A Venue Ready to Rise From the Ashes

Once the cultural heart of Kalispell, the McIntosh Opera House waits for an encore performance

By Justin Franz
Mark Pirrie shows the opera house above Western Outdoor on Aug. 17, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Walking up the stairs above Western Outdoor and through the big metal doors that cordon off the old McIntosh Opera House, it’s hard to believe that this space was once the cultural and musical heart of the Flathead Valley.

Today, the abandoned opera house is used as a storage space for the store below, but its owner, Mark Pirrie, says he sees endless possibility in the dusty room.

“It would be a really great venue for downtown Kalispell,” Pirrie says.

As the Flathead Valley’s music scene continues to blossom, one of its original cornerstones lies in wait, ready to rise from the ashes for an encore more than a century after its heyday.

Canadian-born John McIntosh arrived in Kalispell in 1891, the same year that Great Northern Railway’s transcontinental route came to the valley and just a year before Kalispell was established. Once here, McIntosh and his new bride Sophie opened the city’s first hardware store downtown, John McIntosh & Co. Five years later, he moved the store into a brand-new brick building on the corner of Main Street and First Avenue. As a way to give back to the community, he built a large opera house on the second floor.

The McIntosh Opera House featured a large seating area that held about 1,000 people and a performance stage. There were also dressing rooms and sleeping rooms, above what is today Norm’s News, to host the performers. Shows cost anywhere from 50 cents to $1. In the early 1900s, a showing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin attracted more than 1,100 people.

“People were supposedly hanging from the rafters for that one,” says Pirrie’s father Gordon, who purchased the building in the 1970s.

The space also hosted other events, including boxing and wrestling matches, basketball games and dances (according to legend, men who brought a date paid a quarter, while single men who were looking to mingle had to pay 50 cents). In 1896, it hosted Flathead High School’s graduation. It wasn’t a particularly long ceremony since there were only three graduates. McIntosh let just about anyone rent the venue; all people had to do was find him at the hardware store or call him at his house on Knob Hill on Fourth Avenue. In 1902, union leader and Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs spoke at the opera house during one of his five runs for the White House.

In June 1935, the opera house’s stage burned. There are two popular versions of how the fire started. One is that an inattentive cleaner dropped his cigarette near the stage. The other is that some dancers were working late one Friday night when one dramatically tossed a cigarette across the stage. Either way, the fire spread quickly and engulfed the stage. Had it not been for the fast work of the local fire department, the entire building may have gone up in smoke.

The opera house continued to host events through the 1950s, but its use slowly declined. In the decades since, it’s mostly become a storage spot for the businesses below. Mark Pirrie said over the years people have expressed interest in restoring the venue, but those efforts almost always fizzle out. He estimates it would cost upwards of $2 million to restore the space but notes that his family is ready and willing to speak with anyone who wants to give it a shot. Although the stage is gone and some of the plaster ceiling has come down, the bones of the opera house are in good shape.

“Structurally, it’s really sound,” he said.

In the City of Kalispell’s 2017 Downtown Plan, the McIntosh Opera House was identified as an ideal venue for music and performing arts. Until that happens, however, the McIntosh Opera House quietly waits for its second act.

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