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Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014

Capitol Theatre serves as a 'memory builder' 101 years after its construction

By Whitney Butters, Deseret News

Published: Sat, Aug. 23 8:05 p.m. MDT

 The Capitol Theatre has undergone renovations as part of a joint project with Ballet West. The Capitol Theatre was closed for several months in 2013 as auditorium seats were reupholstered, aisle lighting was replaced, acoustics were improved and more.

The Capitol Theatre has undergone renovations as part of a joint project with Ballet West. The Capitol Theatre was closed for several months in 2013 as auditorium seats were reupholstered, aisle lighting was replaced, acoustics were improved and more.

(Dennis Mecham, Provided by Salt Lake County Center for the Arts)

Editor’s note: This is the seventh story in a series highlighting arts organizations around Utah.

A glance at the monitor in her office was all it took for Kerry McCoun to recognize that the climax was coming.

It was at the Capitol Theatre during a matinee performance of “Wicked” as the song “Defying Gravity” was about to conclude the first act. McCoun, patron services manager for the Salt Lake County Center for the Arts, the organization that manages the theater, had previously seen the show as a patron and knew it was a moment she didn’t want to miss.

She quickly ran to the mezzanine level, positioning herself in just the right spot.

But it wasn’t the performers she was hoping to see — it was the audience. Just as she caught a glimpse of those in the crowd, they exploded into a loud roar of applause.

“When people love to be here and love to see a show … it’s a real reward to me,” McCoun said.

It’s 101 years of moments such as these that have turned the Janet Quinney Lawson Capitol Theatre into one of Utah’s most recognizable artistic landmarks. Countless patrons have walked through its doors over the years to participate in its many offerings and have left having had an unforgettable experience.

“Something exciting happens at Capitol Theatre, whether it’s an opera, play or a silent film,” said Cami Munk, Salt Lake County Center for the Arts communication manager. “When you come to the theater, it’s for something exciting. It’s a memory builder.”

Creating a legacy

Theaters were not new to Utah’s artistic landscape by the time the Capitol Theatre came around.

According to John S. Lindsay’s “The Mormons and Theatre, or, the History of Theatricals in Utah,” amusement halls began springing up in the Salt Lake area as early as 1850 and flourished from then on.

Capitol Theatre, originally known as the Orpheum Theater, was constructed as part of a chain of Orpheum theaters built throughout the country during the first three decades of the 20th century, McCoun explained.

According to a written history by Steven T. Baird Architects, the company hired San Francisco architect G. Albert Lansburgh to construct the $250,000 theater in an Italian Renaissance style, complete with lighting, ventilation and water sprays in case of fire, all of which were state-of-the-art technology for their day.

“In point of architecture, appointments, size and all the latest improvements, Salt Lake can now truthfully boast of having one of the finest theaters in America,” stated a Deseret Evening News article published to announce the theater’s opening.

The vaudeville house first opened its doors on Saturday, Aug. 2, 1913, and received a positive response.

In a review following the inaugural performance, the Deseret News wrote that the Orpheum Theater opened with “a blaze of brilliance” and that “long before 8 o’clock, the street in front of the lobby was congested by the arrival of throngs of automobiles.”

The theater continued to serve as a premier vaudeville venue for several years, and in 1923, silent films were added to the theater’s roster, according to SLCCA. The Orpheum company sold the theater and the theater was renamed to Capitol Theatre in 1927, and two years later, the first “talkies” were shown on the screen.

Tragedy struck the theater on July 4, 1949, when the building caught on fire during a matinee performance. While all of the patrons were safely evacuated from the building, the fire claimed the life of one of the theater’s ushers, 17-year-old Richard L. Duffin, according to a July 5, 1949, edition of the Deseret News.

Despite the setback caused by the fire, the theater continued on with movies as its main attraction until it became apparent the theater was in need of a makeover, McCoun said.

In 1975, the residents of Salt Lake County answered this need by passing an $8.6 million Bicentennial Bond that allowed for the Capitol Theatre to be renovated and turned into the performing arts center it is known as today, according to SLCCA. The renovation was completed by Steven T. Baird Architects. Salt Lake County took over ownership under the bond and reopened the theater in 1978 as part of the Salt Lake County Center for the Arts.

