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When Montana Theatreworks first bought the Ellen Theatre in 2008, executive director John Ludin found that the dressing rooms were full of all kinds of antiques.

Among the finds: rows and rows of red-and-black art deco theater seats from when the Ellen first opened its doors in 1919.

“We just tucked them away in a storage space under the seating that’s there now, and I knew someday, when we get to it, we’ll sell those,” Ludin said.

That “someday” came when the Ellen was forced to close, along with essentially all businesses where people gather as audiences, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The theater’s crew became a skeleton crew out of necessity, but Ludin and the Ellen team had a variety of projects to keep them busy during the pandemic.

Those projects included reassembling and selling about 100 sets of the vintage seats.

After the seats were listed on the Ellen’s website earlier this month, Ludin said, they sold out almost immediately.

“I knew they would be popular, but I had no idea they would sell out almost instantly,” Ludin said. “We were flooded with emails.”

Ludin said he did some research into the price of antique theater seats from around the same time. The seats could have sold for more, but he wanted them to stay in the community. The prices varied between $225 for a set of two and $400 for a set of four seats.

“I was more interested in just getting them to the people here in town that would appreciate the fact that they’re from the Ellen as opposed to just putting them online and selling to somebody across the country,” Ludin said. “It’s just a cool, vintage souvenir of a bygone era.”

There are potentially more seats that could be on sale at some point, Ludin said, though that depends on how many additional sets of seats can be reassembled.

Those seats aren’t the only ones from the Ellen’s original opening. The front two rows in the theater’s balcony are also from the original 1919 designs. Those seats were larger and had more cushioning than the others, likely because they were made with some of Bozeman’s founders in mind.

“There were these red, very cushiony, wide, big seats that I found on the blueprints, they were the first two rows of the balcony, and so we were able to put those seats back in place,” Ludin said. “On the blueprints, it says ‘these two rows reserved for Story family and friends.’”

The Ellen Theatre was designed by architect Fred Willson but financed by the sons of Nelson Story, who is often hailed as one of the founders of modern Bozeman. The theater is named after Ellen Story, Nelson’s wife and the Story family matriarch.

Ludin and the Ellen team have been working on a variety of projects while audiences haven’t been able to fill the seats because of the pandemic. That’s included fundraising efforts and small maintenance projects that Ludin called “general house repair,” as well as a major repainting project that will be coming soon.

It’s the perfect time for that painting project, Ludin said, because it will require scaffolding to be set up in the main theater.

And, with the virus vaccine slowly being rolled out, Ludin has begun booking shows and events for the fall of 2021 and into 2020, as well as rescheduling events like weddings that were originally going to take place in 2020.

“We’re keeping very busy, that’s for sure,” he said. “There is light at the end of the tunnel, and we’re definitely looking forward to coming out of that tunnel.”

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Melissa Loveridge can be reached at mloveridge@dailychronicle.com or at (406) 582-2651.

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