His father built the theater, he brought it back to life
By Tim Leeds
The Hi-Line Theatre in Rudyard, closed since Sept. 1, 2001, will reopen at the end of this month under new ownership. Or, rather, under its original ownership.
Willard "Gus" and Ophelia Gustafson will reopen the theater on Sept. 28. Gus' father, Albin Gustafson, originally opened its doors on Dec. 15, 1949.
Asthma had made farming impossible for Albin so he sold the farm, took out a loan and built the theater, Gus said.
"It was built when I was 9, so I was raised in here," Gus said.
He used to sweep the floor, and would snack on popcorn and pop in the lobby once he was done.
The cost of admission was 60 cents for adults, 50 cents for high school students and 40 cents for children. Popcorn and pop were 10 cents, and candy was a nickel.
Gus' father repaid the loan in one year, Ophelia said.
"That's a lot of tickets," she added.
Albin sold the business to Chuck Cross in the spring of 1966, and Cross sold it to Carey and Ann Warren in 1991.
Once their oldest daughter started high school, Ann Warren said, she and Carey decided they couldn't support the activities of a child in high school and another in junior high while running the theater, so they decided to close it.
"We just decided family came first," she said.
The Warrens put the theater up for sale, but couldn't find a buyer.
"Then Gus saw it one day and, boom, it was sold," she said.
After spending 27 years as a pilot, Gus retired in 1996 and he and Ophelia moved from Kalispell to his hometown of Rudyard. Buying the theater was not on their mind at the time.
Then one day their friend Ellsworth Graff had some news for Gus.
"He says, Willard, I see the Hi-Line Theatre is for sale.' I said, "Really?'" Gus said.
After talking it over for a while, he and Ophelia decided to get the business back into the family.
"You get kind of bored sometime with doing nothing," he said.
Ann said she is very happy with the sale. The Gustafsons are doing a good job renovating the building, putting their own touches and personality on it, she said. And they are providing a service to the community.
"I think it's something our community would really miss, especially the teenagers," she said.
The Gustafsons are restoring the theater to close to its original design.
"We're kind of going with the old-style look," Gus said.
Also, the original 1948 or 1948 Manley popcorn machine is repaired and functioning, and they plan to use the original butter dispenser, Ophelia said.
"It's an antique, but we hope to put it back in service," she said.
The interior walls have been repainted, the floor recarpeted, and stains from a water leak have been painted over on the ceiling. The bathrooms upstairs, one for "Actresses" and one for "Actors," are redecorated. More work is on the way.
Upstairs windows that were boarded up eventually will be reopened, probably next spring. That will give a little more light and ventilation, Gus said.
The exterior of the theater will be repainted soon. That work was delayed because the painter needed to harvest.
They also plan to restore the original L-shaped lighted sign, which is now mounted on a building at the Depot Museum in Rudyard.
"It was a classy sign," Gus said.
Roland Ritter, who did bricklaying in the original construction of the building, said restoring the sign is a good idea.
"It was very visible. It was eye-catching," he said.
The original V-shaped marque, which extended over the sidewalk, will also be replaced eventually, Gus said.
The Gustafsons plan to reopen the upstairs "cry room," now used for storage, where people would bring their boisterous children, Ophelia said. They are considering using it as a private box that people can hire to see the shows.
It will be too expensive to get movies as soon as they are released, Gus said. They should be able to have them in Rudyard within three weeks of their release. The Gustafsons also plan to bring some classics back.
"We've already had a whole list of requisitions," Ophelia added.
Ray Ramberg and his son, Zach, have been doing electrical restoration work in the theater. They also have come full circle in ownership. Ray's father, Harold Ramberg, bought Albin's farm in 1949. He sold it to the Lineweaver family, but Ray has bought it back.
Zach, a Blue Sky High School student, has requested the first movie to be shown Mike Myers' "Austin Powers in Goldmember."
"We're going to honor his request, since he did so much work," Ophelia said.
Another person with a special request in is Bobby Toner, owner of Toner's Tire-Rama, who was crowned as Rudyard's new "Old Sore Head" in July.
"(He's) already got his $2 in for some buttered popcorn," Gus said.