Deer Lodge, Montana's Rialto Theater Rises from the Ashes
The Rialto Theater in Deer Lodge, Mont., c. 1942
It’s often said that small towns enjoy an enhanced sense of community; they are places where neighbors work together, help one another, and pitch in for the common good. Nowhere does that seem to be truer than in Deer Lodge, a tiny town of 3,400 located an hour and a half southeast of Missoula, in western Montana.
Since 1921, Deer Lodge's Rialto Theater has sat at the heart of the town, and as the only auditorium in the area, hosted events from rotary talent shows to weekend movies. In 1995, with the National Register-listed theater deteriorating and its ownership no longer able to maintain it, members of the community banded together to form Rialto Community Theater, Inc., a nonprofit that would run the theater and lead a restoration project.
By 2006, the organization had poured more than $100,000 into upgrading the theater. Then, disaster struck.
On November 4, 2006, the Rialto went up in flames. Locals gathered on the street to watch the blaze shoot 50 feet into the sky. It took three days and 3 million gallons of water to put out the fire. All that remained of the town’s centerpiece were the facade, side walls, and the stage that had been hidden behind the theater’s asbestos curtain along with five original 1921 backdrops.
But the town wasn’t ready to give the Rialto up that easily.
“About three weeks after the fire we had some engineers look at it and got some estimates from the architects,” remembers Steve Owens, president of the Rialto Community Theater, Inc. “We had a community meeting and there were about 250 people there and when we asked, ‘Should we rebuild?’ all but three people raised their hands.”
Still, with all the enthusiasm, the odds of completing the $3.5 million project were against them.
“Our average income is lower than most of Montana, and [Montana is] lower than most of the country,” says Owens, “so when some of these people gave five dollars, you knew they were taking it out of their grocery money.”
(left) Community volunteers finishing hallway off the lobby, 2012. (right) Local schoolchildren raised nearly $2,000 by collecting and saving spare change. Here a student in Mrs. Thompson’s class shows off her fundraising progress at the local bank, Pioneer Federal. The bank matched the students' funds, plus other fundraisers.
Local children pitched in and held dances, bake sales, and penny drives -- eventually collecting more than $20,000 for the project. Community organizations from the Elks Club to the local golf club held events to raise money, while more than $100,000 came in from personal memorials alone. Kenneth Turan, the film critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote an article about the Rialto in August 2011, and money poured in from at least 40 different states.
Reconstruction of the theater began in July of 2008, and intent on not incurring any debt, Rialto Community Theater, Inc. proceeded with the project as funds became available. To save money, local volunteers completed any tasks they could. One group of volunteers showed up in the evenings each week for four months straight to install the theater’s flooring. High school students in art and shop classes painted the theater’s ceiling and built steps for the stage.
Since the theater reopened on May 19, 2012, it has become not only a source of pride for Deer Lodge, but a source of empowerment and inspiration for other projects, like the $3.5 million restoration currently taking place on the Hotel Deer Lodge down the street.
“When they talk about the good things that make a community, this cooperation that we seem to have is one of them here,” says Owens who added that along with a full slate of events this spring from children’s theater productions to music festivals, the theater is also hosting charity events for other groups.
“Now that we’ve reopened we can go back to doing things for [the community],” he says.