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The Theatre

Story of the Theatre Backdrops

The pictures you see above are five of the six backdrops that Edgar S. Paxson (1852-1919) painted for the theatre in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The energetic, quiet, friendly young man was born near Buffalo, New York in April 1852 and came to Montana in the spring of 1877. He worked as a cowboy, shotgun rider and military scout. In 1879 he settled with his wife and son in Deer Lodge and became a professional painter. In addition to sign and house painting, he decorated saloons and painted backdrops and scenery for theatres in area communities. Over the years, the Paxson backdrops were sold and changed hands several times until they were returned to the Opera House Theatre on loan from the Granite County Museum early in 1998. Of the original six backdrops, only the five featured here remain often used in productions, they provide excellent staging and ambiance.

The Beginnings

The property where the theatre stands was first deeded to the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1876. In July of l891, Angus A. McDonald (Red Mac) and his wife, JoAnna, acquired the land and built the two story McDonald Opera House. It was equipped with a granite foundation, full sod basement, dressing rooms beneath the south end and plumbing! The high loft above the east end was for scenery backdrops. A large auditorium with balcony, side boxes faced with wrought iron, and a spacious stage attracted large audiences. Many famous troupes performed on the stage as well as many not-so-famous, including minstrel shows, dog and pony acts, traveling players, magicians,(the center stage trap door still remains) contortionists, vaudeville acts, local talent, dance revues, class plays and graduations. Frank Horrigan bought the theatre in l9l9 and renamed it the Granada. The ornate boxes were taken out, in the name of acoustics, when new sound and projections machines were installed.  A variety of businesses have occupied parts of the building through the years; a soda pop bottling firm, The Philipsburg Commercial Club, a bank, Carmichael’s Livery Stable, and others.

The Restoration

While much of the restoration project has been behind the scenes, i.e. plumbing, electrical, utility projects, the stage and box seating had to be renovated to it
s original stance. The wrought iron work is still a project to be undertaken, however the orchestra pit has been opened and the box seating built back in place. The commitment by the Rocky Mountain Accordion Celebration to have a concert in the Opera House, brought out many volunteers to help with the auditorium restoration and painting. This event was followed closely by the production of live professional summer theatre which required dressing rooms, costume and prop storage, redoing restrooms, enlarging the concession area and a host of other internal projects to accommodate production and events.
The actors lodging area was a major undertaking both in time and expense, but much needed and greatly appreciated by visiting guests and performers.

In 2000, the theatre got its first coat of paint! Sponsored primarily by Columbia Paint, Blackfoot Telecommunications, ICM and the Flint Creek Valley Bank the project began by pressure washing the building.
As you can see on the photo 100 years of dust, when washed away revealed the historic red brick that many buildings in Philipsburg are constructed from. Then the paint project began as the fires of 2000 burned. A few cinders were painted into the building, but the final result was stunning.

Thanks to a benefit by the Montana Actors Coalition, enough money was raised to buy roofing materials. Seven layers of old roofing had to be removed to make way for the new. Each spring we thankfully walk into a dry theatre and feel grateful to these wonderful Montana actors, singers and performers who helped us achieve this important goal. A new furnace has been installed pending some ducting left to be set in place, a milestone has been reached in making the theatre available for winter performances.

The Opera House Theatre Company, while housed in the oldest theatre in Montana, is the youngest theatre company in the State. We are proud of our progress. Thanks to the endless efforts of Artistic Directors, Jonn Jorgensen, D. J. Gommels, Colleen Watson and David Mills-Low vibrant and enthusiastic ensembles, community encouragement, donations of time, props, and materials and theatre supporters we are encouraged. As quoted in the Missoulian… “they just get better and better.”

Owners and producers Tim and Claudette Dringle began work on their dream of restoring this remarkable historic Opera House Theatre back in 2000.

Now they invite you to join them, enjoy a fabulous performance of Vaudeville, Comedy or Drama, (with a great bag of popcorn “with real butter” during intermission!) and Celebrate our Past and our Future!