On a Saturday evening in April of 1989, Helenans gathered at the Montana Club for a gala event kicking off a fundraising drive which would convert the then vacant 1891 Lewis and Clark County jail into the Myrna Loy Center for the Performing Acts. Over the next two years, more than $1.5 million would be raised to repurpose the historic jail into a state-of-the-art venue for cinema and the performing arts which honors one of Helena's most famous citizens – Myrna Loy.
The saga of the Myrna Loy Center is unique. The successful conversion of the historic jail into the arts center would become a sterling example of historic preservation and building repurposing. Over the decades, fire and earthquake destroyed a number of lavish and unusual historic buildings in Helena's central business district and within the city's Westside “mansion district”. More than 240 structures in the downtown area were lost to Urban Renewal in the 1970s alone. Saving the jail was the brainchild of two unlikely characters: Arnie Malina and Steve Browning. Both were transplanted Montanans – one from New York and the other a Hoosier from Indiana. Arnie Malina arrived in Helena in 1973 and within two years had founded the Helena Film Society, the Second Story Cinema, and eventually planted the seeds for converting the century old jail into an arts center. Malina would become the Myrna Loy Center's first managing director.
Steve Browning moved to Helena in 1982 and opened a law practice. Over the next 30 years, he became an ardent community activist. His work included helping to found the Montana Community Foundation and the Helena Area Community Foundation. Browning was the driving force behind the multi-year fund raising effort that led to the creation of the performing arts center.
History of the Jail
In September 1890, the Helena Daily Herald announced at the November election that Lewis and Clark County voters would be asked whether the County should build a new $60,000 jail. The results of the election were, as recorded by the Board of Canvassers, 2,715 for the new jail to 631 against construction of the new facility. Five bids for construction of the new jail were opened on April 23, 1891 with R. A. Bell and Company, agents for the Detroit Safe and Lock Company, winning the contract with the lowest bid of $43,495. Both the recently completed County Courthouse and the jail were constructed of “Ten Mile” granite from a local quarry and were impressive additions to the capital city landscape. The jail proved to be a good investment, serving as the county jail for nearly a century.
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Naming and Construction of the Myrna Loy Center
Naming the historic jail the Myrna Loy Center for the Performing Arts was an integral facet of the fundraising effort. One of the first issues which confronted the Board of Directors of the Helena Film Society was: what to call the new performing arts center? One couldn't continue to refer to it as the “Old Jail;” this was not a name which would encourage prospective donors to contribute to the cause. Following a number of naming sessions, the Board came up with the idea of naming the new arts center for Myrna Loy, a world renowned movie actress who had grown up in the Helena area and had kept an association with Helena after leaving for Hollywood in the 1920s. The Board decided to see if Miss Loy would be interested in lending her name to the refurbished building and asked Browning to go to her home in New York City and request permission to use her name. After weeks of arrangements, correspondence and telephone calls, Browning knocked on Miss Loy's Upper East Side Penthouse door with flowers and a box of Parrot candy in hand. She began by reminiscing about her early childhood experiences in Helena including her appearances at Helena's Marlow Theater (long since lost to the Urban Renewal wrecking ball). She said her interest in theater and the arts began in Helena with her mother's encouragement. His conversation with Miss Loy was a success. By the end of Browning's visit, she agreed to lend her name. Naming the proposed performing arts center for her was a fitting tribute to her extraordinary motion picture career of more than 50 years.
Construction of the New Arts Center
It was cold and snowy on Friday December 1, 1989 when construction crews arrived to begin the renovation which would turn the county jail into the Myrna Loy Center for the Performing Arts. Workers began by removing old jail cells and taking down a portion of a back wall to make way for the Center's expansion. As construction began, nearly $600,000 had been raised from Montana, and over $800,000 had come from out-of-state sources including national corporations, foundations and fans of Myrna Loy from across the county, including a $5 check from an 80-year-old movie-goer from Mississippi. The transformation of the historic Lewis and Clark County Jail into the Myrna Loy Center for the Performing Arts was completed in the fall of 1991. The former cell block became a comfortable 250 seat auditorium and the new home of the Second Story Cinema with seating for up to 150 movie-goers.
By any measure, the transformation of the old county jail was a success story. Saving old obsolete buildings isn't for the faint of heart. It isn't easy. The Helena community is indebted to two individuals who came to live in Helena by choice. They had the insight to see the old jail was worth saving and could be put to a new and beneficial use. Above all, they took the initiative and worked hard to make the Myrna Loy Center for the Performing Arts a reality. Arnie Malina and Steve Browning improved the cultural opportunities Helena has to offer. By transforming a tired old building, they gave a vibrant future to a part of Helena's past. And that's no small accomplishment. See you soon at a coming attraction at the Myrna Loy.
Mike Shields is a retiree and the chair of the Lewis and Clark Heritage Tourism Council, which provides the monthly "Nuggets from Helena" column in the Independent Record.