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 of Idaho.
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 Dickwas 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 people participated.
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 Theatre Company.
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 Theater.
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.
Ann W. Engar