WILMA THEATRE HISTORY

The Wilma - Out Front

Photo: Tom Fullum/Big Sky Documentary Film Festival

The Wilma - Crowd

Photo: Tom Fullum/Big Sky Documentary Film Festival

The Wilma - From Balcony

Photo: Tom Fullum/Big Sky Documentary Film Festival

Built in 1921 along the bank of the Clark Fork River in downtown Missoula, Montana, the Wilma building has a long and colorful history. Commonly called the "Showplace of Montana," the eight-story building was constructed by William "Billy" Simons, an early western entrepreneur who produced Wild West shows and built theatres in Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska during the Gold Rush. At the grand opening, the main floor theatre was dedicated to his wife, Edna Wilma, a famous light opera star who performed on the Pantages vaudeville circuit. Today the Wilma building, with its 1,066 seat Louis XIV-style theatre, remains a Missoula icon. It was the first modern steel-framed skyscraper built in Missoula. It houses two theatres (1 small cinema with 125 seats and one large 1,067 seat theatre), offices, and residential space. It is located at 131 S. Higgins Ave.

The theatre is a beautifully ornate Louis XIV style theatre. The main auditorium seats 1,063 patrons in red, well-cushioned chairs and regardless of whether patrons came to see a documentary film, a nationally touring punk-rock band or the ballet, there is plenty to see long before the show ever starts. The ceiling is the largest hand-painted ceiling in the state and the walls, balconies, lobby, and stairwells all feature elaborate decoration or trimming. The entryway is flanked with black Italian marble walls, and the stairs leading to the balcony and restrooms have an overpowering brown and gold pattern that rather than assault the senses, somehow exudes luxury of a bygone time.

In addition to the theatre the building contains a restaurant and bar on the park level, two floors of commercial office space, and five floors of residential condominiums.