The Bills & Bagby Story: B&B Theatres is a family affair

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Cinemas Features

A family tree would be helpful in tracing the colorful history of B&B Theatres, whose roots go back nearly a century to 1924. It was then that Elmer Bills, Sr. bought the Lyric Theatre in Salisbury, Missouri, and founded Bills Theatres. His future wife, Johnnie, was a piano accompanist there for silent movies.

In 1936, Bills hired ten-year-old Sterling Bagby as a concession clerk. Sterling grew up, fought in World War II and later married his ticket seller, Pauline. Together, they launched the Bagby Traveling Picture Show and drove across rural Missouri with their films, projection equipment, seats and snack bar, screening movies in barns, schools and parks. Eventually, the company transformed into a Kansas circuit of indoor and drive-in theatres.

Meanwhile, in something of a family tradition, Elmer and Johnnie’s son, Elmer Bills, Jr., met his wife-to-be, Amy, when both were 13 and she was working behind the counter selling popcorn. After Elmer Jr.’s graduation from the University of Missouri in 1959, he and Amy joined his parents as second-generation partners in the business.
On January 1, 1980, the Bills and Bagby families formally merged their two theatre companies into B&B Theatres (for Bills and Bagby, of course). At the same time, Sterling and Pauline's son Bob married Elmer Jr. and Amy's daughter Bridget, uniting the families on a personal level as well.

Bob Bagby became president of B&B Theatres in 1980, and he and Bridget have grown the company from a small, regional, 17-screen circuit to what is now the seventh-largest circuit in the United States, currently operating about 50 locations and more than 400 screens. Married for 39 years, Bob and Bridget have three children, Bobbie, Brittanie and Brock, who are all executive vice presidents at B&B Theatres, representing the circuit’s fourth generation. Of that second generation, Sterling Bagby died in October 2000, his wife Pauline died earlier this year, and Elmer Bills, Jr. and his wife Amy both passed away just this summer. As Bobbie Bagley Ford wistfully notes, Elmer Jr. “was very involved in the industry and the company and read all the reports and was bugging us literally the day before he passed away. It was kind of sudden and surprising, and it’s been a big adjustment.”

With dad Bob at the helm, Bobbie handles marketing, Brock oversees programming and business development, and Brittanie Bagby Baker handles business affairs, acting as a liaison between different departments.

Pitching in at the theatres at a very young age is a family tradition: Bob was working behind the concession counter at age five, and Bobbie claims she was selling popcorn at nine months!

“Most of my weekends as a kid were spent loading up and visiting theatres, making the rounds,” Bobbie recalls. “We had a motor home and we’d drive around our circuit—at the time it was only like 17 locations. We would try to hit all of them over a two-month period, and I would go in and count seats and we would watch whatever kids’ movie was playing. It was such a part of my weekend, being in movie theatres.”

She continues, “What I learned from my parents, and my grandparents, who were very involved in my childhood, is that you work hard and play hard as a family. We would sit around the dinner table with my grandparents, who we would have dinner with many times a week. And my parents didn’t shelter the business from us—we were very aware of the ups and downs and HR things and all kinds of stuff from an early age. They thought it was important that we know what was going on. My parents and grandparents worked very hard, and they also took time to play, because ultimately family comes first.”

Another essential lesson: “Integrity was always the most important thing and still is,” Bobbie asserts. “We don’t cheat the studios, we don’t cheat our vendors, we pay people on time as much as we possibly can… There are times we could make a deal, we could build against somebody, we could do something against our conscience… A good example of that is when we purchased Dickinson Theatres [in 2014]. My dad was literally lying awake at night, very concerned about laying people off. And he worked and worked and worked to not do that. We found a job for everybody in the corporate office. And managers, for that matter—we didn’t lay off a single person. Integrity and taking care of people is ultimately the most important thing.”

In this magazine two years ago, Bob Bagby recalled that his father-in-law, Elmer Jr., “was the conservative voice, and taught me that we didn’t need to do every deal and that if the numbers don’t work, there will be ‘another one around the corner.’” His father Sterling, on the other hand, “instilled in me a desire to aggressively pursue calculated expansion of the company.”

“There was a lot of back-and-forth between fast expansion and conservative growth,” Bob noted, but rather than being at loggerheads, Elmer and Sterling were “a great team.”

Meanwhile, the lesson Brock Bagby took from his grandparents, Elmer and Sterling, was that “everything will come in time, and if it doesn’t work out, there will always be another opportunity around the corner.”

In recent years, B&B Theatres has truly become one of the cutting-edge domestic theatre circuits: It was one of the first to go all-digital and it recently unveiled the world’s largest panoramic ScreenX screen at its new flagship Liberty 12 complex in Liberty, Missouri. (The Liberty 12 even features Johnnie’s Jazz Bar, named after the company’s founding matriarch, with live music seven nights a week and the original piano Johnnie played in the silent-movie days.)

Bobbie recalls B&B’s decision to transform for a new era. “Six or seven years ago, we sat down as a family and Dad said, ‘OK, what do you want to do? Do you want to get out, or we going to forge ahead and grow?’ We had deep conversations about it, and decided that we were in it and we were going to grow the company. One of the advantages of being a family business and being so heavily involved in the weeds as well as the higher-up operations is that we make decisions quickly. We want to be innovative and we’re always looking for the new thing, and we can be mobile. So when we want to try something, we can jump on it—we don’t have to go to a board. Our operations team gets called in to talk about how it’s going to work, and we make it happen pretty fast. Being innovative and figuring out ways to make our locations entertainment venues is really important.”

As the company’s marketing executive, “A lot of my job is making sure people pick a B&B theatre, but also getting them to stay longer and make it an experience,” Bobbie says. “We’ve always taken the ‘project picture’ approach, but I think being a showman is more alive and well than ever before. Creating events at our theatres has become a bigger deal. We used to do coloring contests and stuff like that, and that’s still prevalent, but now we’re doing major marketing campaigns to create an event. For First Man, we literally sent a B&B gift card and miniature figurines into the stratosphere. For Jurassic World, we had blowup dinosaur costumes in all 50 locations.”

Bobbie marvels that “all six of us, the three children and their spouses, are all heavily involved in the company, which is not what we ever intended, but I think they get the bug and want in. It’s a fun industry! It’s hard not to get involved on some level. We try really hard on Christmas Day: OK, no talking about work. But we’re all so passionate and excited about what we’re doing…”

So, will there be a fifth generation overseeing B&B Theatres? Bobbie laughs. “The oldest grandkid is mine—she’s five and a half. She’s convinced that my dad, who she calls Baba, is going to build a theatre here in Los Angeles [where Bobbie is based], and Dad said to her, ‘Well, Fiona, it’s really expensive to build in L.A.’ And she put up a lemonade stand and said, ‘This is to build Baba’s movie theatre.’ So you never know, she might just take over! Mom and Dad have six grandkids and they all love movies already, so we’ll see. But no pressure: They’re certainly welcome to branch out, and they’re also welcome [here].”

For Bobbie Bagby Ford, “family” has a broad definition. “While my family is super-important and we all work really hard, we have some employees who are absolutely family to us as well, people who have been with us twenty, thirty, forty years. Dan Van Orden, for instance, who has been around since I was born. Mike Hagan, our VP of finance, who started at 16 and worked his way up. Most of our corporate office are people who started as entry-level employees and moved their way up. We try really hard to cultivate that culture, that family feeling. We can’t do it by ourselves.”