THEATER IN UTAH
Opera poster photograph for "The Bohemian Girl"
Theater in Utah has its beginnings in the Mormon Church and its support
of innocent amusement for its people. From this support came the building
of the Salt Lake Theater, one of the best theaters of its time in the West,
and the growth of amateur dramatic companies in almost every town and settlement.
In the twentieth century much of the theatrical activity in Utah has centered
around the state's universities, with the development of Pioneer Memorial
Theatre at the University of Utah and the Utah Shakespearean Festival at
Southern Utah University.
Even before the Latter-day Saints migrated to Utah, they staged plays and
elaborate pageants in Nauvoo, Illinois, in the early 1840s. Brigham Young
himself played a Peruvian high priest in the play Pizarro staged
there. As soon as the Mormons felt comfortably settled in Salt Lake City,
they again turned to drama for entertainment. In the fall of 1850 the Deseret
Musical and Dramatic Association, which included the Nauvoo Brass Band,
was formed. Performances were held at the Bowery on the temple block. The
first bill included a drama, "Robert Macaire, or the Two Murderers,"
dancing, and a farce entitled "Dead Shot."
In 1852 the Musical and Dramatic Association reorganized as the Deseret
Dramatic Association, with Brigham Young as an honorary member. The Social
Hall was erected and served as a principal place of amusement from 1852
to 1857. Built of adobe with a shingle roof, the Social Hall has been called
the first Little Theatre in America and Brigham Young has been considered
by some to be the father of the Little Theatre movement. The Social Hall's
stage measured twenty by forty feet, tallow candles served as footlights,
and there were dressing rooms off and under the stage. A bust of Shakespeare
was placed above the stage. The orchestra of the Social Hall was directed
by Domenico Ballo, formerly bandmaster at West Point. Smaller towns soon
began to emulate the activities of the Social Hall.
With the arrival of Johnston's Army in 1857, activities at the Social Hall
ceased. The soldiers at Camp Floyd, however, soon organized a theater. The
Camp Floyd Theatre, built of pine boards and canvas, accommodated 200 people.
The Germania Singing Club also opened a social hall at Camp Floyd and put
on performances in German.
In 1859 a new company, the Mechanics' Dramatic Association, was formed in
Salt Lake City. Harry Bowring offered the first floor of his new home for
the theatre, which became known as Bowring's Theater. The theater was located
on 100 South between 300 and 400 East. Brigham Young soon decided that the
Saints should have a first-class theatre, and excavations on the corner
of 100 South and State streets began in July 1861.
The Salt Lake Theatre, finished in March 1862, was the largest structure
yet built by the Saints and cost $100,000. William H. Folsom was the architect
of the exterior, which was Doric in style. E.L.T. Harrison, an architect
from London and recent convert, modeled much of the interior after the London
Drury Lane Theatre. Building supplies came from the now-disbanding Camp
Floyd and the wreckage of government wagons on the trail.
The theater was dedicated with a prayer by Daniel H. Wells, and an address
by Brigham Young. Over 1,500 people crowded the theater for the opening,
and many continued to come for later performances. Dubbed the "Cathedral
in the Desert," the theater became a neutral ground for Mormons and
non-Mormons, although it was controlled by the Mormons.
Early performers at the theater included Thomas A. Lyne, Mr. and Mrs. Selden
Irwin, George Pauncefort, and Julia Dean, with their stock companies. Brigham
Young even allowed ten of his daughters to appear onstage. His daughter
Alice later married Hiram B. Clawson, the first manager of the theater (along
with John T. Caine). Great actors of the time began to come to Salt Lake
City because of the quality of the theater and the sophistication of the
audiences. Maude Adams, a Salt Lake native who went on to star as Peter
Pan on Broadway, was a particular favorite.
With the coming of the railroad, Utah was placed on the national theatrical
circuit, and the Salt Lake Theatre became increasingly secularized as New
York booking agencies virtually controlled its attractions. Church leaders
became uneasy with the loss of local standards and control. The theatre
kept up with the latest technological advancements, though they were costly.
Some 385 oil lamps lit the theater until 1872 when they were replaced by
gas. Then, with the coming of electricity, the Railway Company furnished
the theater with six lamps on each side of the building.
For a time, the Salt Lake Theatre's prominence was challenged by the Walker
Opera House. Built in 1882, it was located on the south side of 200 South
Street between Main and West Temple streets. To settle the dispute between
the two theaters, the New York booking agencies agreed to divide bookings
evenly. In 1891 the Walker Opera House burned down.
Amateur dramatic groups also flourished throughout the state. The Amateur
Dramatic Company of Provo was organized in 1861. The Mutual Improvement
Association of the LDS Church sponsored amateur programs in the 1870s and
1880s. The Salt Lake Dramatic Company, with Lorenzo Snow (later LDS Church
president) as its president, was active in the 1870s, and the Home Dramatic
Company performed from 1880 to 1894.
