Pondera Arts Council is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization located in Conrad Montana. Our mission is to bring quality live entertainment and cultural events to the Conrad area, including showing select movies.
The Pondera Arts Council (PAC) began in the late 1980’s as the Festival Choir Committee that was formed to recruit choirs from outside the area to perform in Conrad. In 1993 the Festival Choir Committee endeavored to bring a major concert yearly to this area. One of their initial bookings was the 25 member Rotterdam Manekoor Variante chorus from The Netherlands. Other artists followed including The Calgary Boys Choir and approximately a year later the Calgary Fiddlers.
PAC’s first large project was to bring the Yellowstone Public Radio signal to Conrad. The Great Falls NPR signal was not strong enough to reach Conrad. In 1999 PAC formally incorporated under Montana not-for-profit laws and received the IRS “Letter of Exemption”. Aided by qualified volunteers, in less than 12 months PAC obtained the necessary FCC license, developed the transmitter site, purchased the equipment and began broadcasting NPR programming. This came about after a fund drive that reached a goal of approximately $10,000.00. As a result, most of Pondera County is now covered by a quality FM broadcast signal available to anyone with a radio.
Members of PAC realized another need in the community was a grand piano. Piano concerts could not be scheduled because a suitable instrument was not available. With a $5,000.00 grant from The Montana Arts Council and many other generous donors, $12,000.00 was raised and a 5’8” Baldwin grand piano was purchased. With the gracious consent of St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Conrad, the piano was placed in the sanctuary and concerts were scheduled.
PAC’s success in determining needs and accomplishing realistic goals encouraged PAC members to address the most consistent impediment to attracting quality-consistent availability of a facility for meeting both artist and audience needs. While several structures met the “space” requirement, most were already committed, making scheduling at the convenience of the artist virtually impossible. None provided the most essential factor in viewing stage productions: a sloping floor.
The availability of the historic Orpheum Theatre in 2000 offered a chance to solve all these problems at once. Artists willing to briefly divert from their travel schedule to perform here can only do so if the schedule can be met. Spectators would be more willing to attend a performance if their view was not impeded by their inability to see past the viewer in front of them. If the Orpheum could be obtained, renovated and adapted to a live performance auditorium, PAC would be able to attract a much broader range of artists and provide more frequent performances.
In 2001, the owner of the theater agreed to accept PAC’s offer to purchase the theater. Within months, the funds were raised and the building was purchased. The funds to purchase the building were entirely raised from individual donors. The leaking roof was repaired the same year but many other repairs needed to be made.
A $151,000.00 grant from the Wiegand Foundation in Reno, NV was awarded to PAC in 2002. The Orpheum Theatre was completely renovated with a new ceiling, new floor, new stage curtain, new sound and lighting systems, and three new bathrooms. The old Heywood Wakefield art deco seats and the popular Griggs “push-back” seats in the balcony were reupholstered and repainted. Highlights of the renovation included uncovering some original art deco elements on the front of the building, making additional hand rails to match the original old railings that were in place, and hiring a local craftsman to make the auditorium doors with a design to match the art deco seat ends.
Weekend movies began in 2004 with a series of summer children’s matinees also being shown. Concerts were scheduled with the goal of bringing six to eight per year. Artists, musicians, and other performers have come from New York, Argentina, Costa Rica, and Vienna. Some of the performers have been US Army Brass Quintet, Chinook Winds, The Vienna Choir Boys, Eric Fingers Ray, John Lithgow, Cascade Quartet, Johnny Mac Band, Scott Kirby, Balyeat Family, Cold Hard Cash, Flathead Community Band, Ringling 5, Mistral Duo, Saxaphobia, Up North, Men of Worth, Sons of Beaches, Spokane Melody Singers, Norman Foote, Ken Overcast, Adam Tucker as Tim McGraw, Costa Rica Choir, Old Time Fiddlers, Trio Voronezh, Society Swing Sextet and O Sole Trio. Local variety shows and original musicals have been sold out including Desperate Housewives and Hot Flash.
Another milestone was reached in 2012 when PAC was faced with raising $75,000.00 to buy digital movie equipment. Stockman Bank began the drive with a $20,000.00 donation. The whole project took approximately six to eight months before the digital movie equipment was installed.
An addition to the Orpheum Theater was built in 2018 on the east side of the building. It now provides essential office space for the Orpheum Theatre and Pondera Arts council, a large dressing room for performers, and rentable meeting space. The addition will accomodate groups up to 49. This new addition will allow us to even better serve our community by providing reasonably priced rental facilities for both businesses and individuals, while also providing artists with a comfortable space to prepare for shows at the Theatre.
School outreach programs have been an important part of PAC programming. Performers who are booked at the Orpheum are also scheduled to perform at Conrad Public Schools if possible. PAC has sponsored Missoula Children’s Theater in the schools for many years. A $500.00 scholarship was established in 2015 for a graduating senior involved with the arts.
Conrad’s Orpheum Theater was constructed in 1917 and represented the latest “state of the art” motion picture theatre. The historic gem opened on April 5, 1918 with the silent movie, “A Modern Muskateer” and was accompanied by the Rachac Orchestra.
Throughout 2018, PAC celebrated the Conrad Orpheum’s centennial with several events and contests. We always welcome contributions of your memories, photos, or stories about the Orpheum Theatre and its history.
Pondera Arts Council has a board of 15 members who serve 3 year terms and may be reelected. Monthly noon hour meetings are held with members serving on various committees. There is a small membership fee and many people have made major donations each year.
PAC sponsors many cultural and musical events year round in addition to bringing new movies to the Orpheum. From local talent variety shows to Shakespeare in the Park to concerts, we strive to provide a wide range of events that will appeal to many in the community. Pondera Arts Council makes a major contribution to the annual Conrad Whoop-Up Days by sponsoring a western-themed Friday night concert and the Rhubarb Festival. Approximately 100 pies are made and sold by PAC members and friends.
PAC has become an important entity in the Conrad business community. PAC has a part- time theatre manager, theatre assistant and several other employees who are often high school students.