Bigfork’s Cultural Hub Looks to Grow

By Beacon Staff

BIGFORK – When the Bigfork Summer Playhouse opened its season in the summer of 1988 it was a big change. It had the luxury of actual dressing rooms for the players. Now they wouldn’t have to run across the street to the upstairs of the Mountain Lake Tavern to change – causing quite the spectacle for passersby.

“They’d see people running across the street,” says Playhouse Manager Don Thomson, “[The players] would go in as one person, and come out as another.” Thomson’s been working with the Bigfork Theater since 1964, and saw the move from the old Rebekah-Legion Hall to the new building, and the evolution of the Bigfork community.

“When I first came here there was one restaurant and one little café that stayed open some of the time,” recalls Thomson, “now there’s five restaurants.” Thomson credits the playhouse with some of this. “It’s definitely affected Bigfork in a large way over the years.”

Thomson has seen the company sprout from a dozen people acting, building sets, and even cooking and eating together on the stage. It was a Montana-focused venture with the actors and designers from in-state theater programs performing for a Montana crowd. Now, Thomson and his wife Jude hit regional auditions to pick up actors, and the crowds live here, are here for the summer or are visiting for a couple days.

Rendering courtesy of Jackola Architecutre and Engineering via the Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts

“Can you imagine what Bigfork would be like without the theater?” asks Walter Kuhn, treasurer for the Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts Foundation. The Foundation owns the Bigfork Theater, and leases it out as the Summer Playhouse annually.

Bigfork is inextricably linked with the theater; from the summertime traffic of actors and technicians moving in for the four-month season, to the daily shows drawing crowds into the village for shopping or food before showtime. Even in the off season the weekend shows put on by the high school, community players, children’s theater and the Northwest Ballet Company’s annual production of “The Nutcracker” fill the streets of the village.

“It really is a community center,” says Kuhn.

Now, after 20 years, and countless shows, the Foundation wants to buff up the theater by expanding the lobby, updating the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, and bringing the whole building up to current fire codes.

“We’re operating on a system that’s 20 years old,” says Foundation secretary Mary Jo Naïve, and replacing that system adds a big cost to the renovation package. With a $1-million price tag, about 20 percent is the HVAC system.

Patrons of the Bigfork Summer Playhouse file out of the building downtown Bigfork after a performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat last summer.

The Foundation kicked off a fundraising drive this spring. It hopes to raise $1 million by the end of the summer, break ground in October 2008 and finish by the next summer season. Other productions will be put on hold while the reconstruction is taking place.

In all, the expansion would up the square-footage of the lobby from 1,316 to 2,501 – moving the front wall out to the front garden, opening up closeted space inside and relocating the concession stand and ticket booth into the far corners of the lobby. Currently, Kuhn points out, the concession stand line blocks the doorway out and the hallway between the theater and the lobby.

“It’s difficult, because of the size of the lobby, to do anything that goes hand-in-hand with plays,” says Thomson. Thomson said after special showings when they have 200 to 400 people in the theater to see the play, the 1,316 square-foot lobby doesn’t leave much room for drinks, hors d’oeuvres and “meeting the cast” after the show.

The new window-filled front wall would extend to the edge of the front garden with one glassed bump-out curving all the way to the Electric Avenue sidewalk.

“We’re trying to give it a more theatrical look but still give it the rustic feel,” says Kuhn, “A Bigfork feel, eclectic.”

By the first week of June the Foundation had $380,000 in contributions and pledges, including pledges of $25,000 from each of Bigfork’s four banks: Glacier, Flathead, Rocky Mountain and First Interstate.

“The original theater was built through a major fundraising effort,” says Kuhn, “and now we’re doing it again.”

For more information or to make a pledge, contact Walter Kuhn at 837-4550 or [email protected].