W.A. “Billy” Simons (1860? – 1937)

billy-simonsjpgWilliam A. Simons got his start in the entertainment business when he sold a lunch stand he’d started in Cherryvale, Kansas with money borrowed on his deceased father’s gold watch.  With the proceeds he bought a drugstore that had an empty hall upstairs where he opened a roller skating rink.  In 1886, he sold that business for $5000 and left for Montana. There he established a traveling wild west tent show that visited the many small mining towns that were springing up everywhere.

In the late 1890s, the Klondike Gold Rush drew him to Alaska where he built theaters in Nome and Dawson.  During the same period he bought Lolo Hot Springs Ranch and became the proprietor of the Lolo Hot Springs Hotel until it burned in 1900. Eventually he established headquarters in Wallace, Idaho, a wild and woolly mining town, where he ran a hotel, brothel and a vaudeville house.

Billy grew to be very successful, investing and expanding, and acquiring interests in various enterprises. The W.A. Simons Amusement Company eventually owned scores of theaters across the northwest from Miles City, Montana to Spokane, Washington and in Alaska, a number of ranches including Lolo Hot Springs, and an 8% interest in Daly’s Meats of Missoula.

In 1919, Billy was visiting MIssoula when he saw Edna Wilma perform.  A lovely 24-year-old light opera singer who rode the circuit with sister Edith, Edna captured Billy’s heart and the couple was soon married in Portland, Oregon. They settled for a time in Simons’ Grand Hotel in Wallace where they ran the Masonic Opera House and Simons Amusement Company.

In 1920, Billy entered a partnership with one Colonel Smead and together they financed, drew up the plans for and began construction on the Smead-Simons Building, next to the Clark Fork River in downtown Missoula.  At some point during the construction, Edna Wilma Simons got into a quarrel with Smead (it is said he made a pass at her) and told Billy either Smead had to go or she would.  So, Billy bought Smead out and the structure was renamed The Wilma Building.  Upon its completion in January of 1921, Billy and Edna established residence in Missoula, occupying rooms on the 5th floor of the Wilma Building, and operating the Wilma Theater and other enterprises from offices there.

In the 1930s, Billy suffered a stroke.  It was believed that the sulphurous waters of Lolo Hot Springs would help heal him, so Edna frequently drove him over rough road by horse and wagon to their cabin where he could soak in the warm water that was piped directly from the springs.  The trip required 27 crossings of Lolo Creek.

Billy Simons died in 1937, leaving all his property and the W.A. Simons Amusement Company to Edna Wilma Simons.

— Special thanks to David Keith for providing information on this important figure in Missoula history about whom very little has been written.

The Chapel of the Dove (1982-1993)

Chapel of the Dove in 1988.  Click on image to be taked to article about the Chapel.

Chapel of the Dove in 1988.    Click on image for an article about the Chapel in Box Office magazine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Designed and created by Edward Sharp, proprietor of the Wilma Theater, The Chapel of the Dove, located in the basement of the Wilma Building, was the third theater in the structure and a monument to Mr. Sharp’s beloved pigeon, Korro Hatto, who could often be seen perched upon Eddie’s shoulder as he took sold tickets and refreshments at the entrance.  Films were regularly shown in this dazzlingly eclectic space, and it could be rented for weddings or other occasions as well. After Mr. Sharp passed away, the Chapel was razed and a conventional two screen theater installed. Now, the space is occupied by a restaurant, and the grand altar piece resides at Rockin’ Rudy’s.

Edward “Eddie” Sharp (1916-1993)

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Eddie Sharp with Koro Hatto circa 1988.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edward Sharp met Edna Wilma Simons, widow of Wild Billy Simons, just prior to WWII and corresponded by letter with her while he was serving in the Navy during the war. They were married in 1950.  Upon her passing in 1954, Eddie inherited controlling interest in the W.A. Simons Amusement Co., which owned the Wilma Theater.  Thereafter, he and partner Bob Sias ran the Simons empire which included the Roxy Theater, Eddie and Bob’s Go West Drive-in, several other theaters in Montana and Idaho, as well as the Wilma Theater until Eddie’s death in 1993.

Every year on the anniversary of Edna’s passing Eddie would lock himself in his apartment for several days remembering and mourning, admitting no one. He maintained a gas flame at Edna’s grave in the city cemetery, and a heated glass box set in her burial stone stocked with fresh flowers year round. There were rumours that a condition of her will was that he was to visit the grave weekly in order to keep the inheritance but, according to David Keith, Eddie’s assistant during the ’80s and up until his death, these stories were not true.

Besides his devotion to Edna, Eddie was known for his love of animals, particularly doves and pigeons.  Much to the chagrin of some other downtown businesses, he fed and maintained a huge flock of pigeons that could be seen flying about the Wilma Building and landing on its roof for their meals.  One could look up while crossing the Higgins Bridge and see a cage-like structure in one window of Eddie’s apartment which allowed the pigeons access to his rooms. Eddie’s constant companion was Korro Hatto (pictured with Eddie above), who sat on his shoulder whilst Eddie took tickets and served refreshments at both the Go West and the Chapel of the Dove.

Eddie, Koro Hatto (d. 1989) and Bob Sias (1921-1999) are interred together in the Missoula City Cemetery.  The burial plot also contains the graves of Billy Simons (1864-1937), Edna Wilma (1895-1954), and her sister, Edith (Sid) Wilma (1887-1932).

