Friday, March 26, 2004
Deseret News

Plan would revive old Utah Theatre

Owners envision turning it into venue for Broadway shows

By Ivan M. Lincoln
Deseret Morning News

    If this were a stage production, the title might be "A Tale of Two Theaters."
   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 patrons.
   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 debate.
   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.
   The 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."
   Workman has 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 arts facility.
   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 fare.
   "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 Valley.
   "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."
   Horiuchi 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 seating."
   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 Pantages.
   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 two.)
   "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 jump in."
   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 base.
   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?
   "It boils 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 proposal."
   Sally Dietlein of Hale Centre Theatre isn't worried. "Good theater builds more good theater," she said earlier this week.
   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 building.)
   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 space.
   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 district."
   During telephone interviews, Ballard said the Utah Theatre 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 theaters."
   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.

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