By Stacy Walenter
If you’ve never driven up Cedar Street Extension, chances are you didn’t know that the small stretch of dead end street is home not only to a few residences, but also, a bit of a time machine.
Maybe you also didn’t know that every summer, a cast of historical characters emerge from this old-time setting to perform original tales of old Libby.
Dunn Creek Nell, the Boyles, and Libby herself have all stepped out of the pages of Libby history to make an appearance on the stage of Montana City Old Town’s Theater.
Owner Zarita Zook, a long-time professional entertainer, who has traveled from Hollywood to Europe as a concert singer, dancer, and actress, also has a soft spot for the gold rush era. So, when she chose Libby as her family’s home base while she traveled, she began collecting stories of the town.
However, her collecting didn’t stop at the books written by the Libby Writers’ Group. Rather, her collecting became a lot larger in scale.
When Zook discovered that the old town of Libby was being slowly taken down in the 70s, Zook asked the men disassembling it if she could have the buildings. They told her she was welcome to them, so she began hauling the old buildings up to her property on Flower Creek.
At the time, she had no set plans. She just knew she wanted to rebuild the historical site.
“I guess I just had to have my own town,” Zook said.
In 1977, Zook began putting the town back together on her land. Zook began researching the names of stores, businesses, and people from that era. At Old Town today, you can find the jail, with bars from the actual old town jail, an assayer’s office, a laundry, Gibson’s Barber Shop/Tonsorial Parlor, a meat market, J.P. Wall’s General Store, Switzer’s Drug Store, and a newspaper office, The Montanian.
The theater was built separately and was not part of the old Libby. However, nothing about the theater’s interior betrays its more modern origins.
For nearly three years, old town was a lively place. In 1980, the theater hosted its first show. In 1981, a barber would visit Old Town to cut hair in the barber shop. In 1983, Old Town was even featured on the Today Show.
However, a life of performing and a need for money called Zook back to her old stomping ground in Virginia City, Nevada in 1983. There, she met her husband, Warren.
“I thought, ‘There’s a guy who’ll help me build my town,’” Zook said, laughing.
In 1988, the couple returned to Libby to live. During that time, however, much of the local economy declined. Mining and mills left and half of the businesses in town crashed. With the additional blow of multiple personal tragedies, the couple left. They didn’t plan to come back.
In 2006, they did return, only to find much of the resurrected town had become dilapidated. Porches were caved in. The cafe was lost. Signs were down. The piano had fallen through the floor of the theater.
From 2006 onward, the Zooks worked every summer to rebuild, but only during the summer, and it was only Zarita and Warren doing the work.
In 2013, the theater finally opened again to the public.
“I don’t need to do the theater, but I want to share. I want to teach young people and old people how to perform, how to interact, how to act,” Zook said. “There are so many things that they learn here. Responsibility, humility, music, singing. And the fun of it. To me, I just want to teach everyone and share it so they can do it all their life.”
For the students Zook has taught, the experience has been transformative.
“Zarita has pushed me out of my comfort zone more than a few times, but it’s been worth it,” said Stormy Miller, who has acted and sung at Old Town since 2016. “She just pours out confidence and encouragement. She’s very quick to have you change any negative views you have of yourself.”
Libby junior Mikalyn Zeller, who hopes to be an opera singer, has been in Old Town productions for two years. “My future is based on what we do in Old Town,” Zeller said. “The few months we have are exciting and help me onstage. I will know how to be professional because of this theater and Zarita.”
“I’m super thankful that Zarita has a theater where everyone gets a part and can improve under her guidance because working under someone as cultured and lovely as Zarita is really a treasured experience,” Libby freshman Aleah Ford said. Ford has been with Old Town for three years. “Her old time/vaudeville style is my favorite thing because not a lot of theaters perform plays like she does.”
Old Town shows come in two halves. The first half is an original play written by Zook about Libby, a tale of historical fiction built from facts.
“I take something that happened and make story with real history behind it,” Zook said.
At other times, the show is a reimagined version of a play in the public domain, such as Sweeney Todd and this summer’s forthcoming A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
After an intermission, there is a vaudeville show full of singing, dancing, audience participation, and comedy.
The small, intimate theater of Old Town, with its rich, red curtains and unique daybed-like benches, offers a unique experience not found anywhere else in Libby.
“All the people that come–audience and cast– return every year,” Zook said. “We do it to bring entertainment, happiness, and joy. They love it.”
Zook hopes to do a series of four plays this summer. The troupe will also perform at the opening of the Heritage Museum on June 2.
Montana City Old Town will hold auditions for its summer season on Sunday, May 20 at 12:30 p.m. at the Old Town Theater. For more information, call Zook at 293-8426.