By the 1890s theater was so popular and taken so seriously that the Deseret
News, Salt Lake Tribune, and Salt Lake Herald all had
a special theater page devoted to coverage of the professional theaters
in Salt Lake. But Salt Lake City still had no permanent dramatic company.
A major force in the development of drama in Utah arrived in 1892--Maud
May Babcock. Babcock was hired as an instructor in elocution and physical
culture at the University of Utah and quickly set about putting together
a sustained program in dramatics. Besides her work at the university, she
also had students at Brigham Young Academy and at Salt Lake public schools.
Under her direction, the newly formed University Dramatic Club put on its
first play in December 1897. With no theater at the university, the club
used LDS ward halls and later the Salt Lake Theatre for its annual performances.
It also began to present performances throughout the state and in parts
The training received in the University Club went home with some of its
students to the smaller communities of Utah. Other club alumni went back
to perform with the University Club players, while still others went on
to professional companies. Blanche Kendall Thomas, for example, became a
New York actress, performing in Ben Hur.
Dramatic activity at the university heightened. The French and German classes
began to produce plays in the original languages. The Order of the Gleam,
a women's literary organization, and the Scribblers' Club, a men's literary
club, sponsored contests for original plays, which were later staged. The
freshman class began to stage an annual production, and the Music Department
began presenting operas at the Salt Lake Theatre.
Besides the Salt Lake Theatre, other important theaters in the early years
of the century were the Colonial, the Garrick, the Grand, the Orpheum, the
Empress, and the Princess. The Grand Theater, in downtown Salt Lake City,
presented stock and variety shows. Later it was renamed the Hippodrome and
was used as a sports arena before it was destroyed by fire in the 1920s.
The Empress, later called the Uptown, was built in 1911 at 53 South Main
Street. Top-quality vaudeville was introduced to Utah with the opening of
the Orpheum Theatre at 132 South State on Christmas Day 1905. Designed by
C.M. Neuhausen, the theater was opulently decorated and became a center
for legitimate theater in Salt Lake City for many years.
Despite the number of professional theaters, there was no professional community
troupe, a deficit Maud May Babcock longed to correct. In the summer of 1915
she formed the Utah Players Stock Company, which performed in the Utah Theatre.
Though much fanfare attended the opening night performance with the LDS
Church authorities, the governor, and the mayor present, the venture failed
financially and the company disbanded.
The University of Utah still did not have a theater on campus for its dramatic
activities. In 1916 the assembly room of the Museum Building was made into
a small theater, and play-production classes were organized for teaching
directing and acting. Babcock still wanted to foster a university/community
theater, and so she and her Varsity Players used the old Social Hall as
a Little Theatre for the university from 1918 until 1921, when the city
condemned it as unsafe.
Moroni Olsen, a former student of Babcock's who had also studied in the
East, formed the Moroni Olsen Players in the fall of 1923; it became the
only successful repertory company in the western United States in the 1920s.
For seven years the company toured Utah, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Wyoming,
California, and Canada putting on plays including Pygmalion and The
Taming of the Shrew for schools, organizations, and communities. When
the Great Depression dried up financial resources, the company disbanded
and Olsen went to Hollywood, where he acted in such films as Annie Oakley
with Barbara Stanwyck.
Particularly after World War I, the growth in popularity of motion pictures
led to the failure of many legitimate theaters. Additionally, the Intermountain
states experienced a recession in the 1920s while overhead and capital expenses
for theaters increased. The Salt Lake Theatre, which had never been a moneymaker,
was in debt and needed $26,000 for renovation. Heber J. Grant, LDS church
president and at one time the major proprietor of the theatre, sold it to
Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph for $200,000. Amidst much controversy,
the theater was demolished in late 1928 and a telephone exchange was erected
in its place.
The Colonial Theatre, which once competed with the Orpheum vaudeville circuit,
became the Victory movie house and the area's pioneer "talking picture"
theatre when it presented Al Jolson in The Singing Fool. It was a
popular place until it was destroyed by fire in 1942. Also during the 1930s,
a number of circuit movie-theater companies were formed. The Latter-day
Saints also showed movies in their cultural halls, with proceeds going to
various church interests.
With the growth of the film industry, Utah state government began aggressively
to promote Utah as a locale for filmmaking. The first film shot on location
in Utah, Tom Mix's Deadwood Dick (1922), used Kanab and the surrounding
area for chases through canyons, immense open plains, and scenic rock formations.
Deadwood Dick was followed by hundreds of other movies, including
Drums Along the Mohawk, My Friend Flicka, My Darling Clementine
and, more recently, Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade.
Legitimate theatrical activity found a home in the state universities and
colleges, with additional support from little theater groups and occasional
road productions. Besides Maud May Babcock, important promoters of theater
at the University of Utah were Lila Eccles Brimhall, C. Lowell Lees, and
Keith M. Engar. Brimhall, a Babcock student and protégé, taught
at the university from 1929 to 1960. Lees for many years directed theater
at the university, worked for a theater to house the university's dramatic
efforts, and introduced children's theater to Utah. Keith Engar instituted
the annual production of a classic Greek play in an outdoor setting.
