By Kevin S. Giles
The fire was so horrific that it lit the night sky for miles. It consumed the priceless 1921 theater with frightening urgency. In the end, most of the ornate movie palace was gone.
Three days later, after dozens of volunteer firefighters poured three million gallons of water on the inferno’s sad work, the people of Deer Lodge, Montana, took stock of their Rialto Theater.Take me to Kevin's books: One Woman Against War, Summer of the Black Chevy, Jerry's Riot
The terra cotta Beaux-Arts façade stood, a near-miracle. Most of the stage remained, as did five original painted canvas backdrops. A fire curtain fell when the heat rose, saving the back portion of the Rialto.
Between the front and back, the illustrious Rialto smoldered in ash and embers, water and ice. One of the best-preserved theaters anywhere, the heart and soul of Deer Lodge, was dead.
And the 3,500 people of this town wondered.
Bulldoze the remains? Save what’s left?
The answer came in the humblest way possible. Several girls, determined to impress on their fellow residents a message of hope and revival, baked brownies. They sold their creations for $5 apiece, and the $300 and change the girls raised was the first contribution to the Rialto restoration fund.
What happened in that little town in the Rocky Mountains, a town that’s never won a state title in football and basketball, will stand as perhaps the greatest championship trophy of all. People of all ages, skilled or not, united to save the only remaining theater in Deer Lodge, its apparent death marked on Nov. 4, 2006, bringing it back from the ashes to live again. Their teamwork shows why sports doesn’t dominate the will to win the ultimate prize.
The Rialto now takes its place as one of the best theater rescue stories in America. The new Rialto, reconstructed and reopened in 2012, became more than a legend. It was the house the community built.
Today, it sparkles. The Rialto looks almost exactly same as it did before the fire, except that it’s safer and has a few new amenities, such as modern restrooms and an elevator to the balcony.
The road traveled from the fire to restoration is a long story that won’t be told here, better heard from Steve Owens, Mr. Rialto. He thinks nothing of a two-hour tour, telling in explicit detail of the contractors and hundreds of just ordinary townspeople who brought the Rialto back to life on the strength of photographs and old drawings, grit and elbow grease. Attention was given to every detail, involving even high school art students, returning the Rialto to its familiar splendor.
Today the Rialto is a 485-seat community theater, run by volunteers, that shows movies but also hosts community entertainment. In the spring, that meant a Rotary talent show, a “Dancing with the Stars” benefit, a spring band and choral concert, a dance and tumbling recital, a high school concert with music awards, and a concert by nationally known performer Rob Quist. The year’s calendar also includes a magic show, a stage drama, and a youth “town meeting.”
Some work remains at the Rialto. The faded marquee out front needs new vivid paint, as soon as Owens and the rest of the directors of the nonprofit Rialto Community Theater, Inc., raise $8,200 to complete the complicated job of first removing the neon lighting.
To sum up what happened here, numbers tell the story.
After the fire, workers hauled away 70 semi-truck loads of debris. The $300 the girls donated from their bake sale at the beginning started a campaign that eventually raised $3.5 million for restoration through grants and donations. The hundreds of volunteers included an inmate crew from Montana State Prison. A new roof was built in the summer of 2007. Work on the interior began in the spring of 2008. Fire and elevator monitoring, by the way, costs $600 annually.
Owens thinks back to when the Rialto opened in May 2012, offering this oft-repeated quote about the remarkable feat of a little town that never gave up:
“We found out we couldn’t put out a fire with tears.”
Kevin S. Giles is an American journalist and author whose books are set in his native western Montana. He will publish a new and expanded edition of his biography of Jeannette Rankin in the fall of 2016. Two of his books take place in his hometown of Deer Lodge: a novel, “Summer of the Black Chevy” (2015) and the nonfiction work, “Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.” (2005)