||Plan would revive old Utah Theatre|
turning it into venue for Broadway shows
By Ivan M.
Deseret Morning News
If this were a stage
production, the title might be "A Tale of Two
The Utah Theatre sits at 148 S. Main, a neglected
waif. Once a showcase theater, the 82-year-old facility has been closed
down and boarded up for years.
Around the corner, at
50 W. 200 South, the 91-year-old Capitol Theatre is continually filled with a
variety of performing arts — Ballet West, Utah Opera and national touring Broadway
shows. Filled to capacity — which it often is — the Capitol seats 1,881
Owners of the Utah Theatre hope to rescue the once palatial
site of theater and vaudeville. But a grand future will come at a grand
price of somewhere between $30 million and $50 million. Clear Channel, the
huge communication/entertainment company that has a national theater
management division, won't underwrite the renovation but has announced it
would pay to help operate the new theater. Exactly how the remodeling
would be paid for and whether it's even a good idea is subject to
The Capitol Theatre, Abravanel Hall and Rose Wagner
Center are all county facilities, and some county leaders fear a new venue
would wind up cannibalizing attendance from them.
county's involvement at this point "is one of watching and waiting and
seeing," Ted Phillips, Mayor Nancy Workman spokesman, said Thursday. "At
this time it's all in the discussion stages, and some serious impact and
budget studies need to be conducted."
concentrated on keeping tax rates flat, and the venue's price tag would
obviously have an impact on that. If the theater is in fact renovated, the
plan would be to eventually turn it over to the county as another county
County Councilman Randy Horiuchi,
however, the Utah Theatre's biggest champion within the
county, believes its time has come. While he concedes attendance at county
arts facilities has been declining, the Utah Theatre would attract a different
audience — with Broadway shows — than the ongoing symphony/opera/drama
"It's a huge economic development tool, and
it's great fun, too," he said. "It's hard for me to believe that people
would not want something so outstanding. Yeah, it is a lot of money, but I
look at it as an investment."
Horiuchi noted that
touring productions of "Mamma Mia," "Les Miserables" and "Phantom of the
Opera," among others, have been completely sold out, with almost half of
the tickets being sold to people living outside of the Salt Lake
"This is something that people come to who
don't usually come to the arts things," he said. "It has such broad
appeal. They are two separate audiences."
and others attempted, unsuccessfully, to persuade the Legislature to
approve a restaurant tax to help fund the theater's renovation last
session, but the issue is not dead.
"It may even be
sooner than the next session," he said.
The Utah was
built in 1919 as the Pantages, part of a nationwide vaudeville chain. It
later became the Orpheum, then, eventually, the Utah. It's
probably best remembered for the nearly two-year "roadshow" movie run of
"The Sound of Music" that began in 1965.
The site is
now owned by Rick Howa Construction, which has proposed renovating the
historic theater to turn it into a Broadway-caliber showhouse seating
about 2,500. Howa acquired the theater, and a handful of adjacent
buildings, in 1994.
A study Howa had done in 1996
showed there wasn't sufficient demand at the time to resurrect the
theater. But newer figures indicate the economy is now right for a 2,500-
to 2,700-seat theater. "The old, historic parts of the building would be
saved, including the main lobby and the old chandeliers," Howa said. "We
would also save 90 percent of the existing ceiling, but we would need to
make the auditorium wider and longer to accommodate additional
Clear Channel, a New York-based
entertainment consortium, is on board to operate the theater once it gets
up and running.
"We have a study that shows 250,000
new patrons downtown during the first year alone," Howa said. "We crunched
Clear Channel's numbers and found that 45 to 48 percent of those
(attending arts events) come from outside Salt Lake County. Of that, 12 to
14 percent come from out of state. They spend the night and spend money on
hotels and restaurants."
In the 1997 study, according
to Howa, it was estimated that construction would cost $85 for an entirely
new theater from the ground up. "The most cost-effective option is to
preserve the Utah Theater." (Currently, there is a
similar theater being built in Madison, Wis., with a $100 million price
tag; the Utah Theater would seat 400 to 600 more
and cost less.)
