Vintage Vibrations

Restored Grange Hall one of several new venues putting the Flathead Valley music scene back on the map

By Tristan Scott
The Ashley Creek Ramblers, from left, Gary Grafe, Pam Leisinger, Roy Wilhelm and Clara Wieck, rehearse at the LaSalle Grange Theatre near Columbia Falls on Aug. 16, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

When Jack Stephens met the man who sold him his dream, he knew something remarkable was about to happen.

Providence, happenstance, fate, cosmic coincidence — call it what you want.

Stephens recalls the introduction as the first time he met his “Grangel.”

The son of an eastern Kentucky Baptist minister, Stephens grew up around gospel music and eventually built a career as a musician in Nashville before moving to California and falling in love with his wife, Catherine.

In Catherine, he found his soul mate, as well as his conduit to Northwest Montana, where she’d spent childhood summers visiting Flathead Lake Lodge in Bigfork with family.

The couple moved to the Flathead six years ago, and almost immediately Stephens began eying the old LaSalle Grange Hall on U.S Highway 2, drawn to its low-country aesthetic and Americana style, and especially its potential as a performance theater and recording studio.

Stephens grew up in a state best known for bourbon, horses and college basketball, and the LaSalle Grange Hall transported him to the musical havens of his Southern upbringing and the gospel music that bestowed his father’s church with heart and soul.

He sensed that the old 1940s-era Grange Hall possessed something of the same verve, and he began referring to it as “Jack and Cathy’s place” whenever they passed by.

“You could just feel it,” Stephens said. “The building talks to you. It has amazing vibes.”

When Stephens drove past the Grange Hall one unforgettable day a little more than four years ago and spotted a “For Sale” sign out front, he pulled over, walked inside and shook hands with the man who made his dream come true.

“That was our first Grangel,” Stephens said. “I couldn’t afford the place, but when the owner heard my vision for the building, he made it happen.”

Impressed with Stephens’ enthusiasm, the owner passed up a cash sale from another potential buyer and signed a two-year lease with the Stephenses, who bought the building outright two years later.

“It was almost forgotten,” Stephens said. “Everything just worked out so perfectly, it’s almost unbelievable.”

Enter the LaSalle Grange Theatre.

For the past four years, the couple has been reanimating the building into a state-of-the-art theater, massaging it with vintage materials and lighting fixtures, period hardware, sinks, doorknobs and other décor, a green room for the bands, and even a pull-chain toilet.

“I’ve always described it as somewhere between a church and a bar,” Stephens said.

With a passion for recording, and after living in Nashville for 26 years, Stephens designed the theater by melding advanced recording technology with classic instruments, including multiple Hammond organs, a Wurlitzer electric piano, a Fender Rhodes piano, a Baby Grand Piano, replica Shure microphones (think Elvis Presley), and a Leslie 122 Cabinet speaker.

“I love marrying the two worlds, so it’s high-tech and vintage,” Stephens said. “I feel like a kid in a candy store, but it’s kind of an old candy store.”

The rare items kept showing up with amazing serendipity, adding to the building’s revival and firming up Stephens’ belief that it was destined to be.

They showed up with such frequency, in fact, that the Stephenses opened a vintage gift shop, featuring accumulated knick-knacks.

The red velvet stage curtains adorning the venue came up for auction through Cal Poly University, perfectly matching its painted pine interior. The 75 padded seats are reclaimed from the old Gateway movie theater in Kalispell.

When he began removing the panels of the space’s low-slung ceiling, the project revealed a hidden cathedral ceiling.

“The acoustics are amazing. The building just had great bones. It was built really well, but it also has great vibes,” Stephens said. “I tried to keep it as original as possible, as period as possible, so walking in here is like taking a step back in time.”

The theater’s debut concert featured a performance by Zino and the Bel Aires, and upcoming shows include an Aug. 25 performance by the Ashley Creek Ramblers, followed by a Sept. 9 concert by Wai Mizutani with Eunhwa Park.

In the future, the Stephenses imagine offering songwriting seminars, instruction in voice, piano, guitar, and percussion, and opening a café.

But the primary goal is to transport guests to a bygone era and continue a soulful revival.

“The sky’s kind of the limit,” Stephens said. “You just let the building talk to you.”