Built in a streamline, Art Deco style, Missoula, MT’s Roxy Theater began its life as a family-owned-and-operated second-run theater in the town’s University District. The 630-seat venue opened on September 24, 1937 with a screening of Tex Ritter’s B-Western Arizona Days.
Throughout the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, Missoula supported almost a dozen other screens–quite a feat for an isolated mountain town whose population remained around 20,000. The Roxy offered a low-cost alternative to the downtown theaters.
By the late 1960s the theater was operated by Edward “Eddie” Sharp, who had inherited the Roxy from opera singer Edna Wilma Simon. Simon was the namesake of Missoula’s other famous theater, the magnificent Wilma Theater, located on the other side of the Clark Fork River. Sharp, an eccentric and mysterious impresario, ran the theaters and tended to a large flock of birds, keeping one in particular, his beloved Koro Hatto – a pigeon that he insisted was a dove – perched permanently on his shoulder where it cooed and shat as he sold tickets and concessions.
The Scandalous 70s and 80s
The Roxy in the 1970s was a notoriously seedy spot. The scandalous engagement of the X-rated Last Tango in Paris in 1973 was such a success that the theater quickly turned to other chic adult titles of the day, including Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones. The theater also began to host regular screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and other midnight fare. With the combination of lax management, proximity to the University, and Missoula’s turned-on culture, the midnight movie scene spilled into everyday life, bringing an air of debauchery to the venue. Over the decade the theater declined, her ancient seats were ruined, and the floors became as sticky as flypaper.
By the 1980s there were 30 movie screens in Missoula. With the insurmountable competition from those venues as well as cable TV and home video, the Roxy converted into a dollar theater, where the staff ran tattered prints from the multiplexes and whatever films they could pick up after the Wilma was done with them. The theater sank further into physical decline. As local writer Erika Fredrickson recalls, “The Roxy Theater could best be called a dive. Some of the most memorable moments… included beer fizzing from cans purchased at the nearby gas station and the clanking of bottles rolling down several aisles during the show…”
On February 19, 1994 a massive fire gutted The Roxy. It was reportedly so hot that it blew the theater doors clear across Higgins Ave. Ruled as arson and unsolved to this day, rumors persisted, describing a sleazy underworld of nefarious characters and jealous lovers who had both been promised the theater upon Eddie Sharp’s death (an untimely event that occurred just months before the fire). The facade and the side walls were all that remained of the Roxy. Soon a vicious battle to claim the real estate for a parking lot ensued, leaving the future of the Roxy unknown.
Loath to yield to developers, hundreds of nostalgic Missoulians rallied to the call. The theater was rebuilt as a three-plex and reopened in 1997. However, continued competition from multiplexes all but mandated that the Roxy remain a dollar show. It stayed open for two years and then shuttered.
International Wildlife Film Festival Finds a Home
The non-profit International Wildlife Film Festival, founded by UM bear biologist Dr. Charles “Chuck” Jonkel in 1977 to promote awareness of wildlife, nature, and habitat, purchased the Roxy in 2001 to host their annual cinematic event. Despite the best intentions, the idea of a theater devoted entirely to wildlife programming did not take hold. Aside from the spring festival and an occasional screening, the theater sat mostly dormant for over ten years.
In 2013 the IWFF found itself seven weeks away from the 36th Annual Festival when the director left the organization. Drastic times called for drastic measures: the board hired Mike Steinberg to be the new Executive Director. Ever since, the IWFF has continued its mission of bringing wildlife film to the community throughout the year.
The success of the Roxy has helped to reinvent IWFF, which turned 45 years old in 2022. The festival’s programming has been expanded, and now more than ever, IWFF and the Roxy are emboldened to stand up in defense of the 8 million other species inhabiting our planet, and face the undeniable fact that the climate is changing and if we blindly, greedily seek to ignore that reality, we are facing a catastrophic future.
The Roxy Today
Following the 36th Annual IWFF, the Roxy retained a small staff of four who spent the summer remodeling the theater: painting, cleaning, and throwing out the expired candy from the concession stand. The IWFF board agreed to expand the organizational mission, embracing a larger vision for the Roxy. In August 2013 the theater branded itself Missoula’s Community Cinema, and launched a year-round calendar program of new and repertory titles. The line-up began as weekends-only but soon grew into special programming on weeknights. The team was scrappy and ambitious and approached programming with an all-brow sensibility.
