Anyone new to a community faces the dilemma of figuring out what the local culture is like. In Utah, with its diverse and often divergent subcultures, it can get a little off-putting.
Here, as a starting point, is information about five distinct aspects of Utah culture that the average newcomer may not know about — but should find interesting.
1. Sundance: A primer
One of Utah’s biggest cultural events is the Sundance Film Festival, in which tens of thousands of movie lovers crowd into Park City (and some Salt Lake City venues) to see the newest in independent film. But its roots predate even the Sundance Institute that puts on the festival.
A group of film fans started the Utah/U.S. Film Festival in September 1978 in Salt Lake City, in what was the Trolley Corners movie theater. (It’s now a 24 Hour Fitness.) Most of the program was dedicated to classic movies, but a couple of programmers put together a roster of eight new movies made by so-called “regional filmmakers” outside the Hollywood mainstream. (The phrase “independent film” wasn’t even a thing yet.)
The festival’s organizers invited a Utah neighbor, actor-producer Robert Redford, to be on their advisory board, and he attended some of the events. (This was around the time Redford was preparing to direct his first movie, “Ordinary People.”) According to legend, watching some of the indie films helped solidify some ideas Redford had, to create a counter to Hollywood’s blockbuster-focused production system. The result was the Sundance Institute, which started in 1981 as a laboratory for independent storytelling.
It was Redford’s friend, the director Sydney Pollack, who advised the festival organizers to move the event to January and to Park City — to give Hollywood types an excuse to take a ski vacation and see some movies. Park City hosted its first festival in 1981, and has been the host city ever since.
With the institute established as an incubator for indie films, Redford sought a showcase for those films. So, in 1985, Sundance Institute officially took over operations of the United States Film Festival. People tended to call it the Sundance Film Festival, and the name became official in 1991.
It was 1989 when the festival cemented its reputation as a place to find the next big thing in movies, when Steven Soderbergh’s “sex, lies and videotape” premiered. Miramax (the company headed by Harvey Weinstein — but enough about him) paid $1 million for the distribution rights, a record for the time, and it went on to win the Palme D’Or at Cannes and became a hit.
Among the hundreds of movies that have premiered at Sundance over the years: “Reservoir Dogs,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “The Blair Witch Project,” “In the Bedroom,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Saw,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Precious,” “Manchester by the Sea,” “Get Out” and “CODA.”
Locals know it’s fun to people-watch in Park City, to catch a glimpse of movie stars, but it’s also a pain logistically with the traffic and parking. Many Utah movie fans opt to see the movies in Salt Lake City instead, where the hassles are reduced. If you’re skiing, they say, it’s a great time to go to Park City, because the slopes are relatively clear because the hotels are filled with people who aren’t skiing.
2. Know the Osmonds
Utah lifers find it weird when newcomers say they have never heard of the Osmond family, because for decades they were the state’s leading cultural export.
Four Osmond brothers — Alan, Wayne, Merrill and Jay — started as a barbershop quartet in Ogden in 1958, and found fame in the ‘60s performing first at Disneyland and later on a variety show hosted by crooner Andy Williams. On Williams’ show, they were joined by their younger brother, Donny, and became super-famous, hitting the charts in the 1970s as pop (and even rock) stars.
Donny went solo, with hits like “Puppy Love,” and then teamed with his sister Marie (the only girl among the family’s nine siblings) on what became a ridiculously popular variety show on ABC that was filmed in the Osmonds’ own studio in Orem. Their signature hit was “A Little Bit Country, a Little Bit Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Donny and Marie also hosted a talk show in the late ‘90s, and had an 11-year Las Vegas residency that ended in 2019.
Meanwhile, younger brother Jimmy, a comic foil to the quintet, scored a surprise hit with “Long Haired Lover From Liverpool,” and became weirdly popular in Japan and the UK. Jimmy also convinced some of his brothers to relocate to Branson, Missouri, for a stretch.
