The Bijou Theater


All the buildings here depicted (north side of the 100 block of W. Main) are gone now save for the white building at the far end of the block, now a bank. In their place is a city owned parking building built in the 1980s.

Unfortunately, we have not thus far been able to find a contemporaneous photo of the Bijou Theater.  (This picture appears to have been taken about 1950, long after the demise of the Bijou.)   The Bijou was located until at least 1921 at 110 W. Main, which is the white building just to the left of the “New Mint” bar in the photo above.

The Bijou, which showed motion pictures with live musical accompaniment, is notable for the fact that its owner was charged in 1909 with operating a theater on Sunday.  Found guilty in district court, the owner appealed, and in 1910 the Montana Supreme Court reversed his conviction.  The court held that, regardless of whether a movie house is referred to as a “theater”, the showing of a motion picture is not of the same class of performance as that sought to be prohibited by a statute barring theaters from opening on Sundays.  State v. Penny, 42 Mont. 118 (1910).  It is interesting to note that the court references in its opinion an advertisement for the Harnois Theater in the Missoulian wherein Charles Harnois states that “he was the proprietor of and had the only theater in Missoula.”

Here for your enjoyment and edification is an excerpt from the opinion, which contains graphic descriptions of the actions with which Mr. Penny was charged:

The Fox Theater (1949-1990)

The Fox Theatre opened on December 8th, 1949 with the movie “Everybody Does It”.  Designed by architect Charles D. Strong, the building was located at the corner of Front and Orange, just outside Missoula’s main business section. It was a deluxe first run house with many special features.

The stone brick and stainless steel facade was topped by a neon-lit tower with the name “Fox” in giant neon letters. Glass doors led into a lobby carpeted in green and red with indirect lighting.  Before reaching the foyer, patrons passed through a large outer lounge where striking metal refreshment stands were located. Illuminated animal murals adorned the back walls, while decoration in the 1050 seat auditorium had a Native American theme.

Fox Interior









Killed by the multiplex, the theater was demolished in 1990.   The Fox neon sign however could still be seen as recently as 2010 laying by the side of road at the bottom of Evaro Hill.


The Gem Theater Block (circa 1885 – 1955)

The Gem Theater Block was located at 124 West Front Street.  The block was actually an amalgam of two different brick structures.  A one-story adobe saloon had occupied the front of the lot since sometime prior to 1884.  During the mid-1880s, a two-story brick structure was built on the back of the lot to house the new “Variety Theater.”   Since a person entered the Variety through the saloon, it is reasonable to surmise the type of entertainment the Variety provided.  Indeed one can just imagine the fan-dancing peccadilloes that must have transpired in the dark recesses of that back room.

The old saloon was razed around 1890 and a new two-story addition to the theater was built facing Front Street.  According to one source, by 1893 the Variety Theater had closed and the whole building sat vacant.  A conflicting source (“Missoula, The Way It Was” by Lenora Koelbel) claims that by 1892 the theater was a dance hall/theater called “The Gem”, which burned that year. At any rate, by 1902, a saloon again inhabited the front of the building, but the theater apparently sat unused from around 1893 until sometime between 1902 and 1905, when the Gem Theater, a vaudeville house, was inaugurated. According to Koebel, Al Jolson while playing at the Wilma sometime during the 1920s reminisced about playing at an old honkytonk in Missoula, the Gem. It is unclear when the Gem Theater folded, but by 1912 the whole building appears to have been used as a saloon.

Then, sometime before 1921, the Gem Theater block was converted to use as a creamery. Garden City Dairies occupied the building for the next 30 years.

In the early 1950s, the Gem building was converted again, this time for use as a parking garage for the Florence Hotel.

Finally, in 1955, the building was razed to make way for the new Florence parking annex.

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The annex had car lifts to allow cars to be parked on the upper floor; hence the name – “Pigeon Hole.”   Pigeon Hole Parking was certainly a far cry from the glory days of the old theater, save perhaps for the name.


The Harnois Theater / Liberty Theater / Liberty Lanes (1909 – circa 1965)

Harnois Theater around 1910









A virtually lost piece of Missoula History was the Harnois Theater.  Located in what is now a parking lot in the 200 block of East Main, it was built in 1909 for local impressario, Charles Harnois.  Designed by architect A.J. Gibson with the interior décor completed by the Twin City Scenic Studio, Missoula’s premier opera house of the era was comprised of three floors with nine exits, seated up to 1200 people and housed a 58 feet wide, 35 feet deep and 65 feet high stage.

Unfortunately, the theater was built just as feature length movies were about to hit the country. Mr. Harnois soon realized Missoula’s taste for this new entertainment would eclipse its desire for vaudeville and light opera, and therefore sold out in 1914.  The new owners changed the name to the Missoula Theater and, by the early 1920s the building, now a well established movie house, had been renamed the Liberty Theater.  By the early 1940s, the theater had closed and the Harnois was converted to Liberty Lanes, a bowling alley.  When Liberty Lanes moved to new quarters in the 1960s, the building was razed.

A curious side note: the theater was tangentially involved in an important piece of the history of the struggle for civil liberties.  Shortly after it opened, Harnois rented the basement to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Jack Jones of the IWW (the Wobblies).  From there, Flynn and Jones orchestrated the IWW’s first free-speech battle using non-violent civil disobedience.

The city had passed an ordinance disallowing the IWW from broadcasting its positions to the public through the mouths of streetcorner soapbox speakers. Accordingly, hundreds of supporters from across the northwest were called upon to ride the rails to Missoula to exercise their right to speak publicly.  So many came to speak and be arrested that the city and county jails were clogged for weeks.  The city’s resources stretched to the breaking point, it finally had to back down and repeal the ordinance.

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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.