Salt Lake Theatre: “The Cathedral in the Desert”

by LESLIE WILLIAMSON PRICE

Even back in Nauvoo, Illinois, the Mormons had delighted in entertainment, drama, the performing arts, and expression. It is no wonder that they made building a theatre one of their top priorities when they settled into what we now know as the state of Utah. Brigham Young himself is said to have announced the project and worked tirelessly to bring about the Salt Lake Theatre. (Carter, 213)

Interior of the Salt Lake Theatre. Image courtesy of the Special Collections Department, J. Willard Marriott Library, The University of Utah. All rights reserved.

The Salt Lake Theatre was built in 1861 and was located on State Street and First South in downtown Salt Lake City. From the time the project was announced, the city was full of excitement and anticipation for what awaited them when this theatre was completed. The theatre gained immense support from the community. In fact, it gained so much support that many said it was impossible to thank all of the contributors because almost every family in the Valley had played a role in its creation. The Mormons actually completed the theatre before completing the Salt Lake TempleBrigham Young believed that bringing theatre to Salt Lake was a way to bring culture and civilization to the Valley. (Walker, 84)

News of the Salt Lake Theatre spread rapidly upon its completion. Compared to other buildings of its day, it was modest in size. It was only 80 by 144 feet and could hold roughly 1,500 people at once. (Walker, 484) In the beginning, the theatre was tastefully decorated, with two Doric columns and chalky white plaster. It was quite inviting to patrons. However, its renovation in 1873 attempted to make the theatre look like an old European opera house.  In addition to updated décor, the renovation brought about more storage space, larger dressing rooms, and the addition of rehearsal space. New advanced stage equipment provided amazing acoustics and decorative art created an elegant environment. The renovation exposed a spacious, sophisticated theatre that rivaled many other theatres of its day. (Walker, 484)

The Salt Lake Theatre had a rich musical heritage. The performing group valued music and took pride in rehearsing and perfecting each note in performances. The theatre housed an orchestra, band, and choir, all of whom performed at various times while the theatre was opened. Music was present in each production and opera at the theatre. (Pyper, 260)

Production photo of Robin Hood. Image courtesy of the Special Collections Department, J. Willard Marriott Library, The University of Utah. All rights reserved.

As the Salt Lake Theatre was a professional theatre, its actors, musicians, and workers were all paid for their work. However, prior to 1866, the workers were paid with both money and livestock or a very small fee. Some positions were on a volunteer basis only. The 1866-67 season brought about changes in the way they were paid. The theatre had started to take up so much of the workers’ time, that they were unable to work other jobs. Because they were not receiving adequate compensation for working in the theatre, many became concerned about how they would make enough money to survive. Noticing these concerns, Brigham Young called a meeting in the Green Room of the theatre to find a solution. By the end of the meeting he knew the old way of payment was dead. He decided, instead, to pay the company members salaries. These salaries ranged anywhere from $15 to $50 depending on the job. The salaries were composed of one-third cash, one-third store credit, and one-third tithing office pay. Tithing office pay was anything that could have been offered to the LDS church as tithing. It could consist of produce, animals, store-bought goods, etc. These types of items would then help to make up some of their salary. This form of payment stuck and was the method of payment through the remainder of the company’s lifespan. (Henderson, 69)

Many plays were performed at the Salt Lake Theatre, from melodramas to Shakespeare’s works. However, the theatre was not limited to performing plays. Miscellaneous events took place at the theatre from time to time, such as meetings, speeches, children’s parties and balls. (Walker, 485)

The Salt Lake Theatre was a source of unity in the community. Although the Mormon Church always owned the theatre, it was a place where all different people could come together. It welcomed everyone, regardless of faith, class, social status, or political preference. In his dedication speech, Henry Miller stated that the Salt Lake Theatre was “the cathedral in the desert.” (Carter, 260) From that moment on, it was truly thought of as the theatre of the people. The theatre unified the entire community and promoted respect between all involved.

Exterior of the Salt Lake Theatre. Image courtesy of the Special Collections Department, J. Willard Marriott Library, The University of Utah. All rights reserved.

Financially, the Salt Lake Theater never did tremendously well. It never had a great financial team, and struggled to gain profit. The fire and destruction of a rival theatre caused the only financial increases for the Salt Lake theatre, though even then, it had shaky stability and hardly broke even. By 1910, things did not look well for the fate of the Salt Lake Theatre. Motion pictures were gaining popularity and drawing a crowd. Furthermore, the Great Depression was right around the corner and Utah’s economy was in trouble. In 1928, Heber Grant, the president of the Mormon Church at the time, decided that it was necessary to close the theatre. (Walker, 485) Though he had attended productions at the theatre as a child and felt sad about closing it, he felt that based on its financial standings, it was the best thing to do.

His decision spurred much controversy. Many Utahns were outraged and felt that closing the theatre violated pioneer heritage. In response, the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers stepped in to try to preserve the theatre. They suggested renovating the theatre again, moving it to a less expensive location, or turning it into a museum site. Despite their efforts, each of their proposed ideas were rejected and it was ultimately decided that the theatre would be demolished in 1928.

Leslie Williamson Price is a senior at The University of Utah who is majoring in speech communication. She earned an Associate of Science degree in Theater Arts at Snow College.

Sources

K.B. Carter, Museum Memories (Salt Lake City, UT: International Society, Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 2009).

H.R. Lamar, The Theater in Mormon Life and Culture (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1999).

Ronald W. Walker, “Salt Lake Theatre,” Utah History Encyclopedia, The University of Utah.

B.B. Malouf, Social Life and Recreation of the Utah Pioneers (Salt Lake City, UT: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1989).

I.M. Maughan, Pioneer Theatre in the Desert (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Co., 1961).

G.D. Pyper, The Romance of an Old Playhouse (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret News Press, 1937).

G.D. Pyper, The Salt Lake Theatre: souvenir program, October 20, 1928 (Salt Lake City: UT: Seagull Press, 1928).

H.G. Whitney, The Drama in Utah; The Story of the Salt Lake Theatre (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1915).

Ann W. Engar, “Theater in Utah,” Utah History Encyclopedia, The University of Utah.

Terryl L. Givens, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

M.E. Henderson, A History of the Theatre in Salt Lake City from 1850 to 1870 (Evanston, IL: 1934).

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