To most, the Bigfork Summer Playhouse seems an inextricable part of the village landscape: A professional musical theater where audiences can see great performances in finely tuned productions of classic and modern musicals, a landmark that has always been and will always be. The eternal aspect is, of course, an illusion.
Don Thomson celebrates his 50th anniversary with the Bigfork Summer Playhouse this year. That’s a testament to his tenacity as it took him four years of trying just to get a job with it. The Playhouse was started in 1960 by Firman H. (Bo) Brown, a theater professor at the University of Montana. Rumor has it that he liked to spend his summers here and when he discovered a large, unused building in downtown Bigfork, well …
When Don (a high-school graduate from Harlowton and at the time a freshman at Drake University in Iowa) first approached Bo about a job in the theater, he learned that Bo only hired Montanans. Arguing that he was in fact a Montanan, he learned that only current Montanans registered at the University of Montana with majors in theater arts were eligible. The argument continued for three years until Don registered at the University of Montana in pursuit of a masters degree in theater arts. He began his lifetime association with the Playhouse the following summer.
The theater building was quite different in the early years. Intended as a community hall, it had a small foyer adjoining a coat closet that served as a ticket office and narrow stairways up and down to what was transformed into an auditorium every summer. The theater had 100 seats when Don arrived for his first season in 1964. Of course, they were all in a storeroom and it was Don’s first job to arrange and bolt them to the floor. Seeing the scope of the current operation (the playhouse, the set shop, the costume shop and the dormitory), it’s sobering to note that when it came time to set up the theater that year, there weren’t even tools to do it. Don had to borrow a wrench from the local garage just to twist the bolts. But the theater quickly took shape and was up for its fifth season.
Bo Brown’s interests drifted away from Bigfork in 1968, focusing on the development of the Montana Repertory Theater in Missoula. It was that year the Bigfork Development Company (now the Community Foundation for a Better Bigfork) was formed to buy the Playhouse. The Playhouse at that time consisted of the name, the reputation and 200 seats. (Don had recently acquired 100 additional seats, which he retrieved from his hometown in a borrowed garbage truck.) It also included a contract for Don and Jude to become the producers of the shows for the following year.
Jude Thomson (a graduate of Flathead High School) had married Don at the end of the 1965 season, the season when Bo hired Jude (a music composition student at the university) as the theater’s music director. But now, as professional producers, they divided their time between Bigfork and Kearny, Neb., where Don was a professor of theater arts and Jude taught piano. Each summer, as school ended, they packed their son Brach (and later Gavin, as well) into their car and headed to Bigfork for another theater season.
Don and Jude bought the Summer Playhouse from the Bigfork Development Company in 1971. And with Jude as the musical director and she and Don at the helm, the schedule has become almost exclusively musical. Now the Playhouse routinely does five or six musical productions each summer with a cast of approximately 20 actors selected from typically about 3,200 applications. Destined to remain a family operation, son Brach has taken over from Jude as music director.
The Playhouse celebrates its 54th season this summer, opening May 17 with its 237th production, the “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” The season continues with “Monte Python’s Spamalot,” “The Sound of Music,” “Legally Blonde,” and “Chicago.” Tickets are available online (BigforkSummerPlayhouse.com), by mail, or at the theater box office. Get them early as the 435 seats available for the summer performances in the Thomson Theater routinely fill up.
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