The Playmill Theatre – A Great Hidden Gem in West Yellowstone

The Playmill Theatre in Montana’s West Yellowstone has been putting on family-friendly shows over summer for half a century or more.

The playhouse was first opened in 1964 courtesy of owners Lynn and Fern Benson. The first premises in West Yellowstone had stood since the 1920s, starting out as a Bingo Hall and at one point being an abandoned drug store after the Hebgen Lake Earthquake, until Benson bought the building in 1964.

As the first owners, the Bensons could never have anticipated that first night becoming a tradition that would still be alive half a century later.

In fact, it has become one of the most popular tourist spots near Yellowstone National Park. The current owners, the Merrills, bought it around 15 years back and have done a fine job of maintaining a fun, family-friendly environment.

The shows have a reputation for being engaging, high-energy, and well-performed, with many of the actors coming primarily from BYU-Idaho and surrounding areas, and former cast members have appeared in Broadway shows.

Roger Merrill has been planning on expanding for a few years, and a new premise with much better and larger facilities lies not too far in the future. The theatre usually produces at least 3 different Broadway-style plays that alternate nightly all through the summer.

It may be true that there is a limited theatrical choice in West Yellowstone, but many visitors leave feeling wonderfully surprised by the great entertainment provided by the Plyamill Theatre.

Reviews and reports from non-locals indicate that what you get here is a great show with a wonderful ensemble and solo singing, attention to detail, and excellent direction.

Audience contact is highly palpable—in fact, a huge draw for multi-generational patrons to the Playmill is the actor-to-audience interaction.

One of the unique touches that the Playmill Theatre offers is the variety show before the actual show. The season begins the weekend before Memorial Day, with at least eight shows running six days a week, through the Saturday before Labor Day.

The tickets are definitely worth the cost for an evening of unforgettable laughter, love, and family.

The Playmill Theatre History and Operation

the playmill theatre history
Image: playmill

Lynn and Fern Benson bought and owned the theatre between 1964 and 1988. After that, it was taken over by Jon and Trudy Bidwell until 2004, and it wasn’t until a year later that Roger and Heidi Merrill bought the premises, in 2005.

Roger Merrill is the owner and director at the Playmill Theatre. He is a theatre professor at BYU-Idaho, virtually runs the show at the Playmill, and along with the previous owners, Roger has had quite a hand turning the place into the theatre it is today.

Roger is currently busy planning the transition to newer premises, which will make the Playmill Theatre about five times bigger than it is in the current 3,500-square-foot building at Madison Avenue.

The newer 20,000-square-foot-plus building will help to increase the currently limited seating capacity, which has been looking more and more like a requirement for some time now.

The new location will also include a restaurant called Henry’s Fork, and this nice little add-on will also include evening entertainment. It will be open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the people serving will most likely be performers from the theatre.

The idea is to have a small stage in the restaurant where those serving take turns singing at the mic between waiting tables.

The Playmill Theatre Details

Season Shows & Events

The last season featured two staples of the Playmill Theatre, “Newsies” and “Peter and the Star-Catcher” along with a musical “Cinderella.” The theatre runs three shows through the summer on rotation throughout the week.

Make sure to check the schedule to see what’s playing if you are in town.

Most nights through the summer there are two shows, so you can catch an earlier or later one as best it suits. The early ones are ideal for those with young kids.  This season’s main players on the Playmill Theatre’s schedule are below.

Disney’s Tarzan​  (Starts May 27)

A re-trace and a re-interpretation of the familiar story of the boy who gets washed up on the shores of West Africa, then somehow taken in and raised by gorillas. They give him the name Tarzan, and he spends his time monkeying around until an expedition turns up in the territory.

This is the tale of how Tarzan discovers his animal upbringing clashing with his human instincts once he comes into contact with those closest to his own kind. This theatre rendering of the tale is based on the animated Disney adventure and comes across as an unforgettable theatrical experience.

Bright Star​

The Broadway classic set against the American South of the 20s and 40s comes to Yellowstone.

It tells its tale of love and redemption through the life of Alice Murphy. She is a literary editor who happens to meet a just-returned young soldier from World War II. This somehow awakens a hidden longing that leads to a journey of self-understanding strongly connected to her past.

The production is full of beautiful melodies, live bluegrass music, and powerful characters that help the story unfold with a rich and emotive tapestry. This is one of the shows that turns into an uplifting theatrical journey that keeps you enthralled from beginning to end, bolstered by the engaging cast members and their close audience interaction.

Singin’ in the Rain​​

One of the great classics and once-billed as the “Greatest Movie Musical of All Time”–the professionally-adapted version from the original award-winning screenplay comes to West Yellowstone.

You’ll be amazed how the songs and dancing in each scene are covered, including the show-stopping title song which comes with its own onstage rainstorm.

Comedy, engaging dialogue, and a score of Hollywood musical standards make Singin’ in the Rain ideal entertainment for anyone remotely interested in the movie musical golden age.

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