Hicks Nix Sticks Pix
But the Civic Center is still the best place in Montana to see a film, for all kinds of reasons. By Bill Vaughn
[from the beginning] When I was a feral boy in the 1950s there were three movie theaters downtown—the Rainbow, the Liberty and the great hall in that sublime Works Progress Administration massif, the Civic Center. The Rainbow featured oaters, horror and sci fi. You went to the Liberty on Saturdays to gorge on candy and popcorn and four hours of cartoons, emerging into the summer glare blinking and farting like an alley dog accidentally locked in a bakery.
At the Civic Center I sat transfixed through The King and I, Song of the South, and Old Yeller. But it was the live performances there that still wander into my dreams. A magician name Dr. Mesmer brought up twenty people on stage from the audience and hypnotized them into believing they were chickens (only one of them required a doctor’s assistance after failing to respond to Mesmer’s command to stop clucking.) And then there was my neighbor, Lena Fenley, the object of my unfocused preteen desire, performing with her
amateur dance troupe a leaping and hand-springing gymnastics routine that flaunted the laws of gravity. You also went to the Civic Center to ice skate on the huge indoor rink the building housed.
The Civic Center was built in the late 1930s in the municipal art deco style of architecture. The interior is extravagantly detailed with terrazzo and travertine plaster. The 1800-seat proscenium theatre was designed around a series of hard, curved surfaces intended to allow anyone in this vast hall to hear perfectly a performer speaking or singing in his natural, unamplified voice. Donna Hughes, the events manager of what is now called the Mansfield Center for the Performing Arts, sometimes seats school kids on field trips in the far reaches of the balcony, then goes to the stage a football field’s distance away and drops a dime. “We heard it!” the kids always shout down in amazement.
The theatre ceased being a commercial operation in the late 1970s after failing to compete with the cramped and noisy cineplexes out on 10th Avenue South. In 1997, however, it hosted the world premier of The Lost World, Steven Spielberg’s sequel to Jurassic Park, and in 2008 the first public showing of a made-in-Montana film called Iron Ridge, which featured the presentation on stage of one of the movie’s stars, a 900-pound grizzly named Brutus.
Even gritty, hardscrabble films such as The Slaughter Rule are escapes from realty. All movies offer transportation that always require, alas, a round-trip ticket. And if there’s anything the people of Great Falls need more of it’s escape. But for me, it wasn’t just the films shown at the Civic Center that were a refuge, it was the monumental building itself, so far removed from the renovated turkey coop where we lived. Besides the theatre, another fun thing to do was wander around the long, cavernous hallways of the municipal wings on either side of the theatre just for the fun of getting lost. The front of the Civic Center, which looms over the west terminus of Central Avenue with the gravitas of a mausoleum, is façaded with six enormous columns. Behind each one is enough space to accommodate a skinny nine-year-old trying to hide from the world.
After I left the reception I went outside into the frigid central Montana night and stared up the deserted length of Central Avenue, which has fallen into abandonment and decay. Then, looking around to make sure no one was watching, I wedged myself behind one of these columns, and pushed my back against the immovable, reassuring stone. • (11/13/2011)