of the Rialto Community Theater board who guided the restoration process and appears in the 25th Anniversary Special.
A refurbished Rialto reopened in triumph in 2012.
Such perseverance is reflected in many of the Montana stories told on “Backroads,” the producers said. A segment of the most recent episode that first aired in May details the passion of Rae Deschamps, one of Thursday night's special guests. For more than 40 years Deschamps has photographed Alberton sporting events.
Bruce Anfinson was also on hand in a ten-gallon hat. The Helena singer/songwriter’s “Home Is Where Montana Is” has set the mood for “Backroads of Montana” from the start.
In tried and true fashion, the upcoming PBS special will sandwich segments of past shows with interviews conducted this summer at farmers markets in Billings, Helena, Great Falls, and Missoula. Marcus and Twiggs will appear before, between and after, flanked by the Rialto audience and reflecting on a quarter century of “Backroads” while pitching for support for Montana PBS during its annual pledge drive.
“It was fun to go to farmers markets ... and just say, ‘Tell us what you love about us,’” Marcus said. “People stopped and really gave these amazing heartfelt comments.”
While the first 10 shows are outdated and don’t air any more, some still remember the first episode in 1991, which won a Montana broadcasters award for best non-commercial program that year. Chambers and Ekness visited Bob and Lorraine Otto, who ran the Virgelle ferry at the time, and introduced a group of radio-controlled airplane enthusiasts called the Bitterroot Barnstormers.
A quarter of a century and more than 130 towns, 200 stories and 96,000 miles later, it’s a good time to reflect on the gentle, 30-minute monster that Ekness created at the University of Montana with funding from the Greater Montana Foundation.
“I was finishing up ‘Sportsweek' (With the Montana Grizzlies) and we were trying to find something that would fill our summer,” Ekness remembered. “I came up with three ideas and this was, I think, No. 2 on the idea chart. This was the one that stuck.”
A long-time journalism professor at UM, Ekness was named this summer as director of the school’s Broadcast Media Center, a position Marcus held for years before retiring in 2015.
It was his idea from the start to put “one face and one voice” on the show, Ekness said. Marcus agreed to add that role to his other chores at UM and said he'll retain it for the foreseeable future.
While he’s produced a handful of segments, Marcus said his primary job is to anchor the show from a central spot like the Rialto while the others hit the road.
“We’ve been in places where community happens,” Marcus tells the viewing audience, “whether it’s a small football game at night in Hobson or in Alberton or in Malta, or in places that no longer exist. We’ve told the history of the Ozark Club in Great Falls (and) Luigi’s in Butte. We’ve been to the Polar Bar in Polaris. That’s not there anymore. And the Prairie Winds Café in Molt, which is also closed.”
The discovery of Montana’s hidden stories struck a chord for farmers market respondents, whom Twiggs praised for their on-the-spot eloquence.
Backroads "goes right to the heart and soul of unique people in Montana and what they’re made of,” one man says in the clip.
“It’s harkening back to something that they think is nostalgic and you say ‘No, it’s actually here,’” another says. ”You’re tapping into something that we often talk of as old-fashioned or old, but it actually taps into something that will never be old.”
The light mood on the Rialto set is reflective of the way the Backroads boys work, said Ekness, who called Chambers, Marcus and Twiggs his “best friends in the world.”
“We bounce our work off each other and we trust each other on what we say,” he said. “I’ve known John for 30 years. I’ve known Gus for 35. William was one of my teachers in college. It’s just knowing these guys for so long.”
Marcus gave tribute to his colleagues’ storytelling skills.
“People who are in our show ... you could have a totally different profile of them that, in a sense, would make fun of their quirkiness and their character,” he said. “These guys don’t do that. They find the real story – the humility, the genuineness that you find all over this state that they bring that story back.”
Twiggs said he’s surprised at the abundance of talent that exists in Montana.
“Maybe it’s because I’m the guy who hung out with a guy who paints with a crowbar, but it’s amazing,” he told the Rialto audience. “You go to a small town, you go to an out-of-the-way place, and it’s just rich with talent.
“Sometimes that’s artistic, sometimes it’s something else, but that’s always a surprise.”
A large part of the popularity of “Backroads” is the people it profiles, Chambers said.
“Montanans are sort of defined by their humanity, their neighborliness, their resilience, and I think they’re also defined by their humility,” he said. “They’re self-deprecating and they do these sort of unique, wacky things but sometimes they don’t see the value in it.”