The Empress Theatre opened in 1916 as a Burlesque show for the local miners at Kennecott. In 1917 it began showing silent movies. The theater remained open through at least 1930.
Stephen Barker, a historian-writer, purchased the Empress Theatre and Gem Theatre and in 1978 began renovating them as part of a Magna City restoration project. Barker hoped to reopen the Empress Theatre for live performances and art films in January or February 1979, but apparently his plans never came to fruition.
Leo W. Ware worked for over a decade, almost single-handedly, to renovate the Empress Theatre for live theater. Ware became the owner of the Empress Theatre after trading for it in a real estate deal in 1983. He invested $30,000 in the renovation and worked for hundreds of hours to rip up tile, remove paint from brick and wood, tear down and erect interior walls, replace floors and repair the ceiling. Some improvements to the exterior of the building were funded by grants from Salt Lake County, the National Park Service, and the Utah Division of State History. Speaking of the hard labor of remodeling, Ware said, “It's only work if you'd rather be doing something else. I'd rather be doing this.”
An early obstacle to his efforts came in July 1984, when the Salt Lake County commissioners decided to raze the “abandoned” Empress Theatre because it was unsafe. They later reversed their decision and gave Ware until 1 December 1984 to make a complete structural renovation of the theater.
An accident and its subsequent physical limitations later prevented Ware from continuing the work on the theater.
In 2006 the Oquirrh Hills Performing Arts Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing culture and education to the Magna community and surrounding areas, leased the Empress Theatre building and is now renovating the historic structure. The theatre reopened on 4 November 2006 with "Forever Plaid", a traditional favorite.
Leo Ware and his family were able to attend one of the first few performances of "Forever Plaid" in the now reopened theater. We are grateful he was able to see his dream come true. Note: Leo passed away on January 3, 2007.
Renovation continues, but the lobby and auditorium are ready to go!