The Old County Jail becomes a Centerpiece for the Arts in Helena, Montana
The Old Lewis and Clark County Jail in Helena, Montana is located at 15 N Ewing St is a stunning granite structure. Today, the stunning Romanesque style building serves as a vibrant arts center in Helena known as “The Myrna Loy.”
This building was designed by Helena firm, Paulson and McConnell under contract with the Detroit Safe and Lock Company. Constructed in 1890, it was the feeling at the time that the design of the building should match its function. Thick stone lintels, a prominent corner tower with battlements, and heavy arches truly lend themselves to the notion of what a prison should be. The medieval design and local granite lend themselves to a somber institution. The jail operated from the early 1890s through the early 1980s. The building remains largely the same on the outside, although it sustained damage during the 1935 Helena earthquake, most notably, losing the battlements along the corner tower were destroyed. The interior went through incredible renovations to open as the Myrna Loy Center at the beginning of the 1990s.
The predecessor of The Myrna Loy was “Second Story Cinema.” In 1976, Arnie Malina and Alexandra Swaney (along with a partner) created the Helena Film Society to bring alternative cinema to the community. They had renovated a second story dance studio to serve as the home for the center and would bring in variety of community arts projects, live theatre, poetry, music and more to the space between film screenings. As they gained popularity and continued to bring in acts with international acclaim, it became obvious that a new home was needed. When the historic jail closed, the community rallied behind the movement to repurpose the space as a true centerpiece of the community.
Mission of The Myrna Loy: “The Myrna Loy inspires the creative spirits of people in and around Helena by presenting high-quality, cultural significant films and performing arts; by supporting local and regional artists in their work; and by nurturing a lifelong love of the arts through education and residencies.”
Interested in Visiting The Myrna Loy while in Helena, Montana?
Learn more about the current schedule of events happening at The Myrna Loy by visiting their website. You’ll find a variety of live performances, community events, and screenings!
Who Was Myrna Loy?
Myrna Loy is considered “Montana’s First Lady of Film.” Myrna Loy was a successful American film, television and stage actress. In 1991, Myrna Loy received an Honorary Academy Award in recognition of her life’s work both on and offscreen.
Loy was born Myrna Adele Williams on August 2, 1905 in Helena, Montana. She spent much of her childhood in the community of Radersburg, Montana where her parents had settled. Her father, David Franklin Williams, followed in the footsteps of his father who had settled in the Montana Territory after immigrating from Liverpool to start his life as a rancher. After moving to Helena, Loy made her stage debut at the age of 12 at Helena’s old Marlow Theater in a dance she choreographed herself. Loy lost her father in 1918, when she was just 13 years old, and her mother relocated the family to California where they settled just outside of Los Angeles. She attended Westlake School for Girls where she caught the acting bug and continued a successful career in acting following her schooling.
Loy appeared in countless productions; by the time of her passing at the age of 88, she had appeared in 129 motion pictures. Most notably, her filmography includes: “The Thin Man,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House,” “Love Me Tonight,” and “The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.” Following her death in 1993, Myrna Loy was cremated and buried in Forestvale Cemetery in Helena, Montana.
Fun Fact: During World War II, Myrna Loy dropped her focus on her acting career to devote her time working with the Red Cross. She was so outspoken against Hitler and the Nazis during this time that her name appeared on his blacklist and her films were banned in Germany – she was delighted.
It was Myrna Loy’s incredible dedication to the performing arts and strong ties to the Helena community that made her an obvious choice as the namesake for a performing art center in this Montana community. In 1990 US Senator Max Baucus along with Second Story Cinema board chair Steve Browning visited Loy at her apartment in New York to ask for permission to use her name at the new arts center in Helena. With them, they bough a dozen roses and a box of the world famous Parrot chocolates from Downtown Helena. Loy graciously agreed to the use of her name and image for the center.
Is the Myrna Loy Theatre in Helena Haunted?
The short answer is that it’s likely that The Myrna Loy is haunted. Southwest Montana has a colorful history and it is not uncommon to hear tales of the paranormal. Where we get excited is when the history aligns with these paranormal experiences. When investigating the paranormal at The Myrna Loy, the old Lewis and Clark County Jail, there is one tragic incident that raises itself to the top of the list. The untimely death of Mrs. Flora Spratt took place on November 11, 1922 at 8:30am. At the time, the upstairs portion of the jail building served as the living quarters for Sheriff Thomas Spratt and his family. On the day in question, the couple sat in their living quarters – Flora flipping through he phone book and Thomas cleaning his .38 caliber Smith and Wesson police special six-shooter. The weapon discharged and Flora cried out. Her husband asked if she had been hit; she replied “yes” and died instantly. The bullet had entered Flora’s right armpit, traversed her chest and exited under her left arm.
Urgent calls were made to Drs. O.M. Lanstrum and S.A. Cooney, along with the county coroner. Eventually, the coroner chose not to conduct an inquest. The Spratts, married for a total of thirty-six years and blessed with three grown daughters, experienced this heartbreaking loss. Before a brief appointment as sheriff in 1921, Spratt was an accountant in the state auditor’s office, dairy owner, and County Hospital superintendent where Mrs. Spratt was matron. His previous employment raises the question whether Sheriff Spratt was adept at handling weapons. After his wife’s death, Spratt was custodian and purchasing agent at the county garage. He remarried two years after the tragedy and died in 1956 at age ninety-four.
Patrons and staff of the theater have recounted seeing the figure of a woman strolling the halls of The Myrna Loy, many believe this to be the spirit of Mrs. Flora Spratt. As you can imagine, a space that served so many years as the county jail, Flora’s may not be the only spirit lingering in these walls. There have been a variety of sightings, unexplained chills, and sounds experienced in the basement of the theatre – where the cells were located. Have you had a paranormal experience in Southwest Montana? Share it with us on Instagram!
Happy Haunting this fall in Southwest Montana!