Movie buff unchains himself from Utah Theater, but vows to keep fighting to save it

Protester Michael Valentine says positive comments from city leaders led him to end his hunger strike and send an ‘olive branch’ even as he tries to prevent the historic playhouse’s demolition.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Michael Valentine, chained to the Utah Theater in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 8, 2021, has now unhooked himself from the building and ended his hunger strike. But he is continuing his protest to try to save the playhouse from demolition.

A Salt Lake City man has ended his hunger strike and unchained himself from the doors of the dilapidated Utah Theater but says he will persist in protesting outside the historic hall in hopes of averting its demolition.

Movie buff Michael Valentine, who began a vigil outside the downtown Main Street site on Tuesday, said he had sent an “olive branch” to city leaders and repeated his request to meet with City Council members and Mayor Erin Mendenhall.

Valentine said Wednesday he was heartened by public comments from the council that it was reviewing the matter and reversed his plans for a protracted hunger strike after more than 15 hours. Instead of barring the door, he said, he now has set up a table outside the theater to distribute pamphlets to passersby “for a couple more days.”

He told city officials in an email sent early Wednesday it was “a golden opportunity for us to all start fresh and see each other in a new light.”

Valentine and other backers of Save the Utah Pantages Theater continue to oppose the city’s late 2019 contract to sell the 103-year-old playhouse to developers in a deal to bring more affordable apartments and a new pocket park to the central business district.

The group says it has turned up evidence of serious abuses in how the city’s Redevelopment Agency handled its study of reusing the property and in talks on a sale with developers Hines and The LaSalle Group.

Mendenhall and council members had voiced support for Valentine’s free speech rights on Tuesday but warned that his initial protest, including chaining himself to the theater’s entrance, posed a safety issue.

City officials confirmed Tuesday that the RDA is proceeding apace with its plans to sell the site at 144 S. Main. That deal was clinched in late 2019 when the council reluctantly decided the run-down performance venue and longtime movie house would be too expensive to restore in light of other city budget demands.

Global developer Hines is seeking to raze the site and build Main Street Apartments at the location, pending city approval of its plans. The glass-clad skyscraper, to be built next to the Kearns Building, is proposed at 31 stories with 400 luxury apartments, nearly 10% of them with subsidized rents to keep them more affordable.

The city’s pending contract with developers calls for the historic property to be sold for zero dollars in exchange for the affordable dwellings, a new pocket park next door, structure parking on-site and other concessions.