The Wilma Theater in Missoula, Montana, has its charms, but has seen better days. It’s a near century-old ornate opera house recalling a time in western history when a mining town or railroad terminus sought to shake off the dusty grit of its frontier roots and bring some culture to the place. A real estate entrepreneur named William “Billy” Simons built it in 1921, and named it after his wife Edna Wilma, a light opera singer of the day. Today its paint-peeled and darkly-venerable interior hosts everything from ballet to ear-splitting rock-and-roll shows. I saw the psychedelic bluegrassers “The Yonder Mountain String Band” (along with its fascinating cult following--more later) there on a recent chilly Saturday night. On such a night the Wilma becomes Missoula’s version of the Fillmore East.
Missoula itself (metro pop. 110,000) is the principal city of western Montana. It is the home of the University of Montana (UM), not to be confused with Montana State University (MSU) in Bozeman. The Garden City sits at the confluence of three rivers: the Clark Fork, the Bitterroot, and the Blackfoot -- the last figuring prominently in Norman Maclean’s novel A River Runs Through It, the bible of the religion of fly fishing.
It’s a city surrounded by mountains and huge tracts of public land: national forests, wilderness areas, and wildlife refuges. Heaven for hunters, fishermen, hikers, and other outdoor recreationists. Missoula is cobwebbed by bike paths. Culturally, it competes with Boulder, Colorado, for the title of Berkeley-of-the-Rockies. It’s a great place to observe loony leftism on display.
I attended the show with my old friend Happy Jack Feder (who else?) and two Missoula friends of his named Scott Reagan and Bill Reh. I got a good tour of downtown with the first two of this trio of old Missoula-hands on that blustery Saturday afternoon. The pretentious cultural zeitgeist of a leftwing college town never ceases to fascinate. We walked up and down Higgins Avenue, Missoula’s main drag, and took in the street scene, which included a couple of homeless guys and street musicians. After a long winter spent in conservative and boring Salmon, Idaho, an hour or two wandering through downtown Missoula is both instructive and amusing.
We passed the “Jeanette Rankin Peace Center” (named after the Montana Congresswoman and pacifist whose 1941 vote was the only one in the U.S. Congress to oppose entry into World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor), and noted that day’s event, the “Children of the Earth Tribe Song and Chant Circle,” designed “for all those ready to sing in honor of our connection to one another and the earth.” There was “Knitting for Peace” held at a little shop called “Joseph’s Coat,” a sign noting that “all knitters of all skill levels are welcome.” A flier-plastered bulletin board nearby told us that “sexual violence expert” Victoria Banyard was soon coming to the university to deliver a lecture titled “Sexual Assault as a Societal Problem in America,” this after a recent unfortunate spike of such felonious extracurricular activity on campus. There was an upcoming “Forward on Climate” rally advertised that coordinated with the “UM Climate Action Now” seminar on campus. And some folks named Cheyenne Rivers and Adam Borcherdt were hosting a “media presentation” about “Balanced View,” an organization promoting “an innovative model for global standardized education in the actual nature of the human intelligence.” There were “Family Fun Yoga” classes noted. We walked by the Missoula County Courthouse, and I was told that the bucolic grounds were clean because Occupy Missoula had disbanded after squatting (literally?) on the site through much of 2011 and 2012.
At the show in the cavernous Wilma that night, the opening act, a bluegrass band from Boston named “The Deadly Gentlemen,” were rather forgettable, but okay. Then the “Yonder Mountain String Band” (YMSB) came on (Jeff Austin-mandolin, Ben Kaufman-bass, Adam Aijala-guitar, Dave Johnston-banjo). This extremely talented quartet played two lively sets for a total of three hours, loud, and with an impressive light show. Lots of virtuosic improvisation. A fun jam-band evening.
The thousand or so people in attendance were mostly millennials (the 20-something demographic that went 65% for Obama in 2008, and slow to learn from their mistakes, 60% in 2012), and seemed to have inherited the hippie vibe from their Baby Boomer Deadhead parents. Happy Jack and I looked out over the crowd from the balcony and speculated that we were in the top one or two percent on the age scale. We picked out the few odd gray beards with platinum ponytails, but the Boomers present were in a distinct minority.
The kids were interesting. It was if the show were an exercise in nostalgia. Mom and Dad went to Woodstock or followed the Grateful Dead in the ’70s, and now the kids were trying to capture that sense of tribal idealism. They certainly dressed the part. I saw a guy in a clown suit sans makeup. One young woman sported bunny ears. Many of the gals were also fond of that sparkly-glittery facial makeup. Hair dyed the colors of the rainbow. Tie-dyed T-shirts for both sexes. One guy in a far corner of the balcony wore a long white caftan, sported dreadlocks, and atop his head was a visored naval officer cap with a gold anchor insignia. Happy Jack dubbed him “The Cosmic Commodore.”
The Cosmic Commodore was passing around a big joint among friends. The sweet stink of marijuana was, well, quite strong (for me, talk about nostalgia). Clouds of it drifted through the stage lights. The Wilma’s security guys regularly practiced a “do it outside, and then come back in” policy for the hand-stamped stoned masses. Between the two YMSB sets I went out onto Higgins Ave. to cool off, and the frigid sidewalk out front was crowded with 30-40 people all huddling in smaller groups and smoking dope. Montana is a medical marijuana state, and local law enforcement in Missoula seems to turn a blind eye at such events. I didn’t see a cop all night.
Meanwhile, Happy Jack borrowed (absconded with?) my digital camera, and -- always the auteur -- aimlessly wandered through the Wilma taking pictures and shooting a video. I only caught glimpses of him from the balcony during the YMSBs second set. At one point I spied him down on the dance floor hard against the stage videotaping the band and the sea of stoned heads bobbing around him in flashing pastel lights. “If he loses that camera I’ll never speak to him again,” I thought.
But he didn’t. And at the end of the show the house lights went up, and there he was with his back to the stage, smiling broadly and waving. As the kids milled around him on the sticky, beer can-strewn dance floor, he snapped a long distance shot of us leaning on the balcony railing. It was midnight in Missoula, Montana.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons