Bigfork’s Cultural Hub Turns 50

By Beacon Staff

BIGFORK – Brach Thomson, the manager for the Bigfork Summer Playhouse, started out on his career path before he could walk.

Don Thomson, Brach’s father, was hired at the playhouse in 1964, just four years after its inception, and Brach’s mother Jude came onboard a year later. Brach began in 1967 – the year he was born.

“The kids grew up there,” Jude said. “As soon as they were old enough to count change, Brach and his brother (Gavin) sold orange drink in the cartons like milk from the equity supply store to the crowd.”

Together, the Thomson family has helped grow the Bigfork Summer Playhouse into one of the town’s most prized institutions. And this summer, the Bigfork Summer Playhouse will open the curtains on its 50th season. Also, after six months of construction, patrons will enjoy a new $1.1 million lobby at the Bigfork Performing Arts Center, the playhouse’s home.

It’s a benchmark year for a professional repertory theater that began in a community hall.

In 1960, Dr. Firman “Bo” Brown and his wife Margery Brown founded the playhouse as a place for University of Montana theater students to perform in the summer. Don and Jude Thomson – ambitious, recent college graduates – were hired a few years later.

That was before there was an Electric Avenue.

In those days, the town’s main street was unpaved and many of the buildings that now house art galleries and niche shops were residential homes. There were a handful of bars and gas stations, along with a mercantile and two “greasy-spoon diners,” Jude said.

The playhouse was the summer tenant in a community hall owned by the national social organizations the Masons and the Eastern Star. The theater company ate group meals, rehearsed and lived in the same place. It was cramped; there were no facilities to build scenery.

At the beginning of each season, the crew had to load the floor and bring in the stage and risers for seating. “Labor Day holiday was really labor day – we’d set it all up for the summer,” Jude said.

When the Browns decided to give up the theater in 1967 for other pursuits, a group of community leaders banded together as the Bigfork Development Group and bought the playhouse. Don and Jude became producers, buying the playhouse a few years later.

In the late 1980s, the couple spearheaded efforts to raze the old building, which the fire marshal had deemed an “unfit fire trap,” and raise a new one in its place. A foundation was formed to raise funds and oversee the performing arts center.

The community rallied behind the cause, and the new theater opened on June 18, 1988, without missing a season.

“They wanted to keep the theater in town because they saw it was bringing people,” Jude said. “At that time, there was nothing else like it in the valley.”

It proved a smart investment. The theater is an undeniable economic driver for a town that relies heavily on its tourist-filled summer months to buoy its economy.

When the playhouse schedule hits full stride in early June, there’s a show running six nights of the week. The theater holds 432 people and sells out nearly every show.

That means on a weekly basis as many as 2,592 people are flowing into downtown Bigfork because of the playhouse. Many of those theatergoers browse local shops or grab dinner or drinks before or after a performance.

“The influence is huge,” Helen Nelson, chair of the performing art center’s board, said. “When there’s a play on in town, you know to make a reservation for dinner because everything’s packed.”

With its 50-year history of musical theater, the playhouse has also developed a reputation as a regional cultural hub.

Each year, the playhouse holds auditions throughout the country to fill its approximately 50-person company, drawing talented actors, directors and technicians at the beginning of their professional careers.

With an emphasis on training, the playhouse has proved a stepping-stone for numerous performers on their way to act on Broadway, television and movies.

“We’re a step above college, and a step below Broadway,” Brach said.

Closer to home, the playhouse is especially influential for the valley’s youngest actors.

After going to school and working in Nevada, Brach returned to the Bigfork playhouse to help his parents in 2001 and started a children’s theater program at the playhouse. Over the winter season, hundreds of the valley’s kids participate in several shows, fostering their talents and putting on high-quality productions.

Over all these years, the community’s support for the playhouse has solidified – as evidenced by the new lobby.

In all, contributions to the expansion project totaled $800,000 in cash, a $100,000 matching funds grant, volunteer labor from individual contractors and even a donation of real property, which will be sold when the market improves.

The foundation is still working to raise the remaining sum, and the $100,000 to match the grant.

At slightly more than 2,500 square feet, the new lobby is a stark contrast to its cramped predecessor. An open-curved glass façade faces Electric Avenue, the heart of downtown Bigfork. Aurora borealis tiles, Tiffany-style lamps and revamped concession and ticket booths set the tone.

Along the lobby’s main wall copies of each season’s playbill hang framed.

“It’s gorgeous,” Nelson said. “I think it’s going to make people feel very special when they walk in there.”

On Friday, May 15, the community is invited to view the new building at an open house reception from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., followed by a special showing of the Bigfork Summer Playhouse’s season-opening musical, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.”

Other shows for the anniversary season include “Seussical the Musical,” based on the classic childrens’ books by Dr. Seuss; “The Wiz,” a modern stage adaptation of the novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz;” “Singin’ in the Rain;” and “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”

Community members largely credit the Thomsons with getting the playhouse this far. “It wouldn’t have ever worked without them,” Nelson said. “They have a vested interest in this that goes way beyond a contract.”

At age 67 and 64, Don and Jude are still heavily involved in the theater’s everyday operations, working the ticket booth, playing in the show’s orchestra and overseeing rehearsals.

“I wouldn’t have dreamed of this,” Jude said. “It owned us and we owned it. We were just stumbling along, stumbling along and becoming more and more popular.”