WEST VALLEY CITY — Show business runs deep in Mark Dietlein’s veins.
His maternal grandfather, so the family lore goes, moved from the family farm in Granger, Utah, to Los Angeles at the end of World War II to be an actor. Nathan Hale wanted to be the next John Wayne or Clark Gable. But he soon found out he wasn’t the only one, and as he stood in line after line at interminable auditions, he seized on the notion that he could play any part he wanted if he owned a theater.
So he and his wife Ruth, an aspiring playwright and fellow acting enthusiast, opened one in the shadow of the Hollywood sign — the Glendale Centre Theatre.
That was in 1947. Nathan died in 1994 and Ruth in 2003, but what they started hasn’t come even close to dying. That playhouse in Glendale is still going strong, the longest continuously running center-stage theater in America, and so are those it has spawned. There are Hale theaters run by extended members of the family in Gilbert, Ariz.; Orem, Utah; and West Valley City, Utah, where Mark is founder and CEO.
Over the years, West Valley’s Hale Centre Theatre has emerged as one of the preeminent community theaters in America. With 23,000 season ticket holders, 65 percent of its seats are guaranteed sold out for the year even before the lights are turned on. The total attendance of 250,000 in 2012 was three times that of any other comparable operation in the country — a situation that prompted the recent announcement that in 2017 the theater will move into a new and more spacious facility in Sandy.
In a conversation with the Deseret News, Mark Dietlein talked about how a theater 700 miles from Hollywood and 2,000 miles from Broadway that stresses family values in its productions has managed to not just survive, but thrive.
Deseret News: How do you account for such extraordinary success for a community, family-oriented theater?
Mark Dietlein: I think there are several factors. Theater is a very fragile business and we’ve been very, very fortunate in this community to have unbelievable support from the public. Seventy-five percent of our budget comes from ticket sales. Twenty-five percent comes from our development efforts, individual donations, sponsorships from companies, foundation grants, and state and county funding, including Zoo Arts and Parks, for which we are very grateful. In 1997 we determined that to meet growing public demand and to have a broader community outreach, ownership of the theater would be given to the community and the theater became a 501(c)3 not-for-profit arts organization. We operate with a much larger board than most nonprofits, and I can’t tell you how important they are in providing oversight and direction. We’re fortunate that we are able to pay a lot of attention to detail in every aspect of the operation, to lighting, to sound, to the business end, to costuming, to our casts. The theater is really several areas of discipline that all come together to create the show. But it really all started with Grandma and Grandpa Hale and the kind of theater they first built in Glendale, Calif.
DN: And what kind of theater was that?
MD: Grandma Hale used to say that the theater was the family farm. Everybody pitched in. I was a janitor at age 8; at 11 I was operating lights and selling concessions. From a very young age, we were on stage as actors. I guess it got in my blood. Grandma Hale was very outspoken and a very unique personality. Grandpa was a little more reserved and quiet, but an excellent actor, writer and creative set builder. So much of who I am today comes from working with and observing my grandparents and parents, who were in partnership in the theater with my grandfolks for 35 years. There was a very, very clear understanding that there were certain things that were acceptable in terms of what we offered on the stage and certain things that were not; and yet Grandma Hale oftentimes said, “Yes, we do family theater, but we are not a namby pamby theater. We want to challenge people, make them think, perhaps surprise them, but all within the confines of a family-acceptable type of offering.”
DN: What defined family-acceptable in her book — and in yours?
MD: Non-offensive I guess is a good way to put it. We want to be able to play to an audience from age 5 to 105. So there are certain shows out there that we know would not be appreciated by that audience and we want to make sure that theater patrons can come with their kids and enjoy it and not be concerned. Another thing Grandma Hale used to say is that we do theater to give people an emotional bath. That encapsulates it so well. The audience wants to feel things vicariously through the actors.
DN: So how do you select and vet your shows to ensure they meet Hale Centre standards?
MD: We have oversight by a board of trustees and there are various committees within that group, one of which is the artistic committee. Their charge is to help find and vet new material. They read scripts, see new shows as they travel and share new ideas. We also get input from our patrons, actors and directors, so it’s an interesting process and there are a lot of people involved in making the decision on which shows we will include in an upcoming year. We also send out surveys to our audience. We’ve been at this now for 28 years and we’ve developed what I’ll refer to as the sixth sense. We have a good idea of what our patrons like. Then we develop creative ideas for the shows. We are careful about how a show is produced. There are many factors to consider. You’ve got costuming, choreography, scenes that deal with love, romance, death and violence. So much is in the delivery. You can take a line in a show and the way in which it’s delivered can be very hard and crass and super cutting or it can be delivered in a way that’s more acceptable to the audience. Again, I don’t want to give the impression that what we do is all scrubbed, squeaky-clean theater. We want people to think and be challenged, but we don’t want to get into full-blown shock value. There is a line and we have to be careful to not cross the line in terms of how we present content.
DN: Do you find any leeway in the scripts and choreography of the shows that you present? Can they be altered at all?
MD: We are starting to see a little more leeway in this regard from publishers and playwrights. Because of some very good relationships we’ve built we’ve been able to seek permission for minor adjustments in shows that have been granted. An example of this is a recent show we did, “9 to 5,” the musical. The publisher acknowledged our request so they sent us a script and said please make your requested rewrites and have it back to us in three days. It was a quick turnaround, but my wife Sally did the rewrite, we sent it back, they approved it, and now that’s an addendum to the back of the script that is an option for community theaters and high schools to use. They know if it will work here that increases the opportunity for it to work for other similar audiences. Over the years the theater has acquired more clout and influence and that’s exciting.
DN: Do you find that in presenting your kind of theater you are often going against the grain?
MD: I wouldn’t say it’s against the grain at all. I’d say different theaters have a different niche to fill and for the most part they play to the audience that attends and supports that theater. The style we do, family offerings, is commonly done throughout the country, perhaps by a majority of the theaters. There are so many shows on Broadway that have family-oriented themes. Our opinion is that the majority of community theatre patrons in the country have a family-based value system that creates the desire to go see things that relate to their values.
DN: What do you suppose Grandma and Grandpa Hale would say if they could see you now?
MD: Well, we hope that Grandma and Grandpa occasionally get a chance to peek in and see what we’re doing; that would be our hope. And I think they would be absolutely tickled pink, because we’ve taken what they started to a new level, especially with our ability to provide creative staging. Our set designer, Kacey Udy and team, have reinvented center-staged theater. We are creating magic that is not done in community theatre anywhere in the country. We’re seeing some of the things we’ve been doing for years show up more routinely on Broadway. They are bringing a lot more of their sets up through the floor. It’s a much more seamless transition, allowing sets to be switched quickly without going to blackouts. We’ve been doing that for 14 years. So, yes, I think the grandfolks would be proud with how we as a staff and theatre board have built on their legacy. It’s just an incredibly fun business and we’ll always be indebted to Grandma and Grandpa for instilling it in us. We just carry the torch that they lit many, many years ago, and we hope that as time goes on we can make it burn brighter and brighter and brighter.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org