People & Place
  • Alberta Bair Theater Billings 1
  • Alberta Bair Billings 2
  • Alberta Bair Theater Billings 3

Tony Bennett, Emmy Lou Harris, David Copperfield, Gordon Lightfoot, Judy Collins, Harry Belafonte, Bobby McFerrin, Bernadette Peters, Manhattan Transfer, The Commodres, Ben Vereen, Los Lobos, Kronos Quartet, Tito Puente, Mel Torme, Marian McPartland, Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, George Plimpton, Joan Baez, Beausoliel, Alison Krauss, Martha Graham, Chicago, Rent, Oh, Calcutta, George Carlin, Garrison Keillor, Juilliard String Quartet, Patti LuPone, The Temptations, Kathy Mattea. . . 

The Alberta Bair Theater is an anchor for cultural opportunities in the Rocky Mountain Northwest, presenting a rich blend of performances to a local population of 130,000 and a regional population of nearly 400,000. The theater draws residents from Billings, as well as communities in south central Montana and northern Wyoming. ABT is the only fully equipped performing arts center between Denver and Spokane large enough to present a broad spectrum of artistic work by major professional touring companies and artists. For 20 years, ABT has set the standard for quality performing arts events that enhance the quality of life in the region. 

This 1,400-seat, fully renovated theater in the heart of downtown Billings serves audiences who are as varied as the renowned performers they come to see. Thousands of children experience their first glimmerings of cultural literacy at the ABT. Because of the Alberta Bair Theater, Billings has a cultural life unmatched in cities three times its size where all segments of the population can experience world class live performing arts. 

 

From modest beginnings to a star-studded legacy...

In November 1931, the Fox Theater, (now the Alberta Bair Theater), opened its doors with a parade, a short-lived street dance followed by the motion picture, “Merely Mary Ann” with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. The community band entertained the few brave dancers on the cold November night until it was time for the movie.  This elegant theater with its chandeliers, art deco design, dressing rooms and stage, was financed in part by the 20th Century Fox Corporation, which purchased the land from Charles M. Bair.  The Fox Theater had the distinction of being the last Art Deco style theater in the United States built by the 20th Century Fox Corporation.

The Charles M. Bair family homesteaded on the same spot where the Fox Theater was built. This house, on the corner of what is now Broadway and Third Avenue North, is where Charles’ daughter Alberta M. Bair was born. Many years later the renovated Alberta Bair Theater was named for her in honor of her generous donation toward the project and to commemorate her family’s history on the property.  A witty conversationalist with a steel-trap memory, Alberta often joked, “I guess I’m not a very good money manager, my father sold this place for a pittance and it cost me $600,000 to buy it back.” In 1993, Alberta Bair, then 97, died, leaving an arts legacy unmatched in the history of the state. In 2005, the Charles M. Bair Family Trust further honored her memory with a one million dollar gift to the ABT Endowment. 

“…providing a home for local cultural and civic groups to meet and perform,”

The Fox Theater served as home for the Billings Community Concerts Organization and the Billings Symphony and Chorale.  The Fox Committee for the Performing Arts supplemented the local pool of talent with touring musicals, dance and opera productions.  This Committee was responsible for bringing such stellar performers as Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Dave Brubeck, and Joan Baez to the community. The Fox Committee’s name still lives on in the popular Fox Series offered each season by the Alberta Bair Theater.

In 1978, the Fox Theater was purchased by Carsich Theaters, a movie house company.  They planned to renovate the much loved but decaying theater into a three-screen movie venue. The City of Billings also had its eye on the Fox Theater site for a possible parking garage to handle the growing parking needs of bustling downtown businesses. The Fox Committee, along with Billings Gazette arts editor Christene Meyers, managed to halt the conversion by getting the theater placed on the National Register of Historic Buildings, and then involved other community leaders in a fund drive to renovate the building.  The community support was overwhelming – from dollars raised at school bake sales to $500,000 from an individual donor. The City of Billings, local businesses and regional foundations joined forces to make the dream a reality.   