Within the first year, the Roxy was able to secure a grant to install a Digital Cinema Package on one of the three screens and upgrade the other two rooms with high-def digital projection and Proludio. The popular repertory calendar continued and an expert booker was brought on to allow for full, open runs of top-tier new releases. The theater expanded to seven nights a week, running three first-run titles and anywhere from two to ten one-off screenings weekly.
The increase in programming brought the need to increase staffing. Today, Roxy has 24 passionate and talented year-round employees and an additional 6 – 8 that join the theater to work on film festivals. Over the years three additional film festivals have joined IWFF in the Roxy’s annual lineup: the Montana Film Festival, Kiddomatic, and Camp Horror.
A Sustainable Future
From the start, the Roxy has made the conscious commitment to offer high-quality, reasonably-priced, ecologically-conscious concessions. The Roxy serves delicious “Triple Organic” popcorn – the corn, the oil, and the REAL butter used are non-GMO and 100% organic – and if that wasn’t eco-friendly enough, it is served in a stainless steel bowl, so there’s zero paper waste. The theater also offers a wide variety of wines and locally brewed craft beers.
Programming for Our Community
One aspect that sets the Roxy apart from the impersonal environment of the large multiplexes is a year-round calendar of special events. From live music, standup, improv, theater, readings, lectures, and of course, special film presentations, every month at the theater is unique. In addition to monthly series like Indigenous Cinema, Essential Cinema, Cinema Abroad, and Out at the Roxy, the Roxy runs a weekly cult film program and regular children’s programming alongside The Met Live in HD and National Theater Live. Each month the theater programs a special curated “core series” of films honoring a great director, actor, or thematic focus. Standout series have honored Hayao Miyazaki, Greta Gerwig, classic film noir, anime, John Carpenter, Christopher Guest, a Best of Bill Murray series, and many others.
In 2015 The Roxy established one of the few fiction film festivals in Montana, the Montana Film Festival. With generous support from sponsors and the Montana Film Office, the festival has been able to attract big crowds, prestigious titles, and prominent guests including indie filmmaker Andrew Bujalski, animator Emily Hubley, legendary filmmaker Charles Burnett, LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan, and Missoula’s own local hero actor Lily Gladstone.
In 2017, for the 80th anniversary of the theater, The Roxy embarked on an historic restoration of the theater’s Art Deco exterior. A beautiful new period-accurate neon marquee was raised, bringing back the original exterior ticket booth and restoring the building to the sleek grandeur of its 1937 appearance. Through grants and private donations, the project was funded and completed in time for the marquee lighting ceremony on September 24, the 80th anniversary of the Roxy’s grand opening. The following year, beautiful custom seats and new sound were installed in all theaters, as well as assistive listening systems for our deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons.
The Covid Years
Like so many independent theaters and gathering places, the Roxy faced tremendous uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The theater joined in partnership with the Missoula Paddleheads of Ogren Park at Allegiance Field to offer Centerfield Cinema weekly in the summer and fall of 2020. For about 10,000 attendees, the movies at the park offered a COVID-safe and distanced outdoor film experience at a time when there weren’t a lot of options for community entertainment. Missoula showed up, often in costume, to enjoy a summer evening with their pod and see their neighbors safely for a night out to the movies under the Big Sky.
The Roxy also got through the shutdown by offering private Movie Party rentals for small groups who missed seeing movies on the big screen. More than 450 private movie parties happened during the closure.
Thanks to the unbelievably generous community of supporters and assistance from the CARES Act, the Roxy re-emerged from the shutdown stronger than ever. Over the 400+ days of closure, DCP upgrades in theater three were completed, a fourth screen was developed next door (the 30-seat Roxy Annex) and an outdoor venue, the Roxy Garden was installed. The Roxy reopened in the summer of 2021 to throngs of eager moviegoers.
Since the reopening, the theater has steadily ramped back up to full speed, presenting nightly first-run arthouse fare and dozens of special programs monthly, from repertory classics and one-off screenings of acclaimed indie and foreign films, to fun outdoor screenings and popular comedy and improv shows. We even launched a new film festival celebrating trashy terror cinema, Camp Horror.
Looking to the future
In nine short years, the Roxy has become a lively and beloved member of Missoula’s cultural community. The membership program – launched in 2015 – has reached over 1000 members. Attendance at The Roxy averages over 60,000 annually.
The Roxy team is grateful to be back, offering the traditional moviegoing we all love and need now more than ever. It was the efforts of our committed staff and appreciative community that kept us sane until we were able to settle down in the comfort of the darkened theater, to feel inspired, engaged, and reconnected, and once again get lost together at the movies.
We’re saving you a seat.