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HISTORIC EGYPTIAN THEATER WORTHY OF OGDENITES’ SUPPORT

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It struck me as slightly ironic the other afternoon, as I was about to embark on a tour of the historic Egyptian Theater in downtown Ogden, that the piles of debris and the barricaded excavation in front of the building look an awful lot like an archaeological dig.

When you consider that the design for the ornate theater, constructed by the D. H. Peery Estate in 1923-24, was inspired by the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb in Egypt just two years before, the comparison is not that unlikely.The unearthing of King Tut's tomb and its treasures sparked nationwide interest in Egyptian decor, and theaters with similar motifs (with varying degrees of authenticity) sprang up all over the place, including Los Angeles and even in Boise and Park City. But Ogden's Egyptian Theater is one of only two authentic "atmospheric" auditoriums still standing in the United States that are considered to be nearly exact replicas of ancient Egyptian temples. One, in De Kalb, Ill., has been restored and is now the centerpiece of that city's cultural activities.

On Tuesday, Ogden voters will participate in a $2 million bond election, giving them an opportunity to ensure that the Egyptian Theater can be preserved as a cultural arts center to enhance the downtown district.

Big, elegant theaters such as the Egyptian are a rarity these days. Many have been torn down or remodeled for other purposes - everything from bowling alleys to parking garages. But, in most instances, the theaters that have been preserved have spearheaded a dramatic economic turnaround in the areas where they're located.

When I moved to Utah more than 20 years ago, I lived in Ogden. And one of the first things I did when I had a free evening was to go to a movie at the Egyptian. I really don't remember what was playing. I think it was something with Doris Day. I was too fascinated by the theater's decor, even though much of it had been obliterated in the name of "progress" by the operators at the time. I was especially awed by the ceiling, with its twinkling stars and authentic looking clouds.

Bernie Allen, president of the Egyptian Theater Foundation, who was my tour guide last week, had the same impression when he was a youngster. He commented that when his father took him to a movie at the Egyptian once, it was thundering and raining outside. When he got inside, he looked up at what he thought was the sky and wondered why it had suddenly stopped raining. That's how realistic the ceiling once appeared.

The theater's huge auditorium was designed to give audiences the impression of being inside the courtyard of an Egyptian temple. There were stately columns, delicately painted panels, authentic hieroglyphics, statues holding giant urns (which spewed clouds of steam) and murals depicting Egyptian kings and queens.

To moviegoers accustomed to the closet-size screening rooms of today, it would be a breathtaking spectacle.

The original Peery's Egyptian also featured one of the region's largest Wurlitzer pipe organs. Jim Williams of the Theater Organ Society was at the Egyptian during the tour and noted that a smaller pipe organ has been donated by an Ogden family for the restoration project.

By the time the Egyptian Theater closed just a few years ago, it had fallen into a state of disrepair. At one time it was the premiere showhouse in Ogden, hosting some important world premieres, but during the mid-80s it had deteriorated into a "dollar house."

One company that had been leasing the space in recent years tried a rather bizarre - and scientifically unsound - makeshift approach to replacing the theater's heating system. It had heaters placed on the roof, then drilled holes through the ceiling, apparently thinking that rays of heat could be forced to sink to the audience below.

Ironically, the original heating vents at floor level along the sides of the auditorium were still in place and could have been used, instead of damaging the ceiling.

Bernie Allen pointed out during our recent tour that the Egyptian Theater building is structurally sound. At one time, it was designated as a bomb shelter, and it would take considerably more than a wrecking ball to raze the theater. He was also pleased that the same company that produced the original terra cotta decor on the building is still in existence and is among the bidders on the project.

The price tag for the work, which would transform what is now a down-at-the-heels Cinderella into a sparkling gem, is $2 million. That's considerably less than what it would cost to build a similar structure from the ground up. There are already a number of potential tenants and performing groups interested in utilizing the theater. There is also space available in the building for restaurants and offices.

Many Ogdenites probably are not aware of the big upstairs space directly over the front entrance, running the full width of the building, with windows overlooking Washington Boulevard. At one time it housed an indoor miniature golf course. It would be a great place for a restaurant - and Allen said the concrete roof is sturdy enough that a "roof garden" cafe would be feasible.

I no longer live in Ogden, so I won't be able to cast my vote in the bond election on Tuesday. But if I did, I would be excited about voting in in favor of the bond and I'd be more than willing to expend the additional property taxes requested for such a worthy endeavor.

There are four separate propositions on the Tuesday ballot. They are: (A) $5 million for road repair; (B) $2.215 million for renovations at Union Station; (C) $2.175 million for beautifying the Municipal Gardens, and (D) $2 million for restoration of the Egyptian Theatre.

All four amount to slightly more than $58 in property taxes on a $75,000 home over the next 10 years.

Allen said that whether or not the Egyptian Theater bond passes, the theater will eventually be restored. The bond would expedite things and get the theater up and running considerably sooner.

Theaters such as the Egyptian are part of our architctural heritage. The 5th Avenue in Seattle, the "Fabulous Fox" in St. Louis and the newly restored Castro in San Francisco (which had been "twinned" at one time, then just recently re-converted into a single-screen showhouse) are all landmarks that deserved to be preserved. The Egyptian Theater in Ogden belongs in this group.

Ogdenites have an opportunity on Tuesday to salvage one of the city's most important structures.

Go for it!