BILLINGS — Staff at Art House Cinema and Pub are hopeful they will be selected for a Montana Historic Preservation Grant to maintain the front entrance and marquee at the historic Babcock Theater in downtown Billings, so the venue can remain functional for years to come.
"We don't even know if we're approved yet, but it is fun to see the community so excited about what we're doing," said Matt Blakeslee, founder and executive director of Art House Cinema.
Since Art House Cinema and Pub took over operations of the Babcock Theater in 2018, the marquee has been lit up five nights a week on average with feature film presentations. A public meeting- required for the grant application- was held Tuesday at the theater to inform people about what might be in the cards for construction.
"It went away from that for a while, but it's back to being a movie theater and it's great to see that film is still being vital in our downtown," said Billings resident Sam Merrick, who attended the meeting.
Blakeslee said the grant would help foot the bill for about $300,000 worth of improvements. The most costly and labor-intensive repair is in the basement vault underneath the Second Avenue North sidewalk. The steel beams that support the sidewalk need replacing, but that leaves opportunity to preserve, and in some spots, add back, the Luxfer glass tiles embedded in the sidewalk, which are meant to let light into the basement from above.
"The history of the building shows that they actually used to be around the entire building. Then slowly, as they have addressed sidewalk needs, they've kind of pulled them out. So we'd love to bring those back, because they are just beautiful and unique to that specific location," Blakeslee said.
The iconic neon marquee might get some upgrades too. It's time for a new set of letters with an easier clip system to make a safer job of changing them. Blakeslee said wind and hail have damaged some letters over the years, and staff have had to get creative lately to accurately display feature film titles on the marquee.
Some lights on the bottom of the sign sign may be updated to more efficient LEDs, while still keeping the classic neon intact. And new front doors with a tiled non-slip entryway are also on the list of possible upgrades.
"The grant that they are putting in place just adds more to a gem that is a part of our downtown. This is a core piece to what drives the business. It's the art piece of downtown. If we don't have something like this, I think it causes us less to be able to thrive," Merrick said.
Since Art House took over operations of the theater, it has seen success. The city of Billings owns the property and selected Art House to operate it in 2018, but that leaves Art House on the hook for operations and maintenance costs. The COVID-19 pandemic years have been good for the Babcock, partly because it was one of the only theaters open during a portion of 2020, Blakeslee said.
"Things kind of flipped, and the Babcock actually started to see some profit for the first time. We are really, really excited about what's happening with the Babcock. We're definitely not rolling in the dough by any means, but we're excited just to be breaking even and able to continue to dream and plan and vision for the future of that space," Blakeslee said.
Art House staff will know if they've received the grant by May 2023 with construction hopefully starting soon after.