Memory Theaters

Downtown Bozeman boasts two movie theaters. The Ellen Theater, on the north side of Main Street, was designed by legendary architect Fred Willson. It has but one screen, edged by the kind of golden craftsmanship common to early movie houses and playhouses. It may not have a digital projection system or perfect surround sound, but seeing a movie there is an experience.

Across the street is the Rialto Theater, the lesser of the two. Like its nicer cousin, the Rialto is a downtown landmark, but one that has seen better days. No movies have been shown there since 2005, and the theater is falling apart. The ceiling drips with something that isn’t quite water. It smells of rot and faintly of sewage. What amenities haven’t been ripped out already feel unsteady, like a stiff wind or cross look might collapse them.

Yet there is another theater linked to this story, another Rialto located 120 miles west of Bozeman in Deer Lodge. That Rialto, also nearly a century old, burned down in November 2006, at the end of $300,000 in renovations. More than the theaters in Bozeman, which are owned by investors awaiting the opportunity to renovate and rezone, the loss of the Deer Lodge Rialto was a tragedy.

Speaking with the members of that theater’s nonprofit board of directors and former residents of the town, it’s clear that the Rialto was the heart of Deer Lodge. The school put on plays there, local theater groups rehearsed there, politicians debated on stage, and on the weekends, they showed cheap movies. It was a safe place for kids, board president Steve Owens told me, and losing that theater hurt a lot of people.

But when a community is that attached to something, reconstruction is inevitable, and in the six months since the fire, the board has raised $900,000. Not anywhere close to the estimated $3 million cost of rebuilding the Rialto, but a start.

That brings us back to the Rialto in Bozeman, where a dozen volunteers gathered on a cool Sunday morning to venture into the rotting Rialto. They took with them hand tools and trouble lights; they left with almost 170 theater seats that will furnish the balcony of their newly rebuilt theater, whenever it’s finished.

Will the new Rialto–in Bozeman where it will be retail and residential space or in Deer Lodge where many think it will reunite the town–be as good as the original? Or is a bit of early 1900s area history fading away forever? Will the memories created in the new places match the old memories in scope? Will a first kiss in the darkened balcony of a modern theater be the same as one in an centenarian theater?


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