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Curtain rises — the past unfolds

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Have you ever wondered how Brigham Young and his pioneer buddies survived without the convenience of a cell phone? Or how Utah functioned in the 1850s without computers or television sets?

Many people probably wish life could be that simple again on occasion — no e-mail, no phone calls, no information-at-your-fingertips or entertainment around the clock.

It was an age when amusement came in the form of social gatherings and theater productions. Sorry, computers and TVs weren't even in the blueprint.

It was a time when Utah pioneers worried more about putting food on the table than getting through traffic on I-15.

Sound a bit refreshing in this day and age of information in a millisecond? Michael Bennett thinks so, and he's guessing you will, too.

Combining his knowledge of history and love for the theater, Bennett hopes to create a nostalgic, 1850-type feeling for theatergoers as Utah celebrates its heritage this month. And that's just the beginning. He hopes to keep the theater going for many years to come.

The village coordinator and mayor of This is the Place Heritage Park is reviving the old Deseret Dramatic Association, which was the first theater production company in Utah territory. It was founded by Brigham Young in the early 1850s to perform in the original Social Hall.

Bennett's version of the Deseret Dramatic Association, a century-and-a-half later, will perform in the reinvented Social Hall at Old Deseret Village at This is the Place Heritage Park.

"If you want to see a play about the pioneers or plays the pioneers saw in the early 1850s in the original Social Hall, this is the place to see them," Bennett said. "That's the reason for the resurrection."

Bennett is presenting two plays, "The Lady of Lyons" and "They Came to Union Fort," in conjunction with the park's first-ever Pioneer Festival, a celebration of pioneer life, July 14-24, at This is the Place Heritage Park.

Built in 1852 and torn down in 1922, the original Social Hall was a focal point of Salt Lake City for many years. Located on State between South Temple and 100 South, it housed various Salt Lake plays, socials, gatherings and banquets until the Salt Lake Theater was built in 1862. Thereafter it was used for secondary functions.

The replication of the Social Hall was dedicated on July 24, 1980, at Old Deseret Village. Bennett has done some theater there — mostly during the Christmas season — but felt it wasn't quite capturing the spirit. "Here we have a replica of the original Social Hall, and it has never been used like it was in the early 1850s. Our intent is that it now become a typical community theater, though it is nothing like a typical community theater."

Bennett, an actor who has appeared in various television productions and films, and who has performed in stage plays all over the country, including one-man shows, will direct and play a small role in "Lyons."

"Lyons" is said to be — depending on whom you believe — the first play performed at the original Social Hall back in 1853. Bennett is reliving the play in honor of Utah's forefathers, who lived lives full of hard work and little entertainment.

"They had to figure out how to shake loose from the daily struggles," Bennett said. "And this is what they had."

Pioneers probably didn't have a hard time getting a hearty laugh out of "Lyons." Written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the play takes place during the post-French Revolution era in Lyon, France.

Described by Bennett as the definitive melodrama in which hissing and booing took place, "Lyons" boasts a complete lineup of characters, including a villain, a wealthy merchant and his ambitious wife, and their daughter.

"The daughter turns down several suitors who were noblemen before the revolution," said Bennett. "So the rejected suitors get together and plot to fool her by having a gardener's son pretend to be an Italian prince."

The girl falls in love with the commoner, but will she marry him? Or will she find out he's a gardener's son before it's too late? Bennett is hoping audiences will come and find out.

"It's a wonderful production that people will enjoy," he said.

Playwright and Utah native Joyce Skidmore will direct "Union Fort," a musical she originally wrote for the 1997 Sesquicentennial.

Constructed in 1852-54 and used as protection against hostilities at the insistence of Brigham Young, Union Fort was transformed from a historical landmark to a shopping mall in the 1990s. Skidmore spent nine months researching the lives of pioneer settlers to preserve their lives in dialogue and music.

"I didn't want the history of that fort to be lost to future generations," she said.

The settlers Skidmore wrote of are from different parts of the world and different states in the Union. The musical tells of the births, deaths and struggles of the Forbush, Brady, Richards, Flