Art House Cinema & Pub hosts sneak preview

A select group of friends and financial supporters got a sneak preview of the Art House Cinema & Pub in downtown Billings Friday night.

Treated to beer, wine and snacks, 35 or 40 people settled into theater seats and watched a selection of Academy Award-nominated animated shorts, then heard an update and a profusion of thanks from Matt Blakeslee, CEO of the nonprofit venture.

“My whole passion for this is that it would be a community-driven thing … people who believe in this and believe in this city,” Blakeslee said.

The event Friday, and a similar one planned for Saturday evening, was organized as a way of thanking people whose help led to the opening of the pub and theater at 109 N. 30th St.

It will officially open to the public on Saturday, March 14, with a free open house from noon to 10 p.m., an event that will include screenings of trailers of all the independent films that will be shown there over the next few months. The first movies will be screened on Wednesday, March 18.

Blakeslee told his guests Friday that the estimated cost of converting the old Center Lanes bowling alley into the pub theater had been pegged at $220,000. Thanks to donated labor, he said, the final cost was only $120,000.

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Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Kate and Matt Blakeslee, sitting at the bar of the new theater and pub.

A few gaps need to be filled, Blakeslee said, but thanks to loans, donations and an Indigogo campaign, the fundraising is nearly over. For now, Ryan Kabeary, the manager, is the only paid employee.

Blakeslee, who left his 10-year job with Faith Chapel in 2013 to work on the Art House Cinema & Pub, said he might start drawing a part-time paycheck in a few months, if all goes well. He said he has the luxury of waiting because his wife, Kate, is a physician’s assistant at Billings Clinic.

The theater is also hoping to staff the operation with volunteers for the first few months.

The manager originally was going to be Grant Jones, who was also doing some part-time handyman work with Ryan Kabeary. But then Grant decided he wanted to spend more time on his music and songwriting, which would have been difficult if he was running the theater.

Over time, Jones, Kabeary and Blakeslee figured out a solution: Jones would take over Kabeary’s handyman business and Kabeary would become the new theater manager. Kabeary said the plan fell into place over the course of numerous conversations.

“There wasn’t any reason for not going forward with it,” he said.

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Kabeary will select movies, take tickets and help with concessions. Jones, for his part, continued to work every night this week during the last scramble to get the theater ready for the sneak previews on Friday and Saturday. After all that work, he was enjoying himself Friday night.

“You don’t have the obligation but you have the excitement,” Jones said. “I think it ended up being amazing.”

Blakeslee also gave thanks to architect Dennis Deppmeier, who helped select the building and did the design.

“We spent months looking at almost every building in downtown Billings,” Blakeslee said.

The Center Lanes building was built in 1940 and first housed an auto dealer. The original terrazzo floors are still in great condition.

Other crucial remodeling help was provided by Luke Larson, Eric Logan and Steve Hovis, who Blakeslee said became almost a “secondary architect” as he suggested solutions to problems encountered during the renovation.

Hovis said he was originally brought in to fix some broken tiles and ended up working on almost every aspect of the remodeling. Kelly Olp helped put in the sound system, which was satisfying work.

“I’ve done a lot of sound system installation in my time,” he said, “but doing it for these guys? It was really fun. It’s community.”

menu

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Now, there’s a menu you won’t see at Carmike.

On opening night, March 18, the featured film will be “A Most Violent Year,” a crime drama set in 1981 New York, and the second will be “Red Army,” a documentary about the Soviet Union’s Cold War-era domination of world hockey.

“A Most Violent Year” will be shown at 3:30 and 8 or 8:30 p.m., with “Red Army” screening at 5:30 or 6. Figuring out the exact schedule is one of the many bits of fine-tuning that remain to be done.

That will be the plan in the future, to have a main feature shown twice a day with a second film in the middle, Wednesday through Saturday. The screening room has 52 theater seats salvaged from the Paragon Theatre in Denver, plus 12 bar stools.

For now, there is just the one screening room, which also houses the bar serving wine, beer, popcorn and a few other treats. The beers are all brewed locally, with selections from Angry Hank’s, Carter’s Yellowstone Valley and Uberbrew on tap so far.

Blakeslee said they have the option of also leasing out the much larger back room, where the bowling lanes used to be, if warranted. If that happens, he said, they would build two more auditoriums, one seating about 200 people and two seating 50 to 70. The front room would then become the lobby and a performing space for music or other cultural offerings. But that is two to five years away and might not happen at all.

“We’re not trying to take over the world,” he said. “If this”—gesturing around at the existing space—“is everything we want it to be, we don’t want to bite off more than we can chew.”

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