VIRGINIA CITY – The Virginia City Players are rejuvenating their show at the Opera House this summer, beginning their 62nd season by bringing in fresh new talent and giving the old theatre a major facelift thanks to artistic director Bill Koch.
Koch returns to Virginia City to manage the acting company after being away for 20 years. From 1985 to 1987 he worked as manager for the Virginia City Players, and from 1988 to 1992 he served as artistic director for both the Players and the Brewery Follies.
Koch was initially drawn back to the acting company in 2009, when he came to Virginia City to attend the 60th anniversary reunion. His plan was to come for one night to take in a show, but he enjoyed himself so much he stayed for four days. He returned for the 2010 summer to work as an actor and technical director for the company. It was here that producer John Benedict, who had been involved with the acting company over the years, approached Koch about coming back to run the theatre.
What stuck out the most to Koch in 2010 was the noticeable decline in performances since the days when he ran the show. He was disheartened by the minimal attendance at each night’s performance.
“When I came back, we were lucky if we had 20 people in the audience,” Koch said.
“I saw so many discrepancies on how it used to run,” he continued. “The shows were not of a quality that I felt was drawing an audience in.”
Last year Koch stepped aside from the Players, waiting for the theatres’ contract with Rocky Mountain College to expire. But by that time the tracks were already laid, and in February of this year Koch and fiancée Christina Uhl partnered with John and Micki Benedict to negotiate a three-year contract with the Montana Heritage Commissions business manager Elijah Allen. Since then Koch has been busily working away in preparation for this season.
“The commission has been very, very supportive,” Koch said. “They are really looking at this from commerce frame of mind.”
Koch says the goal all along has been to get the Opera House back to what it was during its glory days, when it was a featured attraction for people across southwest Montana. When the 244-seat venue averaged 186 guests per night for the entire summer, he said.
“When we get those numbers up at the Opera House, then people are going to be here in town staying at the hotels, going to the restaurants, going to bars, riding the train and going to the museums.”
This years theater line up has already kicked off with an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” showing at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday through July 8, with 2 p.m. matinees showing Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Koch says the first dozen performances have already received “glowing” reviews.
“They love having the format back the way I used to run it 20 years ago, and they love the quality of the actors and actresses,” he said.
Company manager Christina Uhl describes this year’s group of actors as hard working and creative.
“What I am most excited about and what people will appreciate the most is how talented the actors are that we have hired,” Uhl said. “They’re young, but they’re very experienced and very excited and they have so much energy.”
Also back in action this season is the theater’s 1910 Cremona Photo Player, the only known, working sound-effects machine of its kind. The Cremona was sent to North Dakota over the winter to be fully restored, and will be played in The Opera House this summer by musical director Errol Koch.
Koch also said be sure not to miss the Vaudeville Acts each night following the performance of the melodrama.
“Our Vaudeville show is bar none this year,” he said. “It’s just too much fun.”
The rest of the summer’s line up will feature “Davy Crockett! Be Sure Yer Right, Then Go Ahead!” from July 10 to Aug. 5 and “Seven Keys to Baldpate” from Aug. 7 through Sept. 2. Ticket prices are $16 for adults, $15 for seniors, military and college students and $10 for children 17 years old and under, and guests are encouraged to make reservations by calling 1-800-829-2969 or online at www.virginiacityplayers.com.
Koch remembers the days when he would climb Boot Hill and watch the lines of cars leaving the Opera House to drive back to Butte or Dillon after a show. He hopes that this summer will be a step in the right direction back to the glory days, and producer John Benedict agrees.
“They’re getting it back to what it should be, what it was 40 years ago,” Benedict said.
“I’m most excited about Bill and Christina’s enthusiasm,” he continued. “Because that’s what is going to make this place happen, and it’s happening as we speak.”