The Salt Lake Theater was completed 15 years after the Mormon Pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley. Built at a cost of $100,000, “a fantastic amount at that time,” the theater was “one of the pioneer achievements of its day.” “It gave the desert community one of the outstanding buildings in the West for the performing arts. Although only local actors appeared on its stage at first, its fame soon grew and casts soon included the most famous artists of the day.”
When the Salt Lake Theater was demolished in 1928, the State of Utah lost a physical tie to its Pioneer theatrical heritage.
David O. McKay, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, came up with the concept for the Pioneer Memorial Theater in 1945. The project became “a long-held dream of many Utah leaders in commerce, industry, Church, State and education.” The combination of their efforts made possible the construction of the theater, which gave Salt Lake City “a center it has long needed.”
The Pioneer Memorial Theater was intended to be “the modern counterpart of the old Salt Lake Theater,” a tribute to “the thousands who sat enthralled within its walls” and to the “traditions of our Pioneer theatrical heritage.” Although only parts of the exterior bear any resemblance, the Pioneer Memorial Theater was to be “pleasantly reminiscent of the Salt Lake Theater in architectural design.” Interesting parallels exist between the construction of the two buildings. “Both were commenced on the 1st of July, the original in 1861 and the latter in 1960. It is expected that dedicatory ceremonies for the new theater will be held on the centennial of the original theater, March 6, 1962.”
Construction costs for the Pioneer Memorial Theater were estimated at $1.5 million[1, 5] or $1.75 million dollars. Contributions included $250,000, plus architect's fees valued at $75,000, from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; $500,000 from the State of Utah; $250,000 from Kennecott Copper Corporation; and $25,000 from a theater reserve fund. The University of Athens and Dr. Lowell L. Waters of New York also contributed. A former classmate of President Mckay donated the elevators.
$200,000 was expected to be raised by a seat plaque campaign organized by the Sons of Utah Pioneers at the request of President McKay. For $200, family organizations and individuals could purchase a four by six inch plaque honoring pioneer ancestors who arrived in Utah before the transcontinental railroad was completed on 10 May 1869. One plaque could honor both husband and wife, if they arrived together. The plaque, mounted on the arm rest of the seat, listed the ancestor's name, arrival date, and prominent life achievements. Contributors were also asked to provide the “method of travel (such as covered wagon or handcart), company to which the ancestor was attached, if known, and the occupation or trade of the ancestor.”[1, 2, 5]
The dedication of the Pioneer Memorial Theater was held on 10 October 1962. Only those who had donated to the building were invited and they were able to bring one guest each with them. The audience was mostly in place a full hour the dedicatory exercises began at 8 PM.[7, 8] The audience “looked up instantly whenever anyone entered one of the doors into the theater as if it expected to see a pioneer drama patron.”
The dedication was a theatrical “first night,” with photographers everywhere. With a microphone and tape recorder, John Barlow of KSL Radio interviewed “as many persons as he could buttonhole.” Television cameras for KUED “showed the public who was there and why,” with live coverage beginning a half hour before the ceremony began.[7, 9]
The dedication audience was “perhaps the most formally dressed audience of this or any other social season. It was an occasion for seeing many of Utah's prettiest women, attractively gowned, escorted by distinguished husbands in black ties and satin lapels. It was also one of those rare state-wide occasions when there wasn't a child present.”
Famed conductor Maurice Abravanel attended the dedication, “dashing in” from his second ever rehearsal with the Utah Symphony. For a snack supper, he had “a banana in one hand and a chocolate candy bar in the other.” He ended up giving the chocolate bar to Deseret News reporter Harold Lundstrom.
The dedication ceremony began with two musical numbers by the University of Utah's A Cappella choir, followed by a posting of the colors. Governor Clyde noted “the sadness that the community had felt when the final performance was given in the 'old' Salt Lake Theater back in 1928” and “expressed feelings of a tie with the past and the future” with the construction of the new theater. While offering the dedicatory prayer, President McKay referred to the pioneers when he said, “In memory of their sacrifices, of their art, and desire for the esthetic culture, we have met tonight to dedicate this Pioneer Memorial Theater.” Other speakers were University of Utah President A. Ray Olpin, Dr. C. Lowell Lees, and J. Bracken Lee.
After the dedicatory prayer, the audience sang “The Star Spangled Banner,” then the first production, “Hamlet,” was presented. During the intermission, audience members crowded the Green Room for complimentary grape punch and “to see who was in attendance.” After the final curtain of the play, near midnight, audience members lingered to search for the names of their pioneer ancestors on the seat plaques.
Harold Lundstrom of the Deseret News described the dedication as “one of the most significant Utah cultural events of its generation . . . a wonderful and historic occasion, one that is not likely ever to be forgotten by anyone present.”
Praise for Theater
An article in the Manti Messenger stated, “The building of the Pioneer Memorial Theater is but one facet of the state spirit. The men with the vision, strength and singleness of purpose necessary to bring about this monument are today's pioneers adding to a rich pioneer heritage. They are full contributors to a state already wealthy with the unselfish act of its forbearers.”
Howard Pearson of the Deseret News said, “Utah, which has led out in cultural achievements for more than 100 years, marches into the vanguard of the new 'cultural awakening' throughout the U.S. by opening the Pioneer Memorial Theater Oct. 10.”
In a Deseret News editorial, the Pioneer Memorial Theater was called “an inspiring symbol of the burgeoning growth and development of the cultural arts throughout our state and nation” and a “a tribute to the heritage in the performing arts to which our early pioneers gave enthusiastic artistic dedication.”
The Pioneer Memorial Theatre was designed as an “intimate but luxurious theater,” but was large enough that “any type play could be presented.” The exterior featured stone faced columns and massive cast stone walls. The interior held service areas, offices, classrooms, a theater-in-the-round, and practice stages. The lobby was “large enough to accommodate audiences without crowding.” The parking lot had spaces for 500 cars.
The main auditorium had seating for just under 1,000. “It will create an intimacy between performer and audience not found in larger halls, yet it is large enough for full state and campus participation.” Aisles were “wide enough for four persons to walk abreast” and rows were spaced far enough apart that “no patron will have to stand to let another person pass.” Carpeting was near-orange in color, which blended “well with the bright orange of the seats.” Seats on all three levels had an unobstructed view of the stage.
The “cavernous stage with its elevator in the center” helped shorten the usual four-hour length of “Hamlet” by speeding scene changes. The complex lighting and dimming devices used 300 conduits, “preset through the use of IBM cards.”[2, 3] Although the acoustics were designed “so not even microphones will be necessary if actors produce their voices normally,” Howard Pearson reported in his review of “Hamlet” that problems with the sound system resulted in squealing microphones and “some speeches” that could not be heard.
1. "Local Pioneers May be Honored in New Memorial Section", Vernal Express, 05 November 1959
2. "Pioneer Memorial Theater Grows at U. of U", Manti Messenger, 28 September 1961 , page 2
3. "Pioneer Theater Opens Wednesday", Deseret News, 05 October 1962 , page B1
4. "Our Pioneer Memorial Theater", Deseret News, 10 October 1962 , page A16
5. "U. Rites Open New Theater", Deseret News, 11 October 1962 , page A1
6. "'Hamlet' Offers Thrill For U. 'First-Nighters'", Deseret News, 11 October 1962 , page A6
7. "Theater Was Top Star", Deseret News, 11 October 1962 , page A6
8. "Moores Attend Dedication of New Theatre", Summit County Bee Park Record, 18 October 1962 , page 1
9. Advertisement, Deseret News, 10 October 1962, page B12