Driving down Main Street Hailey, it’s hard to miss the iconic Liberty Theatre and its grand marquee. But that marquee has been empty for the last couple of years, with no new plays or performances. After the pandemic and the dissolution of the Liberty’s theatre group, Company of Fools, the building has gone through a bit of an identity crisis. Until this year, when a local realtor bought the theater to give the building new life.
The original Liberty Theatre was built in the 1900s across the street from the present-day theater, built in 1938 on an outdoor skating rink site. After changing hands over the next several decades, Bruce Willis and Demi Moore purchased the theater in 1994. Shortly after, Willis attended a Company of Fools (CoF) production in Richmond, Virginia, the home of the then-two-year-old theatre company. Afterward, Willis talked to CoF founder and friend Denise Simone about his new theater and whether she’d be interested in using it for her company.
Despite knowing next to nothing about the area, Simone and CoF co-founder Rusty Wilson (the other CoF founders are John Glenn, Robert Throckmorton, and Joel Vilinsky) relocated to Hailey, intent on continuing the Company’s work. Their inaugural production was an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s Diary of a Madman, put together on a shoestring budget, with costumes from the Barkin’ Basement, and performed for over 30 people over two nights at $5 a ticket.
When Simone and Wilson arrived, the Liberty still showed movies and play productions had to work around the movie schedule. As the years went on, and Bigwood 4 Cinemas opened, the Liberty phased out movies, and CoF took over operations and designed the stage for live performances, adding lights and sound production.
As the area continued to change and the North Valley showed its support for the high-caliber productions put on at the Liberty, the CoF worked with local businesses, became members of local boards, and was active in the community. “The Liberty has always been such a beloved building in the Valley, and part of our mission was to be a good neighbor,” says Simone.
R.L. Rowsey, a core company artist who moved from Richmond in 2000 with his husband, deceased CoF founding member John Glenn, adds, “I think a good arts organization changes as its community changes. The expansion of the variety of restaurants in Hailey was big in changing the way people moved up and down the Valley for things that interested them.”
In addition to CoF plays, the Liberty occasionally rented out for other events, like The Second City comedy troupe or the two times that Robin Williams wanted to try out his new acts. “All along the way, I know that the artistic leadership of CoF tried to keep its finger on the pulse of the community, trying to find ways to help the community find its voice through the arts,” says Rowsey.
In 2013 CoF joined the Sun Valley Center for the Arts (SVCA), now the Sun Valley Museum of Art (SVMoA), and in 2016 Willis and Moore donated the theatre to the SVCA. During COVID, the theater sadly went dark, and the CoF disbanded, leaving the future of the Liberty and live theatre in Hailey up in the air.
“I think it was a beautiful example of how arts organizations work in partnership to lift the community and how it becomes a space where neighbors and tourists can come and experience that beautiful and rare place that the Wood River Valley is,” says Simone, who left CoF in 2016. “We were lucky to call it our theatrical home for so many years.”
THE LIBERTY THEATRE COMPANY
In late 2020 the CoF and SVMOA mutually agreed to become two independent arts organizations. Two task forces were formed to help determine the future of the CoF, which ultimately decided to carry on the company’s legacy by forming a new performing arts organization under new leadership and a new mission: the Liberty Theatre Company (LTC).
The LTC is currently run by interim artistic director Naomi McDougall Jones, who first visited Sun Valley as the first writer and resident at the Hemingway House and fell in love with the area. “I was living in New York City and really tired of it, so I was constantly having this conversation with myself of, how can I keep making great art and live in this remote place in Idaho?” says McDougall Jones. “I went to go see one of the last shows the CoF did and was so blown away by the caliber of theater being produced in this small place in Idaho.”
McDougall Jones and her husband relocated to Sun Valley, where she became involved in the local theater community and heard that the LTC was looking for an artistic director. She decided to take on the role for a year to help the company on the next part of its journey and to find an artistic director to take over. “I deeply believe in having a world-class theater group here and wanted to be part of that continuing.”
Many members of the CoF have transferred over to the LTC, including Rowsey, who works with them on specific projects, including doing the musical directing for Chicago this fall.
Part of the LTC’s journey has been finding a home for productions. In 2021 SVMoA offered to give the building to the LTC, but after raising money for repairs after a year and a half of fundraising, the company elected to walk away from the offer when they couldn’t raise money for an endowment fund for ongoing maintenance. SVMoA also offered the building to the City of Hailey and discussed possible solutions with local nonprofits, but ultimately the Liberty Theatre returned to the open market.
In May 2023, the theater was purchased by local Windermere Realtor Logan Frederickson, an Idaho local who moved to the area in 2012. Frederickson’s reasons for purchasing the theater are less sentimental (his only experience at the theater was a Homegrown Film Festival) but more focused on the future, specifically bringing back movies and putting on live theater and music.
Currently, the 212-seat theater lacks sound production and lighting and needs some sprucing up before it can reopen. Frederickson also hopes to work with the LTC to put on plays and performances there, but not in the same capacity and exclusive agreement that the CoF previously had with the theater. Frederickson says he hopes to get the theater up and running by late fall of this year. “I know it means a lot to the community, both from a historical perspective and excitement as a venue for things to come to the Valley that Hailey was missing out on.”
LIBERTY THEATRE TIMELINE
1900s: The original Liberty Theatre was built across the street from the current location
1917: Silent movies brought to Hailey and shown at the Liberty
1938: Present-day Liberty was built on the site of an outdoor ice-skating rink by Jack Rutter
1971: Sun Valley Center for the Arts is formed
1973: Liberty is sold
1992: Company of Fools is formed in Richmond, Virginia
1994: Bruce Willis and Demi Moore purchase the theatre
1996: Company of Fools relocates from Virginia to reside at the Liberty
2013: Company of Fools joins Sun Valley Center for the Arts
2016: Bruce Willis and Demi Moore donate theatre to the SVCA
2023: SUN VALLEY MUSEUM OF ART (FORMERLY SVCA) SELLS LIBERTY TO LOGAN FREDERICKSON
LIBERTY THEATRE COMPANY PERFORMANCES
Liberty Theatre Company performances are currently taking place upstairs at The Mint.
- Chicago: October 4–29, 2023
- 24-Hour Theatre Festival: November 5, 2023
- Hammond Castle: December 15–17, 2023
- Disgraced: February 15–March 3, 2024