Monday, August 25, 2014

W. A. Clark Theater

When W. A. Clark died in 1925, he was one of the fifty richest men in the United States. His wealth endowed the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library at the University of California, the School of Law at the University of Virginia, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. In Montana where he made most of his fortune, Clark built Columbia Gardens—a state-of-the-art amusement park—in 1899. Built for the people of Butte with uncharacteristic generosity, the park promoted Clark’s political ambitions. What little else of Clark’s vast fortune that came back to Montana went to the prison at Deer Lodge. He endowed the prison library and band in exchange for convict labor for his ranches and mines. Warden Frank Conley cultivated Clark’s friendship and that of his son. It paid high dividends. In 1919, the younger Clark gave the prison $10,000 for the construction of the W. A. Clark Theatre.

The W. A. Clark Theater opened in 1920 and was the first theater in the United States to be built inside a prison.
J. M Cooper photograph from Baumler and Cooper, Dark Spaces.
Clark’s state-of-the-art theatre was the first constructed within a prison in the United States. James McCalman—veteran builder of the prison wall and cell blocks—designed the building and oversaw the inmate laborers. Completed in 1920, the building’s white facade of brick and simulated stone was strikingly out of character within the prison yard. There was seating for one thousand in leather-covered seats and an ample stage and orchestra pit that could accommodate the most elaborate productions. The formal opening was on March 21, 1920, included a matinee for the male inmates and then an evening show for the public and women inmates. The traveling cast of the musical comedy My Sunshine Lady, starring Gudrun Walberg, brought down the house.

The theater included seating for one thousand, art painted by inmates, an orchestra pit, and a state-of-the-art projector system for moving pictures. Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives.
Warden Conley’s pride was short lived. Governor Joseph Dixon removed him as warden and ended his career. The theater served inmates and the community until 1975 when arson left it a burned out shell. The inmates responsible were never identified.

No comments:

Post a Comment