Updated: Dec 12, 2022
With an ever-expanding music scene across the state, a few unique venues are making the most of the solid trend to host live local or traveling performances. From curated shows with soon-to-be superstars at the Pub Station in Billings to the art house production vibe at the Rialto and the down-home country hall of the Covellite in Butte, music venues in Montana are diversifying and evolving to suit their markets.
The Covellite Theater in Butte
Montana Press: Tell me a little about the history and the back story of the Covellite Theater in Butte?
Matt Frey: I’m the owner and along with Ed Lewalk and Don Andrews, who runs the Film Fest, we all are the three people that form the non-profit and actually do the work there. If you want a way-back story, it started out as a Presbyterian Church in 1896, and the church left in the late 50s. Since then there have been a few theater groups and people that have occupied it here and there but I don’t think anybody ever really made a big go at it. It’s been more or less vacant since the late 50s until the last owners; they put a lot of time and money and work into it, and then I think it was a family and it didn’t work out for them either. We got it in 2015, so we’re in our fourth year, and we really just kicked it off last March when we got a beer and wine license. Prior to that, we were only doing certain events because we had to get them catered.
Montana Press: What are the backgrounds of the three managers?
Matt Frey: I came to Butte after getting a Forestry Degree and got a part-time job with the BLM. I just fell in love with a bunch of the old buildings in town. I got into rehabbing a few buildings and flipped a few buildings and then did a few buildings that I rent out. Ed actually is from Ohio and he moved out here just to fish. He’s had odd jobs and he actually started working with me on the building rehab-type stuff. We saw that building [The Covellite] and fell in love with it, and just got in a conversation with the old owners and got it. We formed a plan around how to make it try to sustain itself, because it’s hard to just hard to keep a building like that maintained. Don happened to move to Butte around the same time we bought the building. He was in Portland and helped start the Portland Film Fest down there and he was looking for a new town for a film fest. And the same kind of thing, he was passing through Butte and fell in love with it. We ended up meeting him sometime in that week, and were like, wow, the Covellite would be a sweet venue for films, too. That’s how Don got involved.
Montana Press: What kind of artists or events really make best use of the space at the theater?
Matt Frey: We have it set up for everything. I think originally the people that brought in chairs and stuff like that had the idea of live theater and I think it’s a great venue for that. It’s a really good venue for music; we upgraded the sound system in there and made it pretty easy for bands to set up in there. It’s really nice for films, too. We have surround sound upstairs and just everything is set up really nice for films. We’ve even had a local non-profit, Restore Our Creek Coalition, did a speaker and had a panel of people speaking that were up on the stage, giving a PowerPoint on the screen behind them. Even that worked out really well and it was really well-received. I know Laney Lou and the Bird Dogs have said that it’s the best venue in Montana, or it sounds better than any venue in Montana.
Montana Press: It’s been said that the facility has the best natural acoustic of any venue across the State. What would you say to this?
Matt Frey: I haven’t been in all the venues across the State. In fact, I’ve only been in very few, honestly. So I can’t confirm or deny that, but I’ve been told that, like I said, by Laney Lou and the Bird Dogs and other people that have been in a lot of Montana venues. So it’s quite a compliment. I will say that it was made for one guy to stand up there and give a sermon before microphones were invented.
So, it was made to naturally amplify sound, and it makes sense that the acoustics are nice.
Montana Press: What were some of the first shows like?
Matt Frey: It was hard to make any money because we had to cater the alcohol, so the band usually got all the door money, and then when you cater something they take all the beer profits. So it was kind of a struggle. Nonetheless, fun. I think everybody that’s played in there has enjoyed it. Some of my favorite shows, personally, are the ones down in the bar. When we do a show down in the bar it just feels like it’s almost like having a show in your living room.
Montana Press: What’s the experience of being a venue manager been like?
Matt Frey: I never even pictured myself as being a venue owner, or working with artists, or anything. But it’s a nice surprise that everybody’s pretty generous and just happy with a space to play, so it’s been a good experience.
Montana Press: What have been some of your favorite shows in the past year?
Matt Frey: I really liked Scott Pemberton; he’s out of Portland, a really good guitar player. A lot of the bluegrass shows, like Laney Lou, are always really good. We’ve had the Kitchen Dwellers, just really good stuff. Surprisingly, I’m not a big metal music fan but some metal shows that we’ve had have been with some of the nicest people and just people who are super friendly and tip really well. It’s almost a contradiction to the image that they throw out there. So, surprising and just nice.
Montana Press: What are some of the challenges you face in running the Covellite and some of the things that make the job worthwhile?
Matt Frey: Challenges. I mean, there’s a big list there. I guess, just bills and any of the work that goes into a building that old. There’s constantly something going on, breaking, or this and that. Then marketing, just trying to get the word out, trying to get people in there. It’s always the Monday after a show we hear from everybody, “Oh, I wish I had known that was going on.” So that’s the thing everybody, I think, has to grow into. I’m sure we’re not the only venue that’s got issues getting people in the seats. On the flip side of that, when we do have people there, even when it’s not well-attended, every show we have we have new people, people that are like, “I’ve never been here before, but I’ve been hearing about it,” and, “Wow, what an amazing place.” It’s really nice to hear that from so many people. I don’t think we’ve really had any negative feedback. I guess, some of the older folks have mentioned that going down the stairs to come down to the bar has been a little bit of an issue but other than that, there’s not much negative feedback. So it’s really just nice to hear people say they like what we’re doing for the community.
Montana Press: What makes the Covellite a good fit for Butte?
Matt Frey: It’s kind of a staple building. I think it was built before Butte’s big boom, and I think it was one of the first churches that was built in such ornate fashion. There’s plenty of churches that are comparable, but I think that was one of the first really big brick churches up here. So, it’s kind of been a permanent fixture on Broadway for a long time. It’s a cool building to go in and, especially if you can go in there for an event.
Montana Press: What does the future hold for the Covellite, do you think?
Matt Frey: There’s been talk about selling it but we would want to see it go to somebody that would carry on the same vision, and do the same kind of stuff. Otherwise, we’ll just keep keeping on and keep doing our thing. Right now, we are only open for special events so I think maybe an owner or manager could, in the future, run it more full-time, or at least three to five nights a week, regularly, and it would have more momentum then and just be better for everybody in town. So, if that’s possible, we’re not getting in a hurry or anything, but we have talked about trying to pass it on to the right person.
For a full listing of upcoming events at The Covellite in Butte,