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When constructed in 1917, the Orpheum theatre represented the latest "state of the art" motion picture theatre construction. An orchestra accompanied the silent movie shown on the Orpheum's opening night in l918. The theater was on a par with those in Great Falls, Billings, and Butte the advertisements boasted.
Kluth, Inc. bought the theater from its original owner in the 1950's, selling it to Larry Flesch, of Shelby, in the 1970's. As the years passed, Flesch struggled to keep the aging theater in business against competition from new theaters in Great Falls. The building is a testament to the 20th Century.
A mountain of coal ash lurks in the dirt cellar. It is speculated that the first owners never took out any of the ashes after they burned coal in the furnace. They merely spread the burnt ash down the way and poured water over it. At some date in the future, someone may find some very interesting artifacts buried in the mountain that has grown over the many years before electric heat was installed. J. E. Ritchey, a prominent Conrad real estate agent in the early 1900's, stashed cardboard boxes full of business records in one corner of the basement along with dozens of antique, glass Coca-Cola syrup bottles that were thrown into that trash pile decades ago.
When closed in 1996, the theater had deteriorated to the point where serious water damage from the leaking roof threatened to render the structure useless.
At this point, the Pondera Arts Council determined the structure offered the solution to a major impediment to audience enjoyment of live performances: lack of visibility. The Orpheum is the only structure in the area with an "auditorium" (ie slopping) floor and phenomenal acoustics. Through local donations and a $5,000 grant through Montana Community Foundation, PAC purchased the building, paid off the mortgage and replaced the roof-- all within the first 12 months.
By retaining the architectural firm L'Heureax Page and Warner, PAC determined it was feasible to divide the renovation into "Projects" and accomplish each, as funding sources were developed. Goals were put into place and reached with each donation and grant received.
One major grant realized was from the Wiegand Foundation in Utah. With the $150,000 received, the entire auditorium was remolded with the latest state of the art sound equipment to be used for stage performance. A sound and lighting board were installed that could be programmed and utilized to enhance all productions.
With the proceeds of a "buy-a-seat" fund raiser, all the seats were recovered to add to the enjoyment and beauty of the Orpheum. New stage draperies were added to brighten and enhance the stage.
Little by little, the Pondera Arts Council was able to bring life back into the Orpheum Theater and regain the elegance it originally held in order to maintain their goals to bring live musical entertainment and related cultural events to the town of Conrad, Pondera County, and the surrounding rural areas.
The Pondera Arts Council (PAC) began in the mid-1980's as the "Festival Choir Committee" that was formed to recruit choirs from outside the area to perform at an annual Festival in Conrad, MT . In 1993 PAC reached the point where at least one "major" concert was provided annually. One of their initial bookings was the 25 member "Rotterdams Mannenkoor Variante" chorus from the Netherlands. Other artists ranged from JoAnn Castles of the Lawrence Welk orchestra to the Calgary Boys Choir. Until 1998 most of the PAC activities were relatively informal and expenses were covered completely by free will offerings alone.
As a result of their contact with a widely scattered population in the 11 communities and 10,000 square miles of farm and ranch country, PAC members detected a deep seated desire for Public Radio program. Remote families often lacked television reception and commercial radio seldom offered the kind of performances they enjoyed through PAC concerts.
In 1999 PAC formally incorporated under Montana not-for-profit laws and received the IRS "Letter of Exemption". Aided by qualified volunteers, in less than 12 months PAC obtained the necessary FCC license, developed the transmitter site, purchased the equipment and began broadcasting PBS programming.
As a result, most of the 10,000 square miles of the Golden Triangle are covered with a quality FM broadcast signal available to anyone with a receiver. With consistent response to requests for donation PAC has maintained the annual budget needed to cover annual operating expenses.
Their success in determining needs, defining problems and accomplishing realistic objectives encouraged PAC members to address the most consistent impediment to attracting quality artists at reasonable prices: consistent availability of a facility for meeting both artist and audience needs.
While several structures met the "space" requirement, most were already committed, making scheduling at the convenience of the artist virtually impossible. None provided the most essential factor in viewing stage productions: a sloping floor.
The availability of the historic Orpheum Theatre in 2000 offered a chance to solve all these problems at once. Artists willing to briefly divert from their travel schedule to perform economically can only do so if the schedule can be met. Spectators would be more willing to attend a performance if their view was not impeded by their inability to see past the viewer in front of them. If the Orpheum could be obtained, renovated and converted from a motion picture to a live performance auditorium, PAC would be able to attract a much broader range of artists and provide more frequent performances.
However, the Executive Board faced a major challenge. Since their creation, the PAC has maintained two basic fiscal resolutions:
1. No financial obligations will be incurred until sources of funding to cover costs (including future operational costs) are identified.
2. To the greatest extent possible, all events will be free from formal admission. Contributions will be accepted through a free-will offering, or through subscription or advance underwriting.
After many months of careful examination the PAC Executive Board established $25,000 as the maximum amount of money they could afford to acquire the building. They then obtained a qualified evaluation of the structural needs and projected costs to meet each of these needs.
Initially the purchase price was far beyond the established amount. However, their confidence in the community support and their past successes encouraged them to continue their fund raising plans. Looking beyond the purchase, they also projected funds needed for the most immediate priority: replacing the roof to halt the serious water damage taking place.
Their optimism was rewarded in 2001 when the family of the theatre owner agreed to accept their offered price. Within months, the funds were raised and the fully paid Warranty Deed and Grant Deed were recorded in the name of the Pondera Arts Council. These funds to purchase were entirely underwritten by individual donors.