Architecturally, the theater was not designed for large-scale theatrical productions. Rather than a restoration, professional theater consultants encouraged a major renovation of the building – which would increase the stage size, seating capacity and lobby. The theater was gutted to the brick walls and rebuilt from the inside out. The stage house and the orchestra level seating were realigned by ten degrees, creating a much larger stage, some interesting angles and few technical challenges. One existing support column, located in the right wing, remains for structural reasons.  An orchestra pit with room for 40 musicians is under the front apron of the stage, with the apron on a hydraulic lift. The Lighting Control Booth is located at the rear of the orchestra level, and the Sound Control Booth is at the front of the balcony.  A fascinating aspect of the building is that the main staircase to the loge and balcony are actually outside the main shell of the building adding both style and function via a distinctive glass stairwell over the corner entrance. 

After the $5.2 million dollar renovation, the beautifully remodeled and renamed Alberta Bair Theater opened its doors to the public Saturday, January 24, 1987 with a Gala performance by Burt Bacharach and a glittering party at the Billings Sheraton Hotel. Thanks to the hard work of the Fox Committee and numerous community-minded people, the Alberta Bair Theater still stands as a testament to their dedication and vision of a world class performing arts center for the people of the Northern Rockies.

 

“…presenting a broad spectrum of quality arts events and educational programs which respects the diverse cultures of the region.” 

The Alberta Bair Theater’s Art Education promotes life-long learning through the arts by providing youth with a rich variety of cultural experiences. Since 1991, the program has enhanced the lives of thousands of children, grades K-12. Imagine 1,400 boisterous sixth-graders taking their seats for a matinee performance. They come from Yellowstone County, surrounding rural communities, the Crow and Cheyenne Reservations, home schools, and Wyoming ranches. This young audience is filled with the noisy enthusiasm that always accompanies a school field trip. But when the curtain rises and the magic of the theater takes hold, there is an awed silence, and suddenly, classroom lessons make sense: like why the opera Carmen is sung in French, or why The Miracle Worker is more than just a play about a little blind girl, or how important timing, trust, and physical fitness are to members of Pilobolus Dance Theatre. This cultural and educational ‘Ah-ha!’ ignites the imaginations of 25,000 school age kids each year through 30-35 school matinees, artist residencies, and lecture/ demonstrations by visiting artists. Educators can enhance their teaching abilities by attending between 15 and 25 ABT professional development workshops each year.

Because of the vision of ABT’s founding members 20 years ago, and the continuation of that vision by ABT’s current board of directors and staff, the theater continues to embrace its commitment to art education, to provide a home to local arts organizations and to showcase national and international excellence in the performing arts. In planning for the next two decades, ABT Executive Director Bill Fisher said, “As a non-profit organization, the Alberta Bair Theater must focus on responding to the ever-changing nature of the business of presenting the performing arts, and the continued growth of our endowment, so we may have a future not so dependent on annual gifts and ticket sales.” 

The success of the Alberta Bair Theater continues to give the rural population of Montana a front row seat to world-class entertainment. 

 

For ticket information call 406-256-6062 or online at www.albertabairtheater.org

 

  • The Alberta Bair Theater offers school residencies, master classes, student workshops, lecture demonstrations, panel discussions and informal performances featuring touring artists performing at the ABT.
  • The ABT Volunteer Corps is a key element of support at every event at the Alberta Bair Theater. More than 200 volunteers have a variety of roles - serving as ticket takers, ushers, and concessions workers, assisting in the Ticket Office and Executive Office, and helping on special projects. This tireless group has donated thousands of hours toward audience comfort, smooth-sailing performances, and the Theater’s overall success.
  • The ABT Volunteer Corps is a key element of support at every event at the Alberta Bair Theater. More than 200 volunteers have a variety of roles - serving as ticket takers, ushers, and concessions workers, assisting in the Ticket Office and Executive Office, and helping on special projects. This tireless group has donated thousands of hours toward audience comfort, smooth-sailing performances, and the Theater’s overall success.
  • The theater is named in honor of one the state’s most generous philanthropists, Alberta Bair, daughter of sheep and coal baron Charles M. Bair. A seasoned world traveler, Alberta also delighted in boasting about Montana long before it was discovered by Hollywood. “Montana is the best of both worlds if a person can travel and remain interested.”

 

~ Kathleen Benoit and Corby Skinner formed Skinner/Benoit Public Relations in Billings, Fall of 2005.  Skinner was the program and marketing director of the Alberta Bair Theater and Benoit was the theater’s development director.  Contact them at (406) 294-2390.