A Beckoning Broadway for the Kids

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – An ambitious project at the new Whitefish Middle School to provide a state-of-the-art home for plays, symphonies and ballets is still a month away from completion, but event coordinators are already booking their shows there. First, though, they need to check the schedules of the rightful owners: the kids.

The Whitefish Middle School Auditorium and Performing Art Center, what co-fundraising chairman Richard Atkinson calls one of the finest theater venues in the Northwest, will be completed by the time school starts on Aug. 29. The auditorium’s construction is working around the students’ schedules, as will its operation and maintenance.

“The kids come first,” Atkinson said.

The auditorium will seat 493 people – the cushy red seats are on site but not yet installed. It also features a computerized backdrop to seamlessly change play scenes; removable front panels on the expanded 3,000-square-foot stage to provide a pit for an orchestra; a sound-proof cry room to take crying babies during shows; complete handicap accessibility; and intricately-wired, high-tech control and sound rooms.

“There’s miles and miles of conduits,” said David Pickeral, a technological consultant who has decades of television experience.

The auditorium is 14,120 square feet, with the stage and control area totaling 9,500 square feet and the greatly expanded lobby area taking up 4,620 square feet, according to architect Dia Sullivan. That total doesn’t include the downstairs School District 44’s offices. As of July 19 the project had raised $4 million, close to the $4.7 million final goal.

Since the auditorium is school property, School District 44 is the ultimate landlord. It is the only auditorium for elementary through high school in Whitefish, and therefore could be quite busy with student activity. When not being used, it is open for anyone with an event to rent it.

The Alpine Theatre Project has already staked out its claim by signing a 25-year lease at the venue, Atkinson and his wife Carol said. Alpine coordinators helped design the stage and gave their expertise throughout the construction process. Glacier Symphony will use the auditorium, as will several ballets. Academic lectures and conferences will be held there too.

Superintendent Jerry House said he is looking for a house manager to oversee major events. The manager would need sufficient skills to watch over sophisticated technology, large professional plays and anything else. Despite not yet having a manager, House said the school district is mostly ready to take on this great responsibility, though he admits that there’s much to learn.

“The first year will be trial and error,” he said. “You don’t know (what to expect) until the rubber hits the road.”

School district officials are also excited about the nice, and long overdue, offices, House said. Offices used to be spread out, with some stuffed into custodial closets upstairs in the pre-renovated building. This is the first time the district has had all its administrative and business employees in the same area.

“We’re as happy as a clam,” House said.

The Atkinsons and others hope the auditorium will specifically help students in a number of ways, besides just use of the venue. One way is that they will have the opportunity to work in the control room and other areas. Also, the school district receives every cent from renters and leasers.

“Now the school can make some money,” Mr. Atkinson said.

The auditorium’s idea, Pickeral said, first came up a few years ago when a school bond passed to completely remodel Central School into what is now Whitefish Middle School. The bond didn’t provide for the auditorium. Around the same time, Pickeral said, the late Frank Morrison of Morrison and Frampton law firm expressed a desire to see a good theater venue in town. His daughter is Betsi Morrison, Alpine Theatre Project’s artistic director.

The idea was there, and that’s where the fundraising trio of Kramer and the Atkinsons came in.

This project is the seventh – and last – time that Kramer and Mr. and Mrs. Atkinson have worked together to raise money for a large project in Whitefish. Their first was an ice rink in 1988 that no longer exists and they also worked on The Wave with Sen. Dan Weinberg.

“This is our swan song,” Mr. Atkinson said.