Film historian brings new life to old Magna theatres

By Catherine Fehr, Tribune Staff Writer
Salt Lake Tribune, 14 May 1978, page E11
MAGNA - In most instances, motion picture companies decide which films the public will see. Those films which are promoted most draw the largest audiences, and as a result, are the ones with which the general public is familiar.

Stephen Barker, 28, who purchased Magna's Gem and Empress theatres and is renovating them as part of the city's restoration project, is creating an atmosphere where theatre-goers can see performances of their choice.

Barker, an historian-writer, received his degree in history from the University of utah. While doing survey work for the Utah Historical Society in 1974, he became interested in restoring historical landmarks.

At this time he "looked at the Capitol Theatre and fell in love with it." Although it was too expensive for Barker to buy, he discovered the Empress and Gem theatres.

Before buying these theatres, however, Barker spent a year in Washington D. C. doing research at the Library of Congress for his film reference book, "Literature in Film," to be published in August 1978.

While in Washington, Barker found there is "no such thing as a film library in the entire world. If you saw how they maintained records you would be appalled," he said.

According to Barker, the movie companies want to sell movies: Therefore, when films finish a run, the companies would rather put them out of circulation in order to make room for new motion picture releases which could draw more revenue.

"Films are very important to education, and there are some incredible films sitting in storage," Barker said.

Barker reopened the 540 seat Gem Theatre on March 15 and has been working through both major motion picture companies and smaller film outfits to bring good movies "out of the mothballs" to show at his theatre.

He says one can be sure that anything showing at the Gem will not be showing anywhere else in the Salt Lake area.

Since it is difficult to fill 540 seats every night of the week, Barker is making the Gem a "private theatre" where clubs can screen films of special interest to their group for the price of the picture.

The Utah Cinema Council will have a special showing of the "Man Who Skied Down Everest," the 1975 Academy Award winner for best documentary film.

Barker said he has also spoken with the Eagles and the Salt Lake Gulls about using the theatre to show hockey, baseball, and other sport films.

Beginning June 17, special children's matinees sponsored by the Parent Teacher Association will be held each Saturday throughout the summer. Scheduled films include "Huckleberry Finn," Gullivers Travels," and "Treasure Island."

Students at Brockbank Junior High School, the theatre's most loyal patrons, according to Barker, have organized a movie club through the Gem called the Braves. Barker said members of this club will be able to choose movies which come to the theatre by voting from a list of available motion pictures.

Through the institution of these programs, Barker forsees the Gem becoming a theatre that will "show everything - especially things that are different."

The Empress will open in January or February of 1979 and will feature "strictly live performances and art films."