From ‘Nutcracker’ to Harry Potter to Dickens, holiday shows bring money and new audiences to Utah arts groups

(Photo illustration by Jeremy Harmon) Christmas programming, like Ballet West's "The Nutcracker" and Hale Centre Theatre's "A Christmas Carol," are not just traditions — they're revenue generators and audience builders for Utah arts groups.

For thousands of Utahns, a December trip to Salt Lake City’s Capitol Theatre to see Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker” is a tradition as hallowed as hanging ornaments or reading “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

Dancers have performed “The Nutcracker” in Utah every year for 62 years. And for Ballet West, it’s not just a tradition — it’s a moneymaker.

“This is the only production, based on the sheer repetition of performances, that we can actually generate positive income from it,” said Michael Scolamiero, Ballet West’s executive director. “All the other programs [in the season], that’s not possible.”

Ballet West isn’t the only performing arts group that relies on the holidays. Theater companies, the Utah Symphony and musicians of all genres find jingle bells can attract crowds in a busy winter season.

“The Nutcracker” generates around $2 million in ticket sales on average every year, Scolamiero said. That’s about 40 percent of what the troupe takes in for tickets all season. With 21 performances at the Capitol Theatre from Dec. 14 to 29 — more than the 11 shows of “Swan Lake” next February or the seven performances of “Jewels” earlier this month — “The Nutcracker” will finish at least $100,000 in the black, he said.

That money is plowed back into other productions, but still isn’t enough to cover expenses for the rest of Ballet West’s season, Scolamiero said. That’s why the company — like most ballet troupes around the country — relies on donations, grants, endowments and government aid (in this case, Salt Lake County’s Zoo, Arts and Parks sales tax funding).

“If we charged the actual cost in a ticket price, the prices would more than double,” Scolamiero said. “And then it wouldn’t be accessible to the public.”

“The Nutcracker,” said Ballet West’s artistic director, Adam Sklute, “benefits us year round” in developing audiences and artists.

He frequently hears from people who performed in “The Nutcracker” as a child.

“‘I was a soldier in “The Nutcracker” in 19-blah-blah-blah, and it was so much fun to be there and work hard and be able to be a part of this production,’” Sklute said. “They’ll go and see us in other productions, and they’ll have that personal relationship to the company. That makes it that much more meaningful for them to come and see.”

That feeling carries on “generation after generation,” Sklute said. “They hopefully tell their families, their children, ‘This is what it’s like backstage,’” he said.

Between families attending the show and schools busing in students for matinees, Scolamiero said, “‘The Nutcracker’ is for many people their first introduction, their first exposure, to dance and ballet in general.“

Audience building also is a large part of Utah Symphony’s incentive to schedule Christmas-themed programming.

“You want as broad and diverse a group of the community to all share in the holiday season,” said Paul Meecham, CEO for Utah Symphony | Utah Opera. “We’re focused on what more unusual things we might do one year to bring in a different audience.”

Two of the Utah Symphony’s enduring Christmas traditions at Abravanel Hall are the community sing-along of Handel’s “Messiah” this Saturday and Sunday, and the kid-friendly “Here Comes Santa Claus!” show on Dec. 22.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune file photo ) Members of the audience sing during the Utah Symphony's annual "Messiah" Sing-In at Abravanel Hall, Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013.

A more recent tradition, started in 2016, is a screening of one of the “Harry Potter” films with live musical accompaniment. The third movie in the series, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” will be shown for three nights, Nov. 29-Dec. 1.

The “Potter” series “doesn’t have a specifically holiday theme, but we’ve developed this tradition and people love it,” Meecham said. “It’s bringing in families, it’s bringing in different segments of the community that otherwise may not come through the rest of the year.”

With the movie screenings, Meecham said, the orchestra is “seeing a lot of first-comers to the hall, and they’re now starting to migrate to some of the other series. … We’re trying to develop relationships with our audiences and entice them back with similar things and other things that we do.”

Meecham said the Utah Symphony labored to land two popular acts for Christmas-specific programs: the Irish-themed quartet Celtic Woman on Dec. 18 and the pop-jazz ensemble Pink Martini on Dec. 21-22.

Add two classical programs — Bach’s third and fourth Brandenburg Concertos (Dec. 7-8) and a night of “Bolero” and “Carmen” (Dec. 14-15) — and the orchestra musicians get a workout.

“They like the variety,” Meecham said. “They also like working with top-of-the-line artists. It doesn’t matter what the genre is. … Musicians respect musicians.”

At Ballet West, Sklute said the sheer size of what they jokingly call “the ‘Nutcracker’ factory” gives the troupe’s dancers more chances to show him what they can do.

“It gives an opportunity to try out dancers who might not otherwise get an opportunity to do leading roles throughout the year,” Sklute said. “This is a great opportunity for them to grow, to develop, and it’s an opportunity for me to see them in leading roles, and create the future stars of the company.”

Rehearsals go faster than with most productions, Sklute said, because the veteran dancers know the work pretty much by heart. Ballet West’s founder, Willam Christensen, created the choreography for “The Nutcracker” for the San Francisco Ballet in 1944. He revised it several times before his death in 2001, and Sklute has steadfastly preserved it ever since.

Hale Centre Theatre has a similarly long-lived holiday show: “A Christmas Carol,” a rendition of Charles Dickens’ ghost story. It opens Dec. 1 at the Hale Centre’s new theater in Sandy and runs through Christmas Eve.

Hale’s founders, Nathan and Ruth Hale, started performing “A Christmas Carol” in their first theater in Glendale, Calif., in 1947, said Sally Dietlein, Hale Centre’s vice president and executive producer. (Her husband, Mark, the theater’s president and CEO, is Nathan and Ruth’s grandson.)

“A Christmas Carol” has played in Utah since 1985, she said, but this year’s production will take advantage of the huge video screen on the back wall of the new theater’s jewel-box stage.

“I don’t know if it brings Christmas to people, or if it encourages the feelings that you want to have at Christmas time,” Dietlein said. “More than anything, it’s what we want to say, which is: Can’t we be kinder? Can’t we be more generous? Can’t we look at people with differences in a more gentle way?”

One advantage to the show for Hale Centre’s bottom line: “Because it’s our adaptation, there are no royalties,” Dietlein said.

For Christmas patrons seeking something different, Dietlein said, Hale is offering a production of “The Wizard of Oz,” opening Dec. 10. Teen singing star Lexi Walker, a Utah favorite, will make her live acting debut as Dorothy.

Not every Utah arts group relies on a Christmas cash cow. Pioneer Theatre Company on the University of Utah’s campus proudly bucks the trend with a different production every December. This year’s is “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” a holiday-related sequel to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” which runs Nov. 30-Dec. 15.

“It isn’t ‘A Christmas Carol,’ it isn’t ‘The Nutcracker.’ There will be a tree,” said Karen Azenberg, Pioneer Theatre’s artistic director. “I really do think people look at Pioneer as the arts institution that doesn’t do that in the holiday season, that doesn’t offer the same thing.”


Here are some of the holiday-related concerts and theatrical performances along the Wasatch Front this season. Find details on many performances at nowplayingutah.com.