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Theatre History

From 1912 to 1921, Butte, Montana was booming. World War I had created a worldwide hunger for the strategic metal copper (every bullet and every bomb needed copper sheathing), and when the war was over, the “Richest Hill on Earth” produced even more copper to satisfy the national demand for wires to carry electricity to every corner of the country. The city’s population approached 100,000 and money was everywhere on the Butte Hill.

The six-story YMCA was built in 1915 with donated funds. W.A. Clark had finished the beautiful Columbia Gardens as a playground for Butte’s children, the Catholic community had completed the magnificent Knights of Columbus Hall, with a gymnasium and indoor swimming pool. Not to be outdone by their Catholic friends, in 1923 the Masonic Bodies built their own six-story Masonic Temple and an adjoining 1,200-seat ornate Temple Theatre in which to conduct their ceremonial services. The building housed two other ceremonial halls and spacious business offices.

All of these great additions to the quality of life in Butte were funded by private donations. There were no government funds, special levies or federal grants.

With the advent of the Great Depression a decade later, the Masons found it necessary to develop income from their buildings to aid in support and upkeep. The Temple Theatre was converted into a movie house and leased to various operators. Later, 20th Century Fox leased movie houses across the country to assure the company a venue for product. Thus the Temple Theatre became the Fox Theatre. However, it was still used for occasional live performances.

Many years later, the decline of the movie industry and steadily increasing taxation took their toll on funds available for the Fox Theatre’s upkeep. Necessary repairs were treated with bandaid therapy. Butte’s other theatres were abandoned, and the town’s reputation as a stop for top actors, singers and musicians was eroding.

In the late 1980s, the only other theatre remaining in Butte, the Montana, was condemned and razed. This event brought the focus of the citizenry to the Fox. Its restoration was chosen as the number two “Project of the Nineties,” second only to the reconstruction of the Butte water system. A group of citizens formed a nonprofit corporation, The Butte Center for the Performing Arts, whose purpose would be to fundraise for the theatre’s restoration and to supervise the work. The Masons generously donated the building to the city, and the Butte Center for the Performing Arts leases the building from the city.

The nonprofit corporation was successful in raising over $3 million for a new roof, exterior cleanup, seat reconstruction and upholstery, lobby and restroom reconstruction, furnace systems, plumbing and re-wiring, light and sound systems, grid work, stage flooring, grand drape and legs, intercom systems, marquee and all other work necessary to make the theatre viable as a first class performance hall. The work was completed in 1996.

The reconstructed theatre was named Mother Lode to reflect Butte’s mining heritage as the “Richest Hill on Earth.”

In 1997, $500,000 from a bequest of the Busch sisters of Butte, maiden ladies (a school teacher and a cleric), created sufficient funding to build a lower level 106-seat children’s theatre, Orphan Girl Theatre, named for one of Butte’s early mines. The programs of the Orphan Girl have been recognized nationally.

Theatre Today

The Mother Lode is home to the Mother Lode Series and a venue for the Butte Community Concert, Butte Symphony, Montana Repertory Theatre, Orphan Girl Children’s Theatre and numerous events staged by local organizations such as Dynamic Dance, Montana Dance Works, and many other performances from across the state and nation.

The Orphan Girl Children’s Theatre operates separately from the Mother Lode to provide theatre productions, camps, and coaching for community youth.