A JEWEL OF THE PLAINS
Standing majestically atop the rolling prairies of Eastern Montana, the Fort Peck Theatre is one of the state’s most magnificent treasures. Originally built in 1934 as only a temporary structure, its beauty and sound construction have weathered an incredible 75 years. Today it is a vibrant, vital part of community and culture for residents and visitors alike.
Design and construction of the Theatre was carried out by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. It was a labor-intensive project which integrated the New Deal arts and crafts tradition with a Swiss chalet motif. Many elaborate, decorative appointments can be found both inside and out. Overhead in the auditorium the hand crafted light fixtures are some of the finest examples of 1930’s artisanship seen today. Created locally in the Corps of Engineers shop, the fixtures were built by hand, using metal strapping and hand-blown glass. Also of note are the massive, hand-hewn beams that span the width of the auditorium. Each is nearly two feet thick and 74 feet long. Proudly perched atop the highest point of the Fort Peck Theatre is a beautiful weather vane, specifically designed for the Theatre and included in the architect’s original drawings. It is still in fine shape today, even after 70 years of service, and remains a testament to the craftsmen and construction of the period.
On Friday, November 16, 1934, only 9 short months after construction was begun, the Fort Peck Theatre opened its doors as a movie house, showing The Richest Girl in the World, starring Miriam Hopkins and Joel McCrea. During “The Dam Days”, movies ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week, often with every one of the 1,209 seats filled. People sometimes stood in lines seven blocks long to purchase tickets. The adult admission price was 40 cents on the main floor, 30 cents in the balcony. Children attended for a dime. During this time, the population of the area in and around Fort Peck was over 50,000 and an evening at the movies was a special event for young and old alike.
One of the incredible treasures remaining from this time period is currently on display the lobby of the Theatre. The Arc movie projector, one of two used by the theatre during the 1930’s, is a 35mm carbon-rod projector that offers a unique glimpse back to the technology of the times. The second, identical projector is on loan to the Pioneer Museum in Glasgow.
During the 1960’s, many changes occurred in and around Fort Peck, including the demolition and removal of many buildings and homes. At that time, a group of local people feared that the theatre would fall victim to demolition as well. From this concern grew a desire to save the building by making it productive again. To achieve this goal, The Fort Peck Fine Arts Council, Inc. was born. This group of dedicated, determined individuals has cared for the building ever since, owning it since 1987. Acknowledging the significance of this Montana treasure, the Fort Peck Theatre was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.
Originally built with a Vaudeville-type stage, four dressing rooms and a lighting system, the Theatre today remains much the same. However, working with a logical and careful plan for restoration and preservation, the building, now showing many of its 75 years, is returning to its original grandeur. 40 years after its construction, the stage was extended to accommodate the needs of live productions. In 1995, the exterior was painted, restoring the deep brown color to the walls and the vivid accents of yellow, blue and green that first greeted its patrons in 1934. Many other large projects have been completed, including:
- Replaced rotted wood
- Rebuilt the neon sign
- Replaced all electrical components
- Installed a basement fire exit
- Installed a new roof
Completion of the new handicapped-accessible restrooms and concession area is expected this summer. And a new, professionally designed, state-of-the-art sound system, specifically planned for this historic building, is being installed to meet the needs of both loyal patrons and talented performers.
Expansion by the Fort Peck Fine Arts Council, Inc. also includes the recent acquisition of permanent housing in the Town of Fort Peck for seasonal employees. This building will also house a climate-controlled costume shop as well as an area for set design and construction. These many advances would not be possible if it weren’t for the immeasurable volunteer effort and the support of local banks, businesses, and individuals.
This summer, as in seasons past, the company will be led by professional performers and technicians and will include a host of regional talent of all ages. The season is still produced by the Fort Peck Fine Arts Council, Inc., a group of dedicated volunteers who work tirelessly to ensure the quality and success of each endeavor.
Today, the Fort Peck Theatre stands tall and beautiful, ready to entertain this and future generations. Under the care of devoted volunteers and loyal supporters, its beauty is restored and it remains a significant part of Montana life.