Old Salt Lake theater may get encore in arts district

City finalizing pact to buy historic building for Broadway shows

By Jared Page and Rebecca Palmer
Deseret Morning News
Published: February 29, 2008
Salt Lake City may look to the past for its Broadway-style theater of the future.

Seated at a makeshift conference table Thursday in the main hall of the rundown and vacant Utah Theater, Mayor Ralph Becker vowed that downtown Salt Lake City in the near future will have a grand theater capable of hosting touring Broadway productions.

And a renovated version of the historic Utah Theater may be that facility, Becker said.

Salt Lake City is finalizing an option agreement to purchase the more than 100-year-old theater at 148 S. Main, the mayor said. City and community leaders anticipate the building becoming a cornerstone of a downtown arts district, possibly as a 2,500-seat performing arts center.

"This theater that has stood here for many, many decades will be revived," Becker said.

City officials also are considering a handful of other possible locations for a Broadway-style theater within a planned arts district for the two-block area bordered by 100 South, State Street, 200 South and West Temple. The Salt Lake Chamber and Downtown Alliance previously announced plans to transform the area into an epicenter for arts, culture and entertainment.

Becker also announced that an expert in the field of theater development, production and management has volunteered to spearhead Salt Lake City's plans to develop a Broadway-style theater downtown. That volunteer is Becker's brother, William.

William Becker has co-produced four Broadway plays and several road productions, including the 2002 Tony Award-winning "Urinetown: The Musical." Along with his business partner Larry Wilker, his company TheatreDreams acquired, restored and operated the Chicago Theatre and also managed the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles.

William Becker will coordinate efforts between city government and the business and arts communities to determine when, where and how the theater will be developed — or in the case of the Utah Theater, redeveloped.

"I've been effectively commissioned to make it happen and make it happen fast," he said.

William Becker said Salt Lake City has several "extraordinary advantages to making this project successful," including the state's cultural heritage, an education system that has the arts ingrained in curriculum and a strong commitment from the business community to making the project happen.

"I come into this project with great confidence that we're going to be able to accomplish an extraordinary amount in a short period of time," he said.

William Becker will head a team of yet-to-be-determined community and business leaders that will make up the mayor's Downtown Theater Action Group. The group will be charged with investigating options for the location, size and financing of the theater and then making a recommendation to the mayor.

Thursday's press event comes a little more than a week after Sandy officials made public their preliminary plans for a Broadway theater, complete with a funding model and a feasibility study supporting the suburban city's cause.

Sandy wants to build a 2,500-plus-seat theater as part of an office, condominium and retail complex near Sandy City Hall. The city plans to hire a theater operator this summer, with 2011 as the target date for its opening.

Studies have indicated that the Salt Lake Valley can only support one such theater.

Mayor Becker said Salt Lake City plans to "move forward very aggressively" to establish a Broadway theater downtown, no matter what Sandy officials choose to do.

"We're aware that Sandy's anxious and wants to move forward with a theater," he said. "We anticipate they'll do what they feel is in the best interest of their community. That's their prerogative."

Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan said he's fine with Salt Lake City wanting to build a Broadway-style theater, though he believes the market can only support one such theater.

"It just depends on who gets under way first," Dolan said. "I think we're further down the line than they'll be in a year. We're thinking of breaking ground this summer."

Dolan said Sandy officials are trying to do what's best for their residents, and he believes Salt Lake City leaders are doing the same for their city.

"I don't care what they do," he said.

Scott McQuarrie, the Utah County developer of the proposed Sandy theater, said he won't change his plans if Salt Lake City builds a theater. The capital city has been wanting to build a theater for decades and hasn't made progress, McQuarrie said.

"It certainly makes sense to do these one at a time," he said.

The plan for a Sandy theater is about 90 percent complete, said McQuarrie, who also developed Seven Peaks Water Park in Provo.

"It's been quite an exhaustive process," he said. "We've done our homework and we think it makes sense."

Salt Lake City officials disagree, saying if the valley can only support one theater, it should be built downtown. Salt Lake County has commissioned a study to assess the valley's performing arts needs, including the best location for Broadway-style theater. That study is not yet complete.

Bob Farrington, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, said a 2005 study commissioned by the city and county indicated the market would support such a theater while holding harmless existing art groups.

Salt Lake City also will rely heavily on William Becker's analysis of where the theater should be located and how it should be operated, the mayor said.

If Utah Theater doesn't become the grand theater, it could be utilized as a film center with two screening rooms and a 700-seat theater, Farrington said.

E-mail: jpage@desnews.com; rpalmer@desnews.com