ENTER THE ELLEN and it is as if you are stepping back in time. The elaborate crown moldings, gilded plaster carvings and ornate light fixtures are a reflection of a bygone era, when playhouses were palaces and people gathered to be mesmerized by the magic of live theatre. Designed by renowned architect Fred Willson, The Ellen was built by the sons of Nelson Story, a founding father of Bozeman, and named for the family matriarch. That's certainly quite a present for mom.
OPENED IN 1919, when Bozeman boasted a population of nearly 6,000, The Ellen hosted variety shows, silent movies, school plays, town band performances and even an opera featuring a live elephant. Friday night with your favorite sweetheart, the Saturday wild west double feature and the Sunday family concert were staples of life at the historic downtown landmark.
OWNED BY THE RUSSELL FAMILY since the late 1920s, The Ellen became a favored stop on the vaudeville circuit and boasted a variety of stars including comics Gallagher and Shean (Al Shean was uncle to the Marx Brothers), Vivian Vance (Ethel from I Love Lucy), famous fan dancer Sally Rand and legendary ventriloquist Edgar Bergen along with his wise-cracking sidekick Charlie McCarthy.
LIKE A TRAGIC MELODRAMA, however, there was a cruel twist in the plot and The Ellen, along with other similar theatres across the country, suffered decades of disrepair. The world of TV, DVD rentals and video downloads by-passed Bozeman's magnificent monument to a bygone era and, sadly, the spotlight slowly faded. Fortunately, that is not where the story ends. Montana TheatreWorks, a local non-profit theatre group, established the goal of saving The Ellen and purchased the building in 2005. But the MTW story starts ten years earlier.
MONTANA THEATREWORKS was founded in 1995 with the goal of presenting quality theatrical productions to the Gallatin Valley. When the curtain went up on the maiden production of Damn Yankees, over 3,000 people attended. The following years saw equally successful productions of The Sound of Music, Oklahoma!, Annie, You Can’t Take it With You, and Oliver!, among many others, but none of these performances were at The Ellen. Utilizing school auditoriums, a restaurant, a church and even an old gymnasium for its productions, MTW was a theatre company in search of a home.
BY THIS TIME, The Ellen had been relegated to only showing movies by an out-of-state theatre chain. The current tenant was not interested in renewing the lease and the doors were about to be shut. Recognizing the historical significance of The Ellen and what an integral part it had played in Bozeman’s past, Montana TheatreWorks drafted a plan to return the theatre to a community performing arts space, and then launched a campaign to raise funds from local patrons to purchase and renovate the building.
WITH ENOUGH FOR A DOWN PAYMENT, Montana TheatreWorks borrowed $1.2 million to buy The Ellen and in April, 2008 began the monstrous task of renovation. After endless construction crews, volunteer hours, tons of elbow grease, polish and paint, The Ellen reopened her doors on December 4, 2008 and presented a production of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Over 6,000 people attended and Ellen was on her way to being, once again, a glorious showplace.
A GREAT DEAL OF SUCCESS for the fundraising goes to some very bighearted community members. Clyde Park rancher and former MTW board president Elise Donohue led the campaign, soon followed by Karen and Klein Gilhousen, with their generous contribution on behalf of the Gilhousen Family Foundation. The Taylor family, supporters of MTW from day one, also was gracious with a sizeable gift toward the restoration of the building.
WHEN IT CAME TIME to pay for the last of the work, Bill Martel, owner of Martel Construction who did a stellar job of overseeing the renovation, tore up the bill. Without Elise Donohue, the Gilhousens, the Taylors and Bill Martel, all extraordinary people, it's safe to say The Ellen could very well still be closed, demolished or turned into a retail store.
THE FIRST PHASE of the remodel is complete, but there is still much to do. While The Ellen continues to raise money for needed renovation, MTW promises to deliver the best in entertainment, from local performers to world-renowned talent. To date over 150,000 patrons have enjoyed a wide variety of programs, including comic Paula Poundstone, New York’s The Acting Company, music legends Arlo Guthrie and Judy Collins, The Paul Taylor Dance Company and Ed Asner performing in a one-man-show as FDR.
WHATEVER THE EVENT, The Ellen is sure to be a shining showcase for years to come. Stop in and pay her a visit. We hope that you'll agree, the ol' girl truly deserves a standing ovation.