Dramatic activity also prospered at Brigham Young University. It began with
two or three plays per year being presented in the 1880s. Important names
in BYU's theatre history include T. Earl Pardoe, who taught there from 1919
to 1952 and emphasized dramatic training and performance rather than oral
reading, and Harold I. Hansen, who introduced experimental theater, arena
productions, and children's theater as well as working for a permanent theater
to house the university's dramatic productions. During the years 1951 to
1975, more than 2,700 productions were presented at BYU with to audiences
of more than 2.5 million.
The LDS Church continues its sponsorship of drama outside of the university.
Amateur activity is popular in Mormon ward and stake houses, which are built
with recreational halls and stages. The Mutual Improvement Association also
for a number of years held playwriting contests, in which more than 40,000
1962 was a banner year in Utah theatrical history. In 1962 the Utah Shakespearean
Festival was founded by Fred Adams at Southern Utah University in Cedar
City. The festival season currently extends through the summer. Productions
are staged at the Adams Memorial Theatre, a replica of an Elizabethan playhouse,
and in the Randall Jones Theatre, which opened in 1989. In connection with
the plays, seminars, backstage tours, Renaissance concerts, and feasts are
held. In 1981 the Royal Shakespeare Company staged segments for a Masterpiece
Theater series at the Adams Theatre.
Also in 1962, the centennial year of the Salt Lake Theatre's opening, the
Pioneer Memorial Theatre, a replica of the Salt Lake Theatre, was finally
completed on the University of Utah campus. The theater contains two stages:
the Babcock Theatre, named in honor of Maud May Babcock and located on the
lower level of the theater, and the Lees Main Stage, named in honor of C.
Lowell Lees. Each year the theater presents seven productions. Under Keith
Engar's direction, the theater became known for its presentation of musicals
with local and visiting professional casts. Some years, more season tickets
were sold for the theater than for sports events at the university. Charles
Morey became artistic director of the theatre in 1984 and helped bring to
fruition Utah's first permanent professional acting company, the Pioneer
Summer theatrical productions have been presented at the Silver Wheel Theater
in Park City, at the Lagoon Opera House, and at the Old Lyric Theatre in
Logan. Also during the summer, musicals are staged at Robert Redford's Sundance
Resort, and a laboratory theater for playwrights is sponsored by the Sundance
Institute, the Utah Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, and
various foundations and private donors. Ten playwrights work with actors
and directors while writing, reworking, and polishing scripts. Nearly 70
percent of the plays written at Sundance are eventually produced.
In February 1972 the LDS Church restored the old Lyric Theatre and renamed
it Promised Valley Playhouse. Since that time it has functioned as a community
theater. For a number of years it was the stage for the LDS musical Promised
Valley, which was first produced in 1947.
Active college and university programs and theaters in the early 1990s include
the Grand Theatre at Salt Lake Community College, the Pioneer Theatre Company
at Pioneer Memorial Theatre, the Babcock Theatre at the University of Utah,
TheatreWorks West and the Westminster Players at Westminster College, the
Margetts and Pardoe theaters at BYU, and dramatic productions at Dixie College,
Southern Utah University, Weber State University, and Utah State University.
Community programs and theaters include the Heritage Theater in Perry, the
Terrace Plaza Playhouse in Ogden, the Hunt Mysteries at Snowbird, the Valley
Center Playhouse in Lindon, Bountiful Community Theater, and the Draper
Active independent groups include the Salt Lake Acting Company, which presents
avant-garde plays; the Hale Center Theaters in Salt Lake and Provo, which
present original dramas written by Ruth and Nathan Hale as well as other
family entertainment; City Repertory in the Utah Theater, which presents
musicals, musical reviews, and children's theater; the Page's Lane Theater
in Centerville, which presents family drama and musicals; and the Desert
Star Playhouse in Murray, which focuses on musical melodramas. The Theater
League of Utah, formed in the early 1990s to bring New York touring company
productions to Utah, sponsored extremely popular productions of Les Miserables
and Cats. The Capitol Theater in Logan, first opened in 1923, was
restored and reopened as the Ellen Eccles Theater in 1993.
Despite the financial demands of live stage productions and the competition
from movies, television, and video, Utah theater on the community, school,
church, and professional levels continues to draw audiences, invite participation,
and inspire creativity.
See: Gary James Bergera and Ronald Priddis, Brigham Young University:
A House of Faith (1985); Keith M. Engar, History of Dramatics at
the University of Utah from Beginnings until June 1919 (1948); Helen
Garrity, "The Theatre in Utah" in Utah--A Centennial History
(1949); Myrtle E. Henderson, A History of the Theatre in Salt Lake City
1850-1870 (1934); John Shanks Lindsay, The Mormons and the Theatre
(1905); and Clarence Ronald Olauson, Dramatic Activities at BYU from
Earliest Beginnings to the Present (1962).
Ann W. Engar