By Brad Reynolds
In the fall of 1933, a temporary metropolis unfolded in northeast Montana. Unlike the boomtowns of the century prior, men came clamoring not for gold but for government-subsidized jobs. FDR’s New Deal had provided a path forward for unemployed Americans, and of the many construction projects sanctioned by the program, Fort Peck Dam was among the most substantial. By 1936, upwards of 10,000 workers and their families inhabited the area.
When the dam opened in 1940, that number quickly began to decline.
By 1970, the Army Corps of Engineers—the agency that literally built the town—was ready to pull out entirely.
“The Army Corps of Engineers owned all of the buildings,” explains Patt Etchart, a community arts advocate and Valley County local. “In time, it became obvious that the government wanted to sell the town. They didn’t want to maintain it.”
Among the domiciles and other structures that the government was prepared to let go was the Fort Peck Theatre. Built in 1934, the theatre was intended to be a temporary complex—a 24-hour movie house to serve the community until the dam’s completion. As the building began to fall into disrepair, a group was formed to save, restore, and refocus it. The Fort Peck Fine Arts Council began renting it as a live performing playhouse in 1970, and in 1987, they bought it outright.
“It’s a cool, unique building that the council wanted to save for posterity’s sake but also for the purposes of a performing arts venue,” says Patt, who has served on the Fine Arts Council for over 25 years. “Glasgow and Fort Peck—it’s a very rural area. There weren’t a lot of opportunities for theatre. This has allowed us to support theatre and raise kids in it.”
Patt’s daughter, Christen Etchart, certainly appreciates the opportunities the Fort Peck Theatre has afforded her. She got hooked on drama at age eight, playing a munchkin in the theatre’s production of The Wizard of Oz.
“It was a professional summer stock theatre where community members could audition,” she explains. “I got to act under these cool adults. I thought these people were the sun and the moon.”
Christen performed every summer at the playhouse until she left for college, where she earned a degree in acting and directing. She spent the next several years building her résumé before returning home to the place that first sparked her passion for theatre.
“Although it’s technically a professional theatre, the Fort Peck Theatre runs like a community theatre. Everything is built in house. The people on stage are the ones who brought it to life behind the scenes as well. It’s all hands on deck,” says Christen. “That’s what makes it so magical; we build something out of nothing every summer.”
Over the years, the Fine Arts Council has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to sustain the Fort Peck Theatre’s vitality. The incredible playhouse is a treasure in itself, and its talent is similarly impressive.
“Our artistic director, Andy Myers, brings in Broadway-caliber talent from all over the country,” says Christen. “We have a population of 200-something, but every summer we have a show or two that sells out. It’s a 1,000-seat theatre.”
Seventy percent of Fort Peck Theatre’s visitors come from outside Valley County. License plates from across Montana are represented in the parking lot. Tour buses shuttle people in from Canada and Williston. The playhouse’s reputation precedes it.
On June 28-30, 2019, the Fort Peck Theatre will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a reunion. Christen, who serves as the reunion coordinator, says they’re planning for a full weekend of festivities that will honor the playhouse’s history. Paid company members from throughout the years have been invited to attend (and perform) at this celebration, and the theatre anticipates that its production of Mama Mia (showing throughout the weekend) will pack the house.
“The Fort Peck Theatre is a cultural gem,” says Christen. “To have let it go would have been a travesty.”
“What it has to offer our area and the people that live here is incredible,” says Patt.