When constructed in 1917, the Orpheum theatre represented the latest “state of the art” motion picture theatre construction. Audiences were delighted with the main attraction on the opening night in 1918: an orchestra accompanied the silent movie. 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.
Until 2017 when it was finally able to be removed, a mountain of coal ash lurked 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 was the only structure in the area with an “auditorium” (i.e. sloping) floor and phenomenal acoustics. Through local donations and a $5,000 grant through Montana Community Foundation, PAC purchased the building and replaced the roof, all within the first 12 months.
By retaining the architectural firm L’Heureax Page 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 E. L.Wiegand Foundation. With the $150,000 received, the entire auditorium was remodeled 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.
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.