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Roxy Theater to light up Art Deco marquee for 80th anniversary

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The Roxy's new marquee, seen here during installation in August. 

The advertisements in the 1937 Sunday Missoulian announcing "The Formal Opening of The New Roxy Theater, Missoula's Newest Show House," boast of the Higgins Avenue theater's amenities:

"Latest Sound Equipment." "Completely Air Conditioned." "At Attractive Family Prices."

Despite the $35,000 cost of the building, the prices are 10 cents for children and 25 cents for adults.

Another ad boasts that "The New ... South Side Theater," would show "3 Smart Girls," with Ray Milland, Alice Brady and Charles Winninger," plus a continuous show of "Short Subjects and News" on Sunday, Sept. 26, for its grand opening. It held a preliminary opening two days before with "Arizona Days," starring Tex Ritter.

Electrical Products Consolidated of Great Falls took out an ad, too: "May the new Roxy Theater have a future as bright as the marquee it was our pleasure to install."

Roxy Theater

Advertisements welcoming the Roxy Theater from the Sept. 26, 1937 edition of the Sunday Missoulian.

You can't tell from the old black-and-white photo just how bright that marquee was. To get the best approximation, you can swing by the Roxy to see yourself on Sunday night.

To mark the 80th anniversary of the theater, the nonprofit raised money for a retro Art Deco marquee, complete with glowing neon.

Executive Director Mike Steinberg said the sign, a "hot rod" version of the original, and other improvements are a way of signaling to the public all the films and events the Roxy hosts.


The Roxy has now survived more than a few changes. Even back in the beginning, it was a second-run theater. Steinberg said there was a period in the 1970s where it had a bit of infamy, playing first-run movies that other chains wouldn't touch, like the X-rated Marlon Brando film "Last Tango in Paris." Later that decade, it switched from art movies and foreign films to "more conventional fare," according to a Missoulian article. By the mid-1980s, it was competing in the dollar-movie market.

It screened films continuously from 1937 clear until the early evening of Feb. 19, 1994, when a fire broke out in the theater. Thankfully the building was empty — the crowd from an afternoon matinee had already cleared out.

The blaze was strong enough to blow out the windows and rain debris into the streets. At one point, 30 firefighters tried to suppress the fire from three sides, until the fire chief decided it was fully engulfed and pulled them back, according to a Missoulian article.

The fire gutted the building. It was determined to be arson, although no one ever was charged.

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Missoula City firefighters battle in vain to douse an arson fire that gutted the historic Roxy Theater in 1994.


Co-owner Bob Sias, though, was a movie buff. He also owned the Wilma Theatre and the Go West Drive-In. He and co-owner Bob Ranstrom fought for city approval of a reconstruction. They poured $800,000 into the project.

A Missoulian article described the new interior as "stupendous," with a handsome lobby and upholstery. The three new theaters had Dolby sound and padded seats with cup holders.

"No more cavernous auditorium, no more curiously sticky floor, no more tired seat springs digging into your butt, and no more make-out lounge on the floor by the bathrooms," reporter Betsy Cohen wrote.

She also noted that the prices had doubled: It now cost $2 for "Parent Trap," "Snake Eyes" and "Blade."

The revival wasn't a lasting one. Both Sias and Ranstrom died in the summer of 1999. The theater was under pressure from home-video rentals and another dollar theater, the Carmike's Cine 3. Despite community support, it wasn't profitable. The company struggled to make loan payments from the reconstruction. Theater manager Scott Saeman said the theater had only been in the black for one month, when it made $20. It closed in January 2000.

The International Wildlife Media Center and Film Festival raised money to buy the theater in 2002 as a home for its offices, its annual film festival and year-round educational events.

In 2008, it installed a new triangular marquee, plus a high-definition projector, and did away with the green-tint facade.

While the IWFF screened its share of films throughout the years and held many events, it wasn't until 2013 that the Roxy entered its current incarnation.

Steinberg, a film aficionado originally from St. Louis, took over as IWFF's executive director in 2013, and convinced the board to try showing movies year-round.

It reintroduced the Roxy as "Missoula's Community Cinema," a new model that scheduled independent and art-house films. It curates selections of features and documentaries targeted to local interests, or shown in collaboration with community groups or nonprofits: environmental issues, yoga and mindfulness films, or premieres of Montana-made movies.

In October, the Roxy will hold the third installment of its Montana Film Festival, which showcases brand-new, innovative independent films. In April, the IWFF celebrated its 40th birthday.

It all adds up to 2,000 screenings a year in its three theaters, one of which is equipped with DigitalCinema for new releases and another with a 35mm projector donated by the Wilma.

Movies are the core, but it has also hosted stand-up comedy, concerts and has its own indie theater troupe-in-residence, BetweenTheLines, that will start its second season this fall.


The "Redeco" online fundraiser was at 50 percent of its goal of $37,000 on Friday afternoon, with a deadline of 7 p.m. Sunday. More than 500 people have contributed so far. An online auction of Monte Dolack movie posters is still taking bids until then.

"It really shows the community support and enthusiasm around what the theater is now," said Ingrid Lovitt-Abramson, the Roxy development director who spearheaded the project.

Earlier this spring, Gov. Steve Bullock announced a $167,605 award in tourism infrastructure and community development grant block money from the state Department of Commerce.

The funds have gone toward a facelift that can help draw visitors to the Hip Strip.

For the marquee, they hired Fernando Duarte Design, which has undertaken Art Deco movie house renovations for the Hollywood Theatre in Portland, Oregon, and others.

The new ticket booth faces the street. The doors have etched windows and shiny brasswork.

Those involved in the renovation have been collecting people's memories of the Roxy to share. Lovitt-Abramson said they've heard stories about a lot of first dates — including one with a mother sitting a few rows back. To share one, call 406-800-1937 and leave a message or send one via the Roxy's Facebook page.

On Saturday and Sunday, there are outdoor screenings and a block party at the Missoula Senior Center across the street, with live music and food trucks.

And on Sunday, just before the 7 p.m. showing of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," the marquee will light up. 

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