Utah Theater goes from rundown theater to an engineering masterpiece

Gary Griffith and Michael Ballam stand in front of the snack bar that was moved from its original location to part of the expanded theater foyer.

The repurposed Utah Theater is more than a restoration project, it is a modern engineering masterpiece. The project took a rundown movie house and made it a state of the art theater complex that has multiple uses.

The exterior of the Utah Theater looks like it did when it opened in 1935 as a showhouse in downtown Logan.

Screening classic movies is only one of its uses. It is also used for live productions, recitals, receptions, and during the summer it becomes an increasingly popular silent movie venue, with a live organist filling the hall with music and sound effects

The renovation included a fully expanded stage, fly loft, new modern lighting and sound systems, orchestra pit and organ chamber, rehearsal space, dressing rooms and rooftop garden.

Curtains, background scenery, lights, the stage floor and the organ elevator are all operated by modern electronics. The conduit running through the ceiling back stage looks like something on a spaceship in a sci-fi movie.

When it opened as the Roxy Theatre in 1935 it was a showhouse with projector room in the back of the balcony showing 35 mm films.

It was renamed Utah Theatre in 1956 and for the next 49 years screened first run movies. In 2005, the Utah Theatre was forced to cease showing first run movies and began use as a venue for live performances, with the occasional screening of a classic film.

The ornate keyboard of the Mighty Wurlitzer built in the 1920s is stored in it’s own special place below the stage. The organ is one of four in the State of Utah.

Michael Ballam, the Founding General Director of the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre, had a vision of the old movie house on 18 West Center Street in Logan.

“I had seen a beautiful restored theater in the Palo Alto Theater, they had a Mighty Wurlitzer Organ,” he said. “We happen to own a Mighty Wurlitzer that needed a home, and the valley needed a midsized theater for productions.”

“I thought for a long time the Utah Theater could be another stage the opera festival could use,” he said. “We needed a mid-sized stage.”

When they had the option to buy the Garrett Insurance Building adjacent to the theater they took it.

“Buying the building gave us the opportunity to expand the stage,” he said. “We doubled the size of the building so it could be used for just about anything we wanted to use it for.”

Ballam said they expanded the back of the stage past the alley behind the theater and made the Book Table’s outside wall the back of the stage. That gave them the space needed for their stage productions.

It took nine years to complete the remodel, as it grew in scope and magnitude. As a non-profit, they had to wait on funding.  The 2008 economic crisis was not good for non-profits, Ballam said.

Michael Ballam and Gary Griffith visit in the front of the restored theater.

“Raymond Construction Company slowed down so we could accumulate the needed funding.”

Another time-costing element was the space for the organ pipes. They were digging down 15 feet and hit an aquifer. That caused another delay.

“The organ pipes are 18 feet high, when we dug down, we ran into water and the hole went from a 30 foot by 30 foot hole to a 50 foot by 50 foot hole,” he said. “The organ chamber is floating in an ocean of water.”

They put a water membrane under the floor. The organ pipes are floating on water and sump pumps were installed to keep water out of the chamber.

“We had to reengineer the building. Nobody knew we had an aquifer that close to the surface, Ballam said. “We later found it mentioned in some early pioneer journals.”

The Mighty Wurlitzer was donated by a family that had one built in the 1920s. The family bought it and built a house around it. When they were ready to get rid of the organ, they went on the internet to see if they could find a home for it.

“We were contacted and I went out to look at it,” he said. “It blew me away! Then we started to find other sources for parts to get it installed.”

Now the $2.5 million pipe organ has a prominent place in the Utah Theater. It is stored under the stage, with a grand piano, and has a dedicated elevator to bring them to stage level. The Mighty Wurlitzer is used a lot in the summers for the silent movies and concerts.

Goddess of the Arts in Greek Mythology was put in a prominent spot in the center of the ceiling above the stage.

The repurposed theater is also rented out by elementary schools, as a reward for reading goals met.

The classic movie audiences are growing, said Gary Griffith, the managing director for the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre. He has people decorate the theater to match the themes of the month. February was Romance month. March will be John Wayne month.

The renovation could not have been possible without major donations from Larry H. & Gail Miller, the George S. & Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation, the State of Utah, John & Nancy Schellkopf and others.

 

 

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