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Bill Becker, left, the older brother of Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, shakes his brother's hand as he prepares to speak to reporters inside the old Utah Theater on Thursday.
Surrounded by cameras in the otherwise dark bowels of the Utah Theater, Ralph Becker trumpeted the still-ornate venue as the "cornerstone" of a downtown arts district and the possible home of a Broadway-class playhouse.
The Salt Lake City mayor announced Thursday that the city has an option agreement to buy Main Street's shuttered Utah Theater, which appears to top a list of five downtown spots (the others were not revealed) for what Becker calls a "grand theater."
The move comes as Sandy makes its play for a similar 2,500-seat, $50 million theater in that suburb, though industry insiders - and Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan - insist the Salt Lake Valley could support only one large venue.
"That's their prerogative," Becker said. "We'll move forward aggressively."
The capital's new mayor hopes to have the upper hand. He pointed to a still-growing Downtown Theater Action Group - comprising arts and business leaders - that will handicap locations and build a budget. He also tapped his brother, Bill Becker - a Tony-award-winning producer and expert in theater development - to be the city's point person in creating an arts district designed to breathe more life into downtown.
Bill Becker, who has volunteered his services, spent 30 years as legal counsel at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Since 2001, his company TheatreDreams has co-produced four Broadway productions; acquired, restored and operated The Chicago Theatre; and managed the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles.
"I have been effectively commissioned to make it happen and make it happen fast," said Bill Becker, who praised Salt Lake City for its "extraordinary advantages" as a cultural hub.
Dating back a dozen years, a series of studies reaches contradictory conclusions about the Utah Theater's potential as a megaplayhouse. And there is the daunting dilemma of funding. No one knows how much a major remodel would cost.
Becker says a Broadway theater ranks among his top priorities, though insiders agree the project will require a substantial public subsidy.
Consider the Salt Lake Chamber on board. Utah's largest business association pledged Thursday to convene key landowners, assist with planning and raise private cash for the undertaking.
"Utah's capital city is the center for arts and culture in the Intermountain West," said chamber President Lane Beattie, noting City Creek Center is expected to attract more than 10 million people annually. "We congratulate Mayor Becker for taking action."
Negotiations also are under way with Rocky Mountain Power to move its substation behind Utah Theater farther west, according to architect Prescott Muir, whose firm is completing a arts-district master plan.
Muir says the move would allow for an expansion of the theater, which is not on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as space for loading docks.
"We have the latitude of maintaining those features that give people the essence of the old theater, but still provide a state-of-the-art theater," he said.
Eventually, Muir says, the fly lofts - the spaces above the Utah Theater and Capitol Theatre stages - could be connected. Parking could be planned underground, while the nearby Regent Street garage would provide a backup.
Though the Utah Theater was constructed with 1,500 seats - in 1918 - Muir says expansion by some 1,000 chairs is possible. Seats then may be stripped from Capitol Theatre to improve sight lines there.
"That way they make a great complement."
Pointing to other downtown theaters and the Salt Palace Convention Center, Downtown Alliance Executive Director Bob Farrington agrees.
"These and other cultural landmarks within Salt Lake City create a synergy that is not present anywhere else in the state," he said.
If the city falls short on financing - or chooses to build on a different parcel - the Utah Theater could become a film center. The idea for two or three screening rooms, and perhaps archive space for Sundance projects, is being pushed by, among others, Scott Anderson, president and CEO of Zions Bank.
While a Sandy-commissioned study showed a Broadway-style theater could succeed in the suburb, Salt Lake County is conducting its own review - due later this year - to see where a large playhouse would best fit.
Broadway Across America (now named NewSpace Entertainment) has been lobbying for a Broadway theater for more than a decade. President John Ballard, who notes the Capitol Theatre has proven success, says Becker's announcement is "very exciting."
"There's no reason to think downtown would be anything but a good location," Ballard said, adding the Utah Theater rehab is "a very good possibility."
* Appointed by his brother, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, Bill Becker will serve as the pro bono ambassador for a team of community leaders dedicated to building a Broadway-class theater downtown.
* Bill Becker, a graduate of Harvard Law School, spent 30 years as general counsel for the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where he helped plan a $400 million expansion.
* A Tony-award winning producer, Becker organized TheatreDreams and currently serves as chairman. Since 2001, the company has co-produced four Broadway productions. It also acquired, restored and operated The Chicago Theatre and managed the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles.
* Admitted to the bars of multiple Eastern states, including the U.S. Supreme Court, Becker has negotiated thousands of arts-related contracts ranging from Les Miserables and the Bolshoi Ballet to CNN debates and Seinfeld.
* Becker lives near Park City with his wife Joan Alper. He can be found hiking, fly-fishing and backcountry skiing.