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Roxy Theater gears up for Art Deco revival

Gov. Steve Bullock said restoration of the Roxy Theater will bolster local tourism, catering to the 1.5 million visitors who spent at least one night in Missoula last year; that, he added, will make the Hip Strip “that much hipper.” (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

When Mike Steinberg took the stage in the Roxy Theater, he reflected on the attraction’s history on Higgins Avenue, the role it plays in the downtown district and its path moving forward.

Then he thanked Gov. Steve Bullock and the state of Montana for a $167,000 grant to restore the iconic theater to its architectural prominence – a move that’s expected to increase visitation by up to 20 percent in the first year.

“When we met a couple of years ago as a board to decide the direction of the organization, one thing that came up very clearly was that we should steward this building forward and do something as an historic theater,” Steinberg said. “Our goal is to return the aesthetic of the theater to its original Art Deco style as a way to be a beacon for what’s going on inside.”

On Monday, Steinberg and a large crowd of community supporters and downtown business owners joined Bullock in a grant presentation that will shepherd in a new era for the theater.

Coupled with private funding and donor contributions, the state grant will help cover the $200,000 restoration to the Roxy’s historic facade and colorful marquee, and open an on-street ticket booth recognizing the building’s past.

The structure dates back to 1937 and survived a near-catastrophic fire in 1994. But it has risen from the ashes to host a wide array of films and events, including the International Wildlife Film Festival, which now owns the building.

The renovations will mark the theater’s 80th anniversary.

“After the fire, they did what they could in terms of what they could afford,” said Steinberg. “With so much going the way of parking lots and whatever else with historic buildings that still survive, it’s extremely important for our organization and our community to steward this forward.”

Bullock praised the Roxy’s board of directors for its vision, saying the theater does more than serve as a Missoula attraction. It represents the intersection of arts, culture and history, and that’s something that benefits Montana as a whole.

It also plays an authentic role in state tourism.

“The grants we’re presenting today reflect the value of the Roxy as an asset to the community, but also as an asset to the economic promotion of tourism across our state,” Bullock said. “It’s been a landmark in downtown Missoula for nearly 80 years, where family, friends and neighbors have gathered in their love for the arts.”

Mike Steinberg reflects on the Roxy Theater’s history on Higgins Avenue, the role it plays in the downtown district and its path moving forward. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The Roxy opened as a second-run theater, replaying shows that first appeared at the Wilma and Fox theaters just across the Clark Fork River. After the arson fire in 1994, the Roxy was rebuilt as a dollar theater, though it closed in 2000 after the death of its owner.

The International Wildlife Film Festival purchased the theater in 2002 and renovated the lobby four years ago. The new renovations will restore the theater to its initial 1930s grandeur.

“With attractions like the Roxy, Missoula really does solidify its base and emergence as a vibrant, charming city where visitors from out of state come to enjoy the authenticity of what we offer and share in Montana,” Bullock said.

Bullock said the attraction will also bolster local tourism, catering to the 1.5 million visitors who spent at least one night in Missoula last year. That, the governor added, will make the Hip Strip “that much hipper.”

“Your visitors are staying in your hotels, eating Big Dipper Ice Cream, drinking at your micro breweries and micro distilleries, and shopping downtown,” Bullock said. “The Roxy has a clear vision of its path forward, and a strong understanding of how that intersects with other community and economic development initiatives.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com