My childhood memories of seeing movies like "Star Wars" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" for the first time are inextricable from the experience of watching them in the grand movie theaters that once called Salt Lake City home.
The Centre Theater on State Street was torn down in 1989 for an office tower and the multiplex currently occupied by the Salt Lake Film Society. The Villa Theater was repurposed into a rug gallery in 2003. The Regency Theater, the last 70mm projection house in the city, was leveled in the early 90s. I saw a rereleased "Lawrence of Arabia” on that screen before it closed, and having a rapt community in the audience around me was nothing short of transformative.
Hidden in the middle of downtown is our last remaining grand movie theater. I would wager that the majority of the city either doesn’t remember it or even know of its existence. Formerly known as Pantages, the Utah Theater is a shadow of its former glory. A deal was brokered in 2008 by the late Vasilios Priskos, wherein the theater was sold to Salt Lake City, specifically for rehabilitation as a grand movie theater.
Salt Lake County executed a study, one that included architectural and financial plans, that would have saved this landmark and provided a permanent home for three non-profits: Utah Film Center, Salt Lake Film Society and Spy Hop. As with many restoration projects in Utah, including our beloved city building in Washington Square and the Utah State Capitol, costly seismic upgrading is required to meet current standards.
Sadly, plans for the Utah Theater languished under a lack of city and county leadership. Instead, the Eccles theater charged forward without a citizen vote while demolishing three architectural treasures on Main Street in the process.
Currently, the City Council, acting as the board of the Redevelopment Agency is pretending to wring its hands. They claim to be agonizing over loss of the Utah Theater, but they lack any and all courage to step up and define a plan to save it.
In spite of no parking and a $180 million cost to construct the Eccles Theater, expense and lack of parking is the excuse for not saving the Utah Theater. Their “solution” involves building yet another office tower with scraps of the theater as a tomb for what was once there.
The RDA staff insists we have enough theaters in town, missing the point entirely that the Utah Theater is not a typical theater, and we have no grand movie theaters. I am the first to applaud movies found streaming online, but you can’t have a communal event in front of a television.
Salt Lake City needs a grand movie theater. It demands one. Our film industry, our film festivals, our arts, our culture, our children. They all demand what other cities have had for decades. Moreover, Tacoma and Minneapolis have seen fit to restore their Pantages theaters, thus providing a template for bringing our own back to life.
The cost is not insubstantial, but it’s also not as big as many other successful city projects over the past two decades. Saving this icon of movies and film is possible if there is a will to do it, and I know we as a city and state possess that will. Look no further than the fact that we host the top film festival in the country, Sundance.
Please let the City Council know of your support to restore and save the Utah Theater. Please support mayoral candidates who understand the long-term benefits of supporting and preserving our arts and culture.
Pete Ashdown is the president and founder of the internet service provider XMission, which has headquartered in downtown Salt Lake City since 1993. For more information, go to savetheutahtheater.org .