During the renovation of Capitol Theatre, Ballet West dancers found themselves rehearsing in windowed space at the Salt Palace Convention Center during Comic Con.
In a lovely juxtaposition of artistic and popular culture, dancers observed costume-clad attendees wandering by, everybody from Iron Man to Spider-Man and Wonder Woman, all watching them rehearse. Once, a mime came up and performed for them through the glass.
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But perhaps the most humorous moment was during a rehearsal when the dancers cracked up laughing: They’d just been mooned by a dude on a skateboard. "It takes a lot of nerve to moon a studio of ballet dancers, as they have some of the best rear ends in the world," says Adam Sklute, the company’s artistic director.
Welcome to Salt Lake City’s new arts season, marked by the renovation of the Capitol Theatre, the venerable former vaudeville house that’s being retrofitted to be a better home to Utah’s ballet and opera companies, as well as touring Broadway shows and Jazz SLC concerts.
The renovation, along with the building of a new Jesse E. Quinney Ballet Centre, is part of a years-long plan to create "the right-size venue for the right-size work," according to Phil Jordan, director of the Salt Lake County Center for the Arts. That vision includes plans for the controversial, larger 2,500-seat, $116 million performing-arts center to be built just around the corner on Main Street.
For now, construction at the Capitol means Ballet West and Utah Opera will be nomads this fall. The dance company kicks off its season with a revival of "The Firebird" at the University of Utah’s Kingsbury Hall, while the opera company will present its first show at Abravanel Hall. Broadway Across America-Utah shows will be presented at Kingsbury, while the Capitol Theatre’s newest resident company, the Jazz SLC series, will move to the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.
Touching up the grande dame’s makeup » Don a hard hat and step into the construction zone of the Capitol Theatre on a recent weekday, and you’ll see workers detailing molded plaster to match the pattern of the lobby’s historic gold friezes.
The renovation was planned "to keep a very careful and responsible eye toward the history of the theater, the finishes, and the sense of high decorative art that occurred at the time it was built," Jordan says. "Every single finish selection was done with the inspiration of the theater as it is, or as it was historically. We saved the best of the best, and at the same time, improved it for more contemporary bodies."
The theater "will look modernesque with these century-old elements still in place," says Michael Currey, Ballet West’s director of production. "It’s a good mix."
The project, five years in the planning, will be completed in two phases. The remodeled building will open in December for Ballet West’s run of "The Nutcracker" with a new name, the Janet Quinney Lawson Capitol Theatre.
But the promised 30 new toilets, in the adjacent Jesse E. Quinney Ballet Centre, won’t be available until the second phase when the new building opens in October 2014.
For theatergoers, the most prominent visual change will be a new carpeting scheme — more on that later. "Elegant" is the word Cami Munk, communications manager for the Salt Lake County Center for the Arts, uses to describe the selection.
One prominent change is that the lobby’s glass atrium, circa a 1978 remodel, has been removed, while the outlines of expanded concessions, patron services and box-office areas have been added. Planned for installation are six chandeliers that are replicas of those in the original theater.
From the lobby looking to the west, you can see where the theater arches will connect to the angled lines of the new building. Ground was broken Sept. 16, but for now the new building site is just an open pit, with construction details contained in HKS Architects plans and Okland Construction’s work schedules.
Inside the house, theater seats have been removed to prepare for the floor’s refinishing. Seat frames will be painted and refinished, then fitted with new upholstery, complete with more comfortable cushions that also have acoustical properties. New lights will line the aisles, and in front of the stage, new seat wagons will provide more comfortable infill seating, replacing the 44 not-exactly-comfortable chairs currently used for larger Broadway shows.
What most theatergoers won’t ever see are two new separate air-conditioning and heating systems that will regulate temperature differently for performers and for the audience.
On the stage, crews are installing the wooden latticework to support the new sprung floor. The entire stage has been raised to improve sightlines. "We’ve added 6 inches so everybody has a better view of the stage," Jordan says.
In front of the stage, the expanded orchestra pit, which now will fit 50 players, yawns wide open, awaiting the reflective wood surfaces and new electric lifts aimed to improve the sound for musicians and theatergoers. While digging below the stage to expand the pit, construction crews found one of the surprises that come along with any historic project. The exposed soil appeared to be a creek bed, perhaps a branch of City Creek, and needed to be filled in, according to Charles Piper, Salt Lake County project manager.
For stagehands, one of the most heralded changes will be the 2 inches shaved from ceiling beams to allow better access for Broadway-sized set boxes to be wheeled through the hallways.
What won’t change is the theater’s limited backstage space, as the building’s tight fit on the site means there’s no room for expansion. Also not changing will be the expertise needed to back a 53-foot truck into the adjacent parking garage on 200 South, threading through a driveway split by a parking attendant booth "with literally 2 inches to spare," as Currey describes it.Next Page >
Backstage at the Capitol Theatre
Capacity » 1,876
Opened » 1913 as the Orpheum Theatre, a vaudeville house, which also screened silent movies and “talkies”; renamed Capitol Theatre in the 1930s; purchased by Salt Lake County in 1976.
Renovated » In 1970s renovation, the stage was rebuilt, lobby expanded, adding box office and atrium; opened as a performing-arts center in 1978.
Current renovation » Begun in July; will be completed by December.
Phase 1A » $6 million renovation of the newly renamed Janet Quinney Lawson Capitol Theatre; improved sightlines, expanded orchestra pit; also new carpet, improved acoustics, audience seating and accessibility, and heating and air-conditioning systems.
Phase 1B » Construction of adjacent Jesse E. Quinney Ballet Centre, complete with 30 new bathrooms, ballet company offices and studios; scheduled to open Oct. 1, 2014.
Total project » $33.4 million combined budget for renovation and construction.
Backstage at Kingsbury Hall
Capacity » 1,913
Opened » May 22, 1930, as a performing-arts center at the University of Utah; original home for Utah Symphony, Ballet West, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company and Repertory Dance Theatre.
Renovated » 1996; $14 million project expanding back-of-house operations, dressing and rehearsal rooms.
Renovated » 2007; front-of-house changes, eliminating center aisle, adding a rake to the floor and staggered center seating.
Historic elements » House murals, circa 1936, were a Works Progress Administration project; the 17-foot-square panels, designed by Florence E. Ware, depict drama through the ages.
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