No one ever has accused Hale Centre Theatre of stage fright.
With origins stretching back more than 60 years to the Mormon meetinghouse productions of founders Nathan and Ruth Hale, the theater has moved through various scenes and second acts, seemingly without intermission. Today, it’s the most successful community theater in the United States, both in terms of ticket sales and annual operating budget.
"They call us the theater from Mars," Sally Dietlein, the theater’s vice president and chief administrative officer, told The Salt Lake Tribune last March, when the theater announced plans to expand its facility. "Audiences are dying out, but not in Utah.
Hale Centre Theatre’s current West Valley City playhouse averages more than 400 live shows a year — a remarkable schedule that rarely leaves the theater dark.
There’s real drama in the theater’s fiscal story, too. Namely, the extraordinary salaries of its top administrative staff, matched with a prowess that’s earned the nonprofit arts organization an annual largesse of taxpayer funds.
The company’s 2011 tax records show that theater president Mark Dietlein, grandson to founder Ruth Hale, reported $150,996 in income that year, plus $15,000 in additional compensation for his retirement account. Wife Sally Dietlein, the theater’s vice president, received $120,000 in income and also $15,000 in her retirement account. Brent Lange, vice president and chief administrative officer, earned $133,000 plus $12,000 in a retirement account.
Ruth Hale, who wrote such plays as "Handcart Trails," might well blush to learn that the love of theater she and her husband helped kindle now commands an annual operating budget of $7.3 million, up $900,000 from last year.
The question then, as today, is whether taxpayer money injected into the highly subjective world of theater results in better performances for Utah theatergoers, or sound and fury on the stage signifying nothing.
Act II with the Legislature » In the last days of the 2007 session, legislators granted Hale Centre Theatre a $100,000 annual appropriation and $85,000 in one-time grants. The community theater has reaped $87,500 annually ever since in a direct appropriation of taxpayers’ money, a rare distinction among Utah arts organizations.
Now taxpayers and the local theater community watch in suspense as Utah lawmakers consider an encore — a request for $2 million toward Hale’s plans for a new $65 million facility. As outlined by the Dietleins during negotiations back and forth between West Valley City and Sandy, it comes with all the bells and whistles: 20-foot LED walls, 26 rotating stages and generous parking for patrons. Its 1,900 seats would triple the theater’s current capacity.
House Majority Whip Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, made the $2 million request Feb. 19 before members of the Business, Economic Development and Labor Appropriations Subcommittee. Six days later, the theater announced it had declined West Valley City’s offers for an improved facility for a deal with Sandy on 11.5 acres east of Interstate 15.
"Our board is committed to exploring all avenues of fundraising, including both public and private sources," said Robert Brough, chair of Hale’s board of trustees and executive vice president of marketing and communications for Zions Bank.
Hale’s planned move and its request for capital funding from the Legislature come amid a flurry of activity on Utah’s theater landscape. Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker’s administration has worked for years to assemble funding and plans for a $110 million, 2,500-seat Broadway-style Utah Performing Arts Center on Main Street between 100 South and 200 South.
Meanwhile, the Tony Award- and Emmy Award-winning Utah Shakespeare Festival led its own campaign to raise $33 million for a new outdoor theater. With $18 million already raised, the festival went to the Legislature in February 2012 with a request for $5 million, received half a million in March that same year, and later announced a gift of $5 million from a prominent Las Vegas foundation.
On the community-theater front, Bountiful and Centerville cities helped fund construction of Centerville’s CenterPoint Legacy Theatre, which opened in January 2011.
Brough points out that no other community theater nationally comes close to Hale’s size and impact. Hawaii’s Diamond Head Theatre reported an annual operating budget of $1.9 million, the second largest.
Jerry Rapier, producing director of Plan-B Theatre, a small company casting Equity and nonprofessional actors inside Salt Lake City’s Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, said others in Utah’s theater community should acknowledge Hale’s success—but with a few qualifications.
"If anyone else could do what Hale does, and serve the size of audience they do, they too might be going to the Legislature for this type of support," Rapier said. "Hale’s done what few other theater companies can do. They get people into the theater who perhaps have never been to a theater before. That said, if their operating budget has grown by $900,000 in one year alone, and in tough economic times, why do they need legislative support, especially when they just had two municipalities fighting over how to best suit their needs?"
Hale pays its nonprofessional actors between $315 and $585 a week, depending on lead- or ensemble-role status, plus $400 per cast member for a production’s entire rehearsal period, Brough said. In contrast, Pioneer Theatre Company and other professional companies pay Equity rates averaging $825 a week, plus 8 percent toward actor pensions and $167 in contributions to the union’s health-insurance fund.
Brough said comparisons between community and professional theaters must also be set against other community theaters nationwide. "We’re one of the few community theaters that actually pays its actors," Brough said. "Most community companies don’t. Any comparison to an Equity theater would be unfair."Next Page >
Copyright 2013 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.