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Forged by Fire

When Albert Louis Babcock envisioned the Billings Opera House in 1896, he pictured an architectural marvel with thousands of seats and a lush, metropolitan interior. However, a mining boom, combined with an influx of rail traffic, created a vacuum for entertainment that needed to be filled quickly. Babcock leapt into action, raising $10,000 (roughly $250,000 today) to construct an opera house on Montana Avenue, between 25th and 26th St.

The Billings Opera House was said to be “not exactly a poem in architectural design, nor yet as imposing as some play houses in the state, still it shows up well and is large enough for all present purposes”¹.

The venue wasn’t quite what Babcock had in mind, but it hosted high caliber shows with its excellent acoustics, bright electric lighting, and 800 comfortable seats.

That is, until the theatre burned down on September 22, 1906, becoming nothing but cinders in less than an hour. Albert Babcock, ever the opportunist, saw this as his chance to rebuild something truly marvelous.

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The Jewel of the West 

In October 1906, Babcock hired E. W. Houghton to design the Babcock Theatre. Houghton, a prominent Seattle architect, was known for creating eye-catching theaters, hotels, and opera houses, including the Grand Opera House in Butte, Montana.

Babcock purchased seven undeveloped lots on Broadway Ave. and finalized the plans for a new building within two months of the fire. An artist rendering published in the Billings Gazette showed a seven story theatre. Shops on the main floors were topped with six stories of office spaces, all cradling a massive theatre with a 2,000-square-foot stage.

Construction started in Spring of 1907, but the building plans were altered after the death of Babcock’s banking partner Peter Larson.

Upon completion in December, the theatre stood four stories high, seating 1,250 guests with standing room for over 2,000. The interior of the building was stunning. Vaulted ceilings in the retail spaces revealed neo-classical embellishments atop large pillars. Stone staircases circled the foyer, leading to a large balcony free of view-obstructing columns. State-of-the-art halogen lights lined the stage, and the seats were upholstered with a rich burgundy velvet.

Word of the theatre traveled quickly, and the first showing of Blue Moon starring James T. Powers played to a packed house. The Babock Theatre was said to be the finest theatre in Montana, a “virile monument to the vision of the men-who were responsible for its construction.”² Albert Babcock basked in the theatre’s popularity until his death in 1918, when his ownership was replaced by Hyme Lipsker.

As live theatre fell out of popularity, a large organ was installed to accompany movie shows. This was relatively short lived, as The Great Depression created a need for alternate, less expensive entertainment. Thus, Vaudeville shows and boxing matches were added to the roster. The Babcock Theatre joined the Fox Theatre chain, which served to turn the space into a community center where anyone could find something for entertainment.

 The Fire of 1935

On February 21, 1935, the Babcock Theatre was rented out for a prize fight.

The evening of the event, Fire Chief Vincent Steele asked for no smoking in the theatre. When the crowd continued to smoke, the chief asked that smoking only occur between matches so that overly-excited patrons wouldn’t drop lit cigars or cigarettes on the floor.

Just as Chief Steele feared, a fire broke out around 9pm.

More than 1,000 patrons were evacuated with no deaths or serious injuries. The successful evacuation was made possible by a variety of fire suppressants, multiple exits, and a fire curtain.

Despite the incredible efforts of the Billings Fire Department and volunteer firefighters, the theatre continued to smolder well into the morning. Part of the roof eventually collapsed - leaving only the retail and office spaces standing.

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Rise of Modern Cinema 

With the theatre once again in ashes, owner Hyme Lipsker had to make a decision. Live theatre had remained out of fashion since the Great Depression, so Lipsker went all in on building a motion picture theatre. He hired A.B. Heinsbergen to decorate the interior, and the result was an art-deco hybrid of green pastels, chrome handrails, and marble walkways.

The Great Depression limited the theatre’s ability to add extravagant fixings during the rebuilding, so the modernizing mostly lied in the theatre’s sound and lighting equipment. Massive speakers were installed, and the theatre started screening movies nightly on a large screen covering a more modest stage.

As WWII began, studios developed films featuring anti-Nazi and pro-Soviet themes (Casablanca in 1942 and The North Star in 1943). They offered free movie days in which the purchase of a war bond garnered free admission to the movie. This cemented cinema as a way to both escape the stress of war while staying informed and entertained.

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Identity Crisis

With the end of WWII, movie theatre attendance boomed. Many cinemas used the increased income to remodel the outdated, unpolished art deco style buildings of the 30’s and 40’s. The Babcock remodeled in 1955, spending today’s equivalent of $1.15 million to completely rebuild the theatre and surrounding retail spaces in a modern style. The stage was sealed in order to make room for more retail space, further cementing the theatre’s commitment to cinema.

This commitment, however, would soon become costly. Televisions were starting to appear in every home, and shopping malls were competing fiercely with downtown retailers for a limited number of customers. Multiplex theaters were being constructed across the city that were able to show more movies for relatively little extra cost.

The Babcock ended up going out of business in 1981. The beautiful, modern theatre that once held over a thousand delighted guests was now being used as a side screen for the Carisch theatre chain to show R-rated horror films.

A group of investors tried and failed to reopen the Babcock as a foreign film and arthouse in 1982, but were unable to make enough to pay back their $90,000 investment. The same occurred with Theatre Operators, Inc., who bought the Babcock in 1982 and closed the doors again in 1991 after 9 years of trying and failing to compete with blockbuster multiplexes.

Dramatic group Star Fire Productions leased the space for vaudeville acts in 1995, but had a hard time working with the small stage and smaller audiences. The doors closed again for nearly 10 years, when a boxing promoter began leasing it for weekly matches in 2006. This went on until 2008, when the Babcock LLC repurchased the building. Between 2008 and 2012 the entire building underwent a certified historic preservation tax credit rehabilitation, undoing many of the remodels in order to restore the midcentury look and feel.

Back to the Future

In 2018, the City of Billings purchased the Babcock Theatre and awarded management of the historic landmark to Art House Cinema. Art House has stepped in to create a 7-day-a-week movie palace, offering the Billings film community a bright and positive place to enjoy modern films.

The theatre sits 750 and has top-of-the-line speakers and projectors to ensure a powerful moviegoing experience. The vision moving forward is to continue to honor the tradition of the theatre while simultaneously providing a top of the line film going experience for the community. Not only does this impact the theatre, but it will bring light and life to all of downtown Billings every night as the marquee is lit up and there are more options for entertainment every night of the week.

In addition to showing blockbuster films, The Babcock is available to rent as a venue for weddings, parties, live concerts, and more.