Alan’s son David is a singer who once appeared on “American Idol,” and also has starred in “Dreamcoat.” Alan’s son Nathan is a country singer. Donny’s son Chris is a singer, and this summer appeared on the reality show “Claim to Fame,” surviving elimination to a third-place finish because the other contestants — all related to famous people — didn’t know who his father was.
3. Shooting the works
What’s billed as the nation’s biggest contained fireworks show happens every Independence Day weekend in Provo.
The show, “Stadium of Fire,” was the brainchild of Merrill and Alan Osmond, and started in 1980 at Brigham Young University’s Cougar Stadium (now LaVell Edwards Stadium). It’s a combination of music, patriotic displays and fireworks — lots and lots of fireworks.
For the first four years, the Osmonds were the headlining performers — and some members of the Osmond family were on the bill for all of the ‘80s. The headliners usually come from country or pop — Miley Cyrus was the star attraction in 2008, still in her “Hannah Montana” phase — and sometimes a legacy rock group will perform, like Journey did this year.
After a couple of years of bringing in conservative talkers as emcees — Sean Hannity in 2003, Glenn Beck in 2005 — organizers have worked to keep politics out of the show. Still, the show delivers a particular brand of patriotic fervor that’s in line with Utah County’s conservative demographic.
4. The Provo club scene
Speaking of music and Provo, it shocks newcomers to learn that the city that’s home to BYU has a vibrant music scene that has produced some internationally known rock acts.
The best-known bands that have prospered in Provo are Imagine Dragons and Neon Trees, both of which are led by guys — Dan Reynolds and Tyler Glenn, respectively — who went to BYU and served on missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Both Reynolds and Glenn served in Nebraska, though not at the same time.)
Since becoming famous, Glenn came out as gay, and Reynolds launched the annual LoveLoud Festival as a safe musical space for LGBTQ+ youth. The 2023 edition of LoveLoud is set for Nov. 3 at Salt Lake City’s Delta Center, with Lauv, Mother Mother, Tegan and Sara, and David Archuleta as headliners, with appearances by Reynolds and Glenn.
5. Christmas in Utah
Every place has its unique traditions around Christmas, and Utah is no different.
Most years, Temple Square is a must-see during the holidays, because of the Christmas light display. The show has been muted while the Salt Lake Temple is undergoing extensive restoration, which started in December 2019 and is scheduled to be done sometime in 2025. Trust us — when it’s fully open, the lights are spectacular.
The other light shows downtown are at the Gallivan Center, at 239 S. Main St., and the candy windows at the Macy’s at 21 S. Main, in the City Creek Center — store-window displays decorated entirely with candy, a tradition since the 1970s (when the store was called ZCMI).
Other holiday staples:
• The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square puts on a major Christmas concert, “Savior of the World,” in December at the Conference Center. It’s a combination of holiday music — with a singer and narrator brought in for the occasion. Such singers as Angela Lansbury, Audra McDonald, Renée Fleming, David Archuleta and Kristin Chenoweth have led the show, with such great voices as Walter Cronkite, David McCullough, Jane Seymour, John Rhys-Davies, Tom Brokaw, Hugh Bonneville, David Suchet and the Sesame Street Muppets narrating. (This year’s headliners likely will be announced in October.)
• Utah musician and composer Kurt Bestor stages an annual Christmas concert, with a big band, an orchestra, a children’s choir and a guest artist. This is Bestor’s 36th year of the shows, with David Archuleta as his guest artist. The shows are set for Dec. 14-16 at the Eccles Theatre, 131 S. Main St., Salt Lake City.
• Hale Centre Theatre has been doing its version of “A Christmas Carol” for 39 years — and in its massive in-the-round Centre Stage, it’s quite the spectacle. It runs Nov. 24-Dec. 28, at the Mountain America Performing Arts Centre, 9900 S. Monroe St., Sandy.