Architectural renderings done by the
Washington, D.C.-based firm of Martinez & Johnson show that the
original facade — now hidden under a more contemporary front — would be
restored. The theater would likely revert to its original name, the Utah
According to John Ballard, head of Clear
Channel's local office, the enlarged and restored venue would augment the
smaller Capitol Theatre, which is now booked nearly to
capacity. Larger auditoriums are also required by the big-ticket touring
shows, such as "The Lion King," which is currently not scheduled for a Utah stop.
(The Capitol is roughly the same size as most Broadway houses in New York
City, but smaller theaters are OK there, where shows can run for weeks or
months, or even years. More seating is required for touring shows,
however, which are usually limited to just a week or
"We have all the ingredients to make downtown
great," said Howa. "We have to develop something on that property. The
demand is there now and if something is not done now, other cities would
Ballard agreed, noting that if "a
2,500-seat theater went up in Sandy or West Valley City, that's where
Disney would put 'The Lion King.' "
But while some
arts groups are fairly positive about the aspects of a new, larger theater
just around the corner from the Capitol, others in the arts community are
leery of the proposal. They're worried about funding a $45 to $50 million
project, when public funding is already strained. And they're also
concerned about whether there is a sufficient local audience
Chris Lino, managing director for Pioneer Theatre
Company, said Thursday afternoon that "the obvious question is, why should
Salt Lake County tax payers have to provide $40 million in tax dollars to
build a theater for a $8.5 billion company (Clear Channel) which is bigger
than the state of Utah?
down to that question — plus why should the county turn over the
management (of both the Capitol and Utah theaters) to a private company that
would also be a tenant and a competitor for others, including the
not-for-profit tenants. Those are the essential flaws of the
Sally Dietlein of Hale Centre Theatre isn't
worried. "Good theater builds more good theater," she said earlier this
Ballard said the project would also involve the
construction of a new backstage loading dock, which could service both the
Capitol and Utah theaters. (The Capitol Theatre's
stage house abuts the rear of the Utah Theatre
Howa said the adjacent buildings, that
once housed Shapiro's Gifts, Daynes Music and the old Mayflower Cafe,
would be retained by his firm for future use as retail or restaurant
Ballard sees the proposed project "as a great
opportunity. The Capitol Theatre is full; it's solidly booked.
When something is running at capacity, it makes sense to consider
expansion. This would be a great opportunity to create a state-of-the-art
theater with more seats. It would create a stronger downtown entertainment
During telephone interviews, Ballard said
renovation itself would be a private project (with public funding). But
Howa has been interested in Clear Channel's opinion, as the company has
been directly involved in several major projects elsewhere in the country
— notably the newly opened Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore and the Boston
Opera House, scheduled to open in July, plus historic renovations in St.
Louis and Philadelphia.
Clear Channel also owns and
operates three major venues — the Ford Center for the Performing Arts in
New York City, the Ford Oriental Theatre in Chicago and the Canon
Pantages Theatre in Toronto, all of which were
acquired when producer Garth Drabinsky's Toronto-based Livent company went
bankrupt several years ago. Clear Channel would not be an owner in the Utah Theatre, but
would merely operate the facility.
Ballard said Clear
Channel is especially interested in historic preservation. "That's an
important part of this. When it's gone, it's gone, and there's not much
else left in downtown Salt Lake City in terms of historic
Aside from the Capitol and Utah
theaters, the only historic venues still in the downtown area are the old
Rialto, 272 S. Main, now known as the Off Broadway Theatre
(current home to the Laughing Stock improv comedy troupe), and the Studio
Theatre, adjacent to Lamb's Cafe, which
remains boarded up and empty.
Both of these theaters
are much too small for Broadway productions. The Rialto originally seated
about 450 and the Studio accommodated fewer than 300.