GREAT FALLS — Starting in 1933, the Ozark Club in Great Falls not only became an entertainment sensation, but was known to be one of the best between Chicago and the West.
It will be nearly 60 years since the Club was burned down on the night of June of 1962 - but the memory and history lives on.
The Ozark was widely known for its quality entertainment featuring some of the best jazz musicians in the western United States. Some say it was the best between Chicago and the West. The Club was owned and operated by African-American boxer Leo Lamar.
The Ozark was an immediate success, and by the fall of 1935, the Ozark Club moved to 116-118 Third Street South.
Kristi Scott, who serves as the director for the Cascade County Historical Society, said, "For over three decades, they brought some of the best jazz in the country, right here to Great Falls Montana, and that was a big deal when you think about all of this establishment, bringing in entertainment really before the Civil Rights Movement, and you had people of all creeds and colors mixing and dancing, and celebrating music."
Initially catering to a black population, early in World War II, Leo Lamar was able to racially integrate the crowd under the theme, “All are welcome.”
Scott noted, "The Ozark Club Absolutely broke racial barriers. This is a club that operated pre-Civil Rights Movement, when there was segregation going on across the country, and then right here in Great Falls Montana where you might not suspect this black-owned jazz club operating on the south side of Great Falls, who welcomed all people."
A night at the Ozark was said to be an exciting experience, until 1962, weeks after the passing of its owner Leo after he suffered a deadly heart attack. when a late-night fire occurred, leading to the end of the Ozark Club, and suspicions raised as to the cause.
Scott said, "We don't know the exact cause of the fire; we do know that hardship had struck the family with Leo passing away, and not long after that, the club burned to the ground."
While the actual Ozark Club may no longer be with us, the memories of bringing excitement and entertainment still exists to this day. You can experience the legacy of the Ozark Club at the History Museum, located at 422 2nd Street South; click here to visit the website.