Harmon’s Histories: 1937 brought Roxy Theater to Missoula, and its eclectic fare
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
Welcome to the Missoula Current’s new game show: “Name that building!”
Construction began on May 1, 1937 and was completed in late September of the same year – a five-month build, at a cost of $35,000 (the equivalent of $737,000 in today’s dollars).
According to press reports at the time, the footprint of the building was 50 by 125 feet and the material used was reinforced concrete. The design was “modernistic ... both inside and out.”
It had all the bells and whistles of the day: The ceiling and walls were “covered with celotex,” great use was made of neon lighting, and the whole place was air-conditioned “for the comfort of its patrons.”
The business plan envisioned a staff of about eight or nine, many of whom would likely be University of Montana students from the nearby campus.
The owner and builder of the facility was 48-year-old Oscar C. Paisley, who had already established similar businesses in St. Ignatius, Hamilton and Stevensville. He envisioned the new Missoula building to be large enough to accommodate a crowd of 600 to 700 people.
The grand opening on September 26, 1937 involved quite a theatrical production.
The story told to the assembled crowd went something like this: “A millionaire is susceptible to the wiles of an international beauty who has her eyes on his bankroll.”
“His three daughters, living on the Riviera with their mother, hear that their wealthy father, divorced for ten years, is paying ardent attentions to a renowned lady of diverting charm.”
“Knowing that their mother still loves him, they rush to New York to save daddy from entangling himself.”
Sounds like a great plot for a movie. That’s because it was a movie.
The film shown in Missoula that September night was the comedy/drama “Three Smart Girls,” starring Deanna Durbin, one of 10 films nominated for Best Picture of 1937. Spoiler alert: It didn’t win. It was bested by “The Great Ziegfield,” starring William Powell and Myrna Loy.
By now I’m sure many of you have concluded the building must be the Roxy Theater, and you’d be right.
Mr. Paisley designed it as a “second-run house,” meaning it featured films “60 to 90 days older than first-run movies.”
Other films, featured in that opening week, were “Arizona Days,” starring Rex Ritter, the singing cowboy, and “Silent Barriers,” with Richard Arlen.
Neighboring businesses voiced their support for the new theater, buying a full page ad in the Missoulian newspaper: “The merchants on South Higgins Avenue are pleased to welcome the new Roxy Theater.”
“This thriving business district has grown during the past few years and has become a busy shopping center for South Missoula residents. (We) wish him success.”
In addition to his business ventures, Paisley was well-known for his community involvement. At Christmas time in 1937, he established a food drive (not unlike today’s Food Bank), waiving theater admission if you brought in “a can of fruit, vegetables, or other food commodities ... to fill Christmas baskets for boys and girls of Hamilton.”
Paisley, who spent many years in western Montana, moved to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho later in life. He lived to be 102, dying in September 1991.
His obituary described him as “a pioneer in the theater business, and as a contractor built many homes in the Coeur d’Alene area. He was an active member of the LDS Church, who is survived by his wife of 45 years, Tina, 19 grandchildren and 27 great-grandchildren.”
The Roxy was sold in the early 1970s to the W.A. Simons Company, which also owned the Wilma theater. The Roxy featured foreign films and other fare, for a time. The “other fare” included X-rate porno flicks; admission, $1.50.
Most recently, it’s been home base for the International Wildlife Film Festival, which purchased the historic theater in 2002.
Folks who’ve been around for a while will remember that the Missoula landmark suffered a catastrophic fire in February 1994. I remember driving toward the area late that afternoon on the way to a scheduled downtown dinner. The smoke could be seen all across town.
The fire had broken out sometime after that day’s matinee. The building was locked and unoccupied at 5:25 p.m. when people heard a loud noise, saw the smoke, and started calling the fire department. Firefighters called in an “inferno,” which quickly went to a general alarm fire, involving nearly the entire fire department’s personnel and equipment.
Arson was suspected, but the culprit(s) have never been identified or arrested.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at email@example.com. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.