Second Story Cinema

Arnie Malina, Founder of Second Story Cinema in Helena, Montana

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By AARON PARRETT

When Arnie Malina moved to Montana in the 1970s, Helena had only one unimaginative movie theater and couple of drive-ins that showed only the latest commercial films from Hollywood. 

“I was coming from New York City, “ Malina said, “famous for its movie houses, and I missed being able to see the old classics and foreign films—Fellini, Truffaut, Bergman—stuff like that.” 

Though when he first came west, Malina lived in a remote cabin in the Elkhorns, in 1976, he and two close friends put together $6000 to start an independent film house in Helena, Mont. A short 20 years later, that project had morphed into the Myrna Loy Center, a vibrant live performance venue and movie theatre with a $750,000 endowment. 

Independent Film Culture in a Small Town

But anyone who lived in Montana’s capital city from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, the humble Second Story Cinema brightened a somewhat drab and provincial corner of the Big Sky Country with a welcome connection to independent film culture. 

“I started with a couple of old 16mm film projectors, not knowing anything about how to rent films or run a theater,” Malina said, his eyes twinkling with fond memories. “I had a PhD in American Studies, but I knew I didn’t want a job in academia, and while I loved film and going to movies, I didn’t know anything about how it all worked.” 

Despite a steep learning curve and a shoestring budget, Malina and his partners, Alexandra Swaney and Jay Tieger, managed to rent the second story of a building on a side street downtown and put in an 88-seat theater.

“We had to petition the city for zoning, and we cut a deal with the bank across the street for parking,” he said. “We bought the seats from an old theater in Fort Benton and found an old Popcorn machine. Jay made the projection booth in what used to be a closet for a secretarial school.” 

Learning the Ropes

Malina had to learn the ropes of booking films and being able to get enough viewers in to afford them. 

“We showed two films a week,” he said. “Usually a classic film, Casablanca, say, and then a foreign or contemporary independent film.” 

Patrons who frequented the theater will recall that Malina kept a spiral notebook on the counter near the candy display—a couple of cigar boxes with Snickers and Hershey bars—so that movie buffs could write down the films they’d like to see. 

The Second Story Cinema offered more than old films, though. 

“We had a lot of musical performances, plays, and poetry readings,” Malina recalled. “One in particular I was rather proud of was an event called, “Women in Poetry, Music, and Film,” which I think was our first sold-out event—all 88 seats were full!” 

That event not only featured some of Helena’s most colorful personalities reading poetry—Frieda Fligleman and Marylor Lahey, to name two—but the music of Cheap Cologne, one of the best-known jazz ensembles to come out of Helena, featuring MJ Williams.

Bringing Home National Acts

Over time, Malina built on the success of this quaint movie house tucked above Placer Street and began booking larger shows, partnering with the Helena Civic Center to bring in national acts, including jazz luminaries like Dave Brubeck and Dizzy Gillespie, the blues master B.B. King, and folksingers such as Buffy St. Marie. 

“The Helena Film Society, which was the non-profit we started for the Second Story Cinema, eventually became ‘Helena Presents,’ which brought in some really amazing shows for Helena,” he said.  “And not just music—we brought in amazing dance performances, and the Kodo Drummers from Japan, a lot of modern dance ensembles.” 

Eventually the enterprise outgrew its humble beginnings. In 1993, Malina heard the city wanted to sell its outdated original jail facility next to the courthouse off Broadway, and with the help of $1.6 million in grants and generous donors, Malina secured use of the jailhouse for the performance center. Now the nationally known Myrna Loy Center leases the property from the county for $1 a year.

“It was a true community effort,” he said. “Steve Browning, Martin Holt, Al Lundborg—many people came together to transform the original iron cells into a 250-seat theater.” 

Passing the Torch

A few years later, Malina left Helena for Burlington, Vt., having been invited to do nonprofit work there, largely on the merits of his astounding accomplishments in Helena. 

“I loved Helena, loved the work I was doing here, but I was exhausted. I had family back in New York, and I was ready for something new.” 

As he reminisced about those years in Helena, the twinkle in his eye brought a relaxed, beaming smile to his face. 

“The Second Story Cinema, the Myrna Loy—it was the greatest thing I’ve done,” he said. “It was joyous. It brought me great joy. “ 

As a kid who grew up in those years, and one who went to the Second Story every chance I got, I can say that he brought great joy to the patrons also. That do-it-yourself, homemade movie house brought great pleasure to a great number of people, and helped make Helena the cultural hot spot it is today. MSN

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