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Simons / Sharp burial plot

A River Ran By It

Prior to 1962, a channel of the Clark Fork River ran by the base of the Wilma Building.   It is rumored residents of buildings backing on the channel used it as a garbage disposal. Although we assume residents of the Wilma were a cut above, this was a time before environmental awareness.  Certainly, newspaper, rinds and coffee grounds raining down from the 8th floor would have made quite a sight.

1941 aerial photo of downtown Missoula showing the Clark Fork running in two channels

1941 aerial photo of downtown Missoula showing the Clark Fork running in two channels. The Wilma Building can be seen along the bank just about dead center in the image.

 

May 12, 1969: Explosion Rocks the Wilma

 

The Missoulian May 13, 1969


 

The Missoulan May 14, 1969

The last sentence reads, “Police have the metal and are investigating the incident.”   Evidently, the perps were never apprehended.  We hope the Wilma’s insurance covered those 47 broken windows.

It is interesting to note that in 1969, these explosions merited only two short items on the Missoulian’s second page, the second humorously characterized.  One can just imagine the panic, pandemonium and ongoing local, state and federal investigations that would result today should a similar event occur.

Out thanks to J. F. McDonough for this contribution.

Edna Wilma Simons Sharp (1895-1954)

This portrait was painted in 1919.

Edna Wilma was born in Collinsville, Kentucky in 1895. She began her career as a light opera singer in Kentucky. Around 1910, she and her sister Edith (Sid) started touring together. The Wilma Sisters were a hit, earning top billing on the Vaudeville circuit. They were a common act at the Tavern Cafe in Missoula, performing a variety of light operas, musical comedies and folklore. Later, Wilma started a solo career, starring in Wild West shows across the northwestern United States. She met her first husband, William A. (Wild Billy) Simons, while performing in one of his shows in Idaho. The couple married in 1921, just after Simons had completed construction of his newest Montana theater. Formerly called the Snead-Simons building, he re-named it The Wilma after his bride.

Following the wedding, the Simons traveled the Northwest, putting on Wild West shows as a way to bring a rugged Montana culture to the cities of Idaho and Oregon. They built a home in Wallace, Idaho. However after Billy suffered a stroke they maintained two residences in Montana, a large apartment in the Wilma Building in Missoula and a cabin at Lolo Hot Springs. They would travel to the latter from Missoula by horse and wagon. This voyage required them to cross Lolo Creek some 27 times. Edna took Billy there for the warm sulpher springs water that was believed to help with stroke related injuries.

After Billy’s death in 1937, Edna Wilma Simons became president and treasurer of the William A. Simons Amusement Co. At the time, the company included a chain of thirty one theaters across Montana, Idaho and Alaska. For the sum of $150,000, Edna Wilma Simons constructed a large theater in Wallace, Idaho that she dedicated to William A. Simons’ memory. She persevered and thrived through the depression and war years, building a total of nine new theaters. A shrewd businesswoman, she also purchased a small interest in the Daily Meat Co., as well as several ranches where she raised livestock.

On November 3, 1950, Edna was re-married, to handsome navy veteran, Edward Sharp, 21 years her junior, in New York City’s historic Little Church Around The Corner. Together they maintained the W.A. Simons Amusement Company until her death in 1954. While managing her business ventures, she continued singing and performing, holding large parties and events in the spacious dining room of the Wilma. Eddie and Edna shared a love of music, as he was a pianist and vocalist. They made several recordings together (preserved by David B. Keith). The couple traveled around New York to gather decoration ideas for remodeling the Wilma Theatre. The Chapel of the Dove, created by Eddie in 1982 in the basement of the Wilma, was a mirror image of the chapel where their wedding had taken place.

Near the end of her life, Edna Wilma Simons Sharp still was an active member of the community, volunteering for Red Cross, staying an avid member of the Episcopal Church and serving on numerous bond and relief drives. She died in her bed in the arms of Edward on July 25, 1954, leaving the business to Sharp and hefty contributions to the Shodair Children’s Hospital in Helena, Montana.

Edna’s Memorial

Edna's Marker

For many years, Eddie Sharp, Edna Wilma’s second husband, maintained a heated glass case atop her headstone in the Missoula Cemetery.   Fresh flowers were placed inside year round.    The marker, without flowers since his death, is clearly in need of attention.   We hope to have it cleaned this spring.

In Honour of Edward and Edna Wilma Simons Sharp

Strange to begin this blog on the Ides of March!  But that is the way it happened to work out and perhaps appropriately, for there are many stories about Missoula and her denizens that do truly surprise.  These stories today remain largely obscure, and so we hope this space may provide a more permanent, ongoing record of the fascinating people and tales Missoula history has to offer.  Which brings me to the people we honor today.

Edna Wilma head oval crop

Edna WIlma Simons Sharp

Eddie Sharp head oval crop

Edward Sharp

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edna WIlma, for whom vaudeville entrepreneur husband Billy Simons built the Wilma Theater, and her second husband Edward “Eddie” Sharp, who some may recall as the affable man with a pigeon on his shoulder taking tickets at the WIlma Theater of the Dove, are perhaps two of the most interesting figures of Missoula’s not-so-distant past.  Seldom mentioned in celebrations of Missoula’s history, even bypassed in Missoula’s annual graveyard walk, they seem to have slipped into obscurity.  Such an egregious ellipsis must be rectified, and so we hereby pay tribute to these erstwhile proprietors of Missoula’s premier theater today, with the creation and naming of this website.

We welcome any comments, stories and other submissions relevant to the purposes of this site.