Hale Centre Theatre offered 80 performances of the musical “The Scarlet Pimpernel” this fall; many were sold out. All of the tickets to its 50 planned performances of “A Christmas Carol” were claimed by Thanksgiving, “the quickest sellout” its holiday staple has ever had.
The theater’s final tally for ticket sales in 2018 will top a half-million — its current estimate is more than 551,000.
Is Hale’s splashy new two-theater complex in Sandy the key to success for the long-running nonprofit company? Executive producer and vice president Sally Dietlein has another theory — she boasts that Hale Centre Theatre has the best audiences anywhere.
“People will call and say, ‘Can you get us a couple of tickets for Friday night? By the way, what’s playing?’” Dietlein said with a laugh recently, as the Mountain America Performing Arts Centre marked the first anniversary of its opening.
The technical wizardry of the complex’s 907-seat Centre Stage is clearly part of the draw. The newest production to put it to the test: “The Wizard of Oz,” with 16-year-old Utah phenom Lexi Walker in her first stage role, starts Monday.
“Yes, we can fly the monkeys,” Dietlein said. “Yes, the house does spin. Yes, Miss Gulch does ride her bike around in the air. … It’s really fun.”
The Centre Stage is a theater in the round, with 10 concentric circles of seating on a steep slope toward the middle, so even the back row feels close to the action. The stage is a marvel, with a floor platform that slides out to allow a massive rotating platform to rise from below. That platform has sections that rise and descend depending on the need. More sets are lowered from above on cables. And it’s all practically silent, any mechanical noise usually covered by music.
“The technology exists nowhere else in the world,” Dietlein boasted. “But you add to that the costumes, all made in-house; the sets, all made in-house. And the caliber of actors here in Utah are so superb. It is a total experience.”
And Hale Centre fans are enjoying it.
“It’s fun to be in the round,” said Kami Pollock, from Lehi, who attended a recent performance of “The Scarlet Pimpernel.” “There’s no upstage or downstage. It feels more intimate.”
Pollock’s “bestie,” Karena Lapray, also from Lehi, agreed. “They’re able to adjust to the audience. It’s more off the cuff.”
‘The community’s theater’
Hale Centre is usually billed as a “community theater,” a designation associated with smaller, homegrown, sometimes amateur productions. Its fare is routinely family-friendly. Nothing with blood, strong sexuality or swear words will cross the Hale stage.
The theater does hire performers who are in the Actor’s Equity Association, the stage actors’ union that requires livable wages and benefits for its members, but not many.
Though Hale Centre is a member of the American Association of Community Theatre, Dietlein isn’t comfortable with the label.
“We’re not a community theater, but we are the community’s theater,” she said. ”We have 62 full-time employees as costumers, lighting designers and technicians. And we employ about 500 actors and technicians [part-time] every year.”
As a nonprofit, Hale Centre is eligible for Salt Lake County’s Zoo, Arts & Parks funding, raised through sales taxes. This year, Hale Centre received just over $1 million in ZAP money. Next year’s figures have not yet been announced, but Dietlein expected Hale’s funding to increase, considering the increased ticket sales.
In the last year the company performed at its old theater, across the street from the Maverik Center in West Valley City, it sold 344,182 tickets. This year, nearly that many — 332,960, or 60 percent — were bought by the theater’s 29,078 season-ticket holders.
For many, Hale Centre is a family tradition.
Emily Becker, a professional home organizer in Millcreek, started going to Hale Centre Theatre when she was 7 or 8 years old and her parents took her. (She’s 25 now.)
“My sister and I would go through the programs and pick out the same actors from different shows,” Becker said. “The actors were like movie stars to us.”
“We say that we play from 5 to 105,” Dietlein said of Hale Centre’s repertoire. “We can pick what’s just out of New York. We can also pick the ones that didn’t make it from Broadway. And we can cherry-pick from the jewels of past years.”
