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George & Jane Dennison Theatre

The University of Montana

History

Over the past 65 years, the Fine Arts Building at the University of Montana has housed the student union and classrooms, but the most impressive portion of the building has always been the known as the University Theatre.

Built in the 1930s as a Student Union Building because many faculty feared for the moral well-being of students who ventured downtown for weekend or evening entertainment, its construction was prompted by UM students themselves. They voted in 1928 to impose a $1 per quarter fee on themselves to meet the campus need for a dance hall, large auditorium, larger bookstore and place to gather for relaxation and entertainment.

In 1930, three potential sites for the new building were presented to the State Board of Education. A site west of the library was selected so that students, after a hard day of hitting the books, would not have far to walk to the Student Union. Placement of the building marked an extremely important step in campus development for it ended what was at the time a symmetrically-ordered, well-defined campus. Much of the impetus for including a theater in the Student Union Building came when Lennox Robinson of the Abbey Theater in Dublin helped the Masquers, the University's drama group, produce "Juno and the Paycock." As UM was one of the few schools in the United States to produce this play, it brought national recognition to the University in American theater circles and added to the push for a theater facility in the soon-to-be-constructed building.

All this time student fees were mounting, but the amount collected was still short. The Depression era spawned programs to put men back to work and so suddenly it seemed as if the new building could happen long before the needed sum was reached. Planning began. In September 1932, University officials met with Governor John E. Erickson and an architect to informally discuss the building.

The University Theatre opened in November 1935. Students were delighted when they could finally occupy the building they had been waiting for since 1928. The official opening, its dedication ceremony, musical entertainment, speeches and a dance kicked off Homecoming Weekend on November 22, six months after the death of President Charles H. Clapp, who had been one of the building's greatest supporters. In his history of the University of Montana, H.G. Merriam noted that the students had recommended the new building be a memorial to the beloved President Clapp, but no such action was taken. Dr. Clapp had often joked, "Thank God, no building will ever carry my name."

In 1956 the University opened a new student union and the existing building became home to the art and drama departments, which had until then been squirreled away in the nooks and crannies of the University.  Its name was changed to the Fine Arts Building after having been called the Arts and Crafts Building for a year.  The bookstore was remodeled into the 70-seat Masquer Theatre using funds from the Masquer's fund-raising projects with assistance from the University.  Carson McCuller's "The Member of the Wedding" was the first play in the Masquer.

From the beginning, the tradition of drama on the campus was strong.  In 1904 the Quill and Dagger Society, which later became the Masquer Theatre Organization, formed.  Daniel Bandman, a professional actor who had retired to Montana, helped them stage the first play.  In the 1920s Professor Carl Glick helped establish the first permanent home for the Masquers in Simpkins Hall.  Simpkins had been used to handle the influx of trainees during World War I.  Names of prominent theatre people dot the University's drama history.  John Mason Brown, who later became an internationally known drama critic, helped launch the UM program.  Alexander Dean, whose text on directing was the "bible" for a generation of theatre students, with his wife, Virginia, established a theatre scholarship, funding it with royalties from his textbook.  After leaving UM Donal Harrington appeared on Broadway and then headed the theatre department at the University of Washington.  Charles Dill '28 was on the New York stage and his classmate, track record holder Arnold Gillette, established a national reputation in academic theatre.

Carroll O'Connor '56 best known for his television roles in All in the Family and In the Heat of the Night , is undoubtedly the most famous actor to appear on the University Theatre stage.  Dick Riddle '58 wrote the music for "Cowboy, " a musical based on the life of Charlie Russell, which opened the University's newest theatre, the Montana Theatre in the Performing Arts/Radio Television Center.  Other actors from recent years who have appeared on Broadway, or in the movies, include Suzy Hunt, Dale Raoul, Kathy Danzer, Dave McIntyre, Jim Lortz and Thomas Q. Morris.  Designers and technicians who have gone on to make a name for themselves include Emmy winner John Shaffner, TomValach and Phil Peters.  Renowned groups and speakers have also graced the University Theatre stage including Vincent Price, Percy Grainger, Marcel Marceau, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Jesse Jackson, David Copperfield, Pearl Jam, all the U.S. military bands and choruses and many of the leading modern dance companies.

Artists who have also performed at the University Theatre include Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Lyle Lovett, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Greg Brown, Richard Thompson, Joan Baez, Taj Mahal, Widespread Panic, Ween, Sonic Youth, Leo Kottke, Jimmy Cliff, Modest Mouse, Pearl Jam, Steve Earle, Jimmy Vaughan, and Doc Severinson.

The University Theatre hosts lectures, such as Tom Brokaw, Sandra Day O'Connor, Clarence Thomas, and numerous other dignitaries.

Throughout the year, Broadway shows such as Grease, Rent, Cabaret, Fiddler on the Roof, Saturday Night Fever, and many others, perform at the University Theatre.

On Friday, May 11, 2012 the University Theatre was renamed in honor of former UM President George Dennison and his wife, Jane. 

32 Campus Drive
phone: 1.406.243.2853
fax: 1.406.243.5726
College of Visual and Performing Arts