After undergoing renovations, fires, hard economic times and more, the Capitol Theatre celebrated its 100th year in 2013 and has prevailed in continuously providing art for the people of Utah.

The goal of the Salt Lake County Center for the Arts has remained the same since it first began managing the Capitol Theatre during the 1975 renovation.

“Together, we provide world-class venues and services for the community’s cultural enrichment and entertainment,” according to the organization’s mission statement.

The organization also oversees Abravanel Hall and the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. McCoun explained that SLCCA and its venues are now a sort of “landlord” for the arts as they provide services including building maintenance, ticket offices and ushers for the performing organizations.

“We just want to give them a lovely experience and create an atmosphere,” she said.

Making memories

From patron to volunteer to employee, Melinda Cavallaro has built years of memories at the Capitol Theatre.

She remembers sitting at the top of the balcony as a young girl when she went to the theater for the first time to see dancer Virginia Tanner perform.

In 1985 she became a volunteer usher, and from then on, she said, she was “hooked” to the “beauty in life” the theater’s programs provided. She has since filled many positions at SLCCA and is now the associate division director.

Although not every patron’s experience is like Cavallaro’s, hers is an example of how the Capitol Theatre has been impacting lives for decades.

“I think for anybody that’s an art lover, it’s a beautiful venue, and there’s been life-changing moments of theater that have occurred in here,” McCoun said.

Cinderblock walls in the theater’s basement visually reflect some of the history of many life-changing and memorable performances. They are filled with paintings and autographs from many local and traveling shows that have performed at the historic theater.

Among the productions featured is “Annie Get Your Gun” when Tom Wopat of “Dukes of Hazard” and Marlu Henner of “Evening Shade” starred; “Sweet Charity” with Molly Ringwald; and “The Drowsy Chaperone” with Jonathan Crombie, who played Gilbert Blythe in CBC Television's “Anne of Green Gables.”

The theater has also been featured on TV, including during the CW’s “Breaking Pointe” series about Ballet West and twice on the popular dance competition show “So You Think You Can Dance.”

Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov performed with his White Oak Dance Project in 1993. The famous mime Marcel Marceau has also taken the stage with his silent act, as well as the Alvin Ailey Dance Company and more.

With other notable performances such as “Wicked,” “Les Miserables” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” Cavallaro said she often reminds her staff that the Capitol Theatre is creating memorable experiences not only for the patrons but also for the numerous dancers, actors and musicians that take the stage to share their talents.

“We’re about dream fulfillment here,” she said.

Building the future

Capitol Theatre may be a century old, but its future is bright as it is set to become part of what Munk believes will be a “flagship” for the arts in Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County.

In May 2013, SLCCA and Ballet West announced a $32 million project to renovate Capitol Theatre and build the Jessie Eccles Quinney Ballet Centre next to the theater.

The Capitol Theatre was closed for several months last year as auditorium seats were reupholstered, aisle lighting was replaced, acoustics were improved and more. The theater reopened for its first public performance on Dec. 6, 2013, just in time for its annual run of “The Nutcracker.”

Meanwhile, the Jessie Eccles Quinney Ballet Centre is being constructed next door as the home for Ballet West’s dance companies, administrative offices, Ballet West Academy and costume shop. Capitol Theatre will also expand into the building, which will provide access to additional restrooms and increase lobby space. The “cutting through” to connect the two buildings is set to happen in the coming weeks with the entire project currently on schedule to be completed in November, Munk said.

“People love Capitol Theatre, and to have the opportunity to both add to it with the new building next door and also maintain the historic aspects and make it better has been a really fun project,” she said.

And with the completion of the project, SLCCA administration intends for the stage of Capitol Theatre to continue as a “world-class” venue.

“Capitol Theatre is one of the gems of not only Salt Lake City but of Utah,” Cavallaro said. “It’s just something we need to value in the years to come.”

Visit arttix.org for a list of upcoming performances at the Capitol Theatre.

Email: wbutters@deseretnews.com, Twitter: WhitneyButters

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1. Informed Voter
South Jordan, UT,
Aug. 23, 2014

It is a beautiful theater but as I sat in the balcony I thought it was a firetrap. No way could people escape a fire due to the limited exits and crowded stairways.