For 2019, the Centre Stage will house big musicals such as “An American in Paris,” “Matilda,” “Phantom” (not the Andrew Lloyd Webber version), “Seussical” and a to-be-announced blockbuster this summer.
‘Kind of unique’
Hale Centre’s second theater, the 467-seat Jewel Box Stage, has a traditional proscenium stage with a massive LED screen behind it to show animated backdrops.
The Jewel Box will offer slightly — emphasis on slightly — edgier fare in 2019, like the comedy “Steel Magnolias,” the musicals “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” and “The Addams Family,” and a new musical version of Disney’s “Freaky Friday.”
Inside the smaller theater, “when you’re in the audience and you’re looking at [the screen], the depth and dimension on these images are pretty breathtaking,” said Stephen Kerr, one of the two actors portraying Ebenezer Scrooge in Hale’s sold-out production of “A Christmas Carol.”
With so many performances, the actors’ schedules can be grueling, said Josh Richardson, who is playing Jacob Marley opposite Kerr’s Scrooge.
His cast is performing twice on Mondays, twice on Wednesdays, once on Fridays and twice on Saturdays; the alternate cast performs twice a night on Tuesdays and Thursdays, once on Fridays and twice on Saturdays. (The theater goes dark on Sundays.)
“You have to kind of plot your life around your time onstage,” Richardson said. “But it’s so worth it. I’ve been able to do shows with my best friends. And the people I’ve worked with have become my best friends.”
That sense of family permeates Hale Centre’s productions, said Kerr, now in his eighth year as Scrooge.
“There is a real sense of community there with the actors, and with the production staff,” Kerr said, adding that some cast members have been doing “A Christmas Carol” for 20 or 30 years.
Recently, Kerr said, an actor who had played a charwoman in “A Christmas Carol” for many years was dying. With her family’s permission, some 50 of her castmates, past and present, gathered outside her home to sing Christmas carols to her. She died shortly thereafter.
“They’re a community of people who care about each other,” Kerr said. “It’s kind of unique in that respect.”
THE HISTORY OF HALE
Hale Centre Theatre boasts a quirky history. Nathan and Ruth Hale, a young couple from Granger, Utah, started their first community theater in the Salt Lake Valley in the 1940s. They moved to Glendale, Calif., in 1943, as Nathan sought to be a Hollywood movie star. When that dream ended in disappointment, the couple started the Glendale Centre Theatre in 1947.
In 1985, the Hales were getting ready to retire to southern Utah and sold the Glendale theater to Sandra and Allan Dietlein, their daughter and her husband. (It’s still running today.) The Dietleins’ son Mark and his wife, Sally, teamed up with his grandparents and another Hale daughter, Sally Hale Rice, to turn a shuttered South Salt Lake lingerie factory into the Hale Centre Theatre.
Other Hale descendants have emerged from Hale Centre to find fame. Ruth’s grandson Kurt Hale helped launch the “Mormon Cinema” boom of a decade ago, directing “The Singles Ward” (2002) and “Church Ball” (2006). Another grandson, Will Swenson, is a Broadway star who earned a Tony nomination for the 2009 revival of “Hair” and starred in “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” in 2010 and as Javert in the 2014 Broadway revival of “Les Misérables.” (Swenson — who also played P.T. Barnum’s father in the movie “The Greatest Showman” — is the husband, since 2012, of six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald.)
Dorothy, meet Scrooge
Hale Centre Theatre is running two productions this month at the Mountain America Performing Arts Centre, Sandy:
• “The Wizard of Oz,” starring teen Utah singer Lexi Walker, runs Dec. 10 to Feb. 2 on the Centre Stage. Tickets are available at hct.org.
• “A Christmas Carol,” Hale’s holiday tradition, is running through Dec. 24 on the Jewel Box Stage. The show’s run is sold out.
Correction: An earlier version of this story carried a misidentified photo of Ava Hoekstra, the understudy for Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz."