SINCE THE TRAINS FIRST ROLLED THROUGH HELENA, this town has been a regional center for performances of all kinds. Helena and Butte were lively railroad stops for the best of vaudeville entertainment traveling between Chicago and Seattle from the 1880’s to 1920’s. Through the early 1960’s several grand old vaudeville/movie houses hosted the best of national touring companies. For a small town in the Montana Rockies, Helena has always been a surprisingly cultured community.
RURAL MONTANA’S ONLY INDIE FILM HOUSE. In 1976 intrepid film lovers Arnie Malia and Alexandra Swaney, along with a partner, created the Helena Film Society to bring alternative cinema to our small city. They converted Blanche Judge’s dance studio, on the second floor of a historic downtown building, into Second Story Cinema—“where the movies were always great and the popcorn often burned.” Between films they hosted various community arts projects, live theatre, poetry, satirical revues, multimedia, and musical events.
Within a few years, Arnie began presenting innovative works by culturally diverse artists from around the nation. World-class artists started performing on Helena stages, carrying on Helena’s history as a cultural hotspot in the remote rural West.
WE TRANSFORMED THE HISTORIC COUNTY JAIL. By the late 1980s we needed a new home. When the 1894 Lewis and Clark County Jail closed, the entire Helena community helped transform the historic granite jailhouse into a vibrant arts center. They named the new center after actress Myrna Loy, who grew up down the street. Myrna Loy’s grace, wit, creative artistry, social activism, and humor inspires all of us at The Myrna Loy every day.
Myrna Loy’s grace, wit, creative artistry, social activism, and humor inspire all of us at The Myrna Loy every day.
Today The Myrna Loy is known nationwide as one of the most remarkable small arts organizations in the rural West. We provide arts education experiences to thousands of students each year; host special community recitals and workshops; provide grants to working Montana artists; celebrate and support Montana filmmakers, artists, musicians, and performers; and present world-class performances that otherwise might not be seen outside a major metropolitan area. And we still show two first-run films a night—many of them Oscar and Golden Globe winners.
BE PART OF THE STORY OF THE MYRNA LOY. Please join us for a film or performance tonight!
Montana’s First Lady of Film was born Myrna Williams, on August 2, 1905, in Radersburg, Montana, 40 miles southeast of Helena. Her father, David Williams, was the youngest person ever elected to the Montana State legislature.
At age seven, Myrna moved with her father, mother, and brother to Helena, where they lived on 5th Avenue, a few blocks from here. Myrna Williams made her stage debut at age twelve at Helena’s old Marlow Theater in a dance she choreographed, based on “The Blue Bird” from the Rose Dream Operatta.
At the age of 13, Myrna’s father died of influenza and the rest of the family moved to Los Angeles. She was educated in L.A. at the Westlake School for Girls, where she caught the acting bug. She started at the age of 15 when she appeared in local stage productions in order to help support her family. Some of the stage plays were held in the now famous Grauman’s Theater in Hollywood. Mrs. Rudolph Valentino happened to be in the audience one night. The rest, as they say, is Wikipedia.
In 1990, Second Story Cinema board chair Steve Browning and U.S. Senator Max Baucus visited Myrna Loy in her New York apartment to ask her permission to name a new arts center after her in Helena. They took a dozen roses and a box of Parrot chocolates. Ms. Loy not only graciously agreed—she bequeathed The Myrna Loy Center her name, use of her image, and her blessing.
On December 14, 1993, Myrna Loy passed away in New York City during surgery. By the time Myrna passed away at the age of 88, she had appeared in a phenomenal 129 motion pictures. She buried in Forestvale Cemetery here in Helena, under a simple stone block inscribed: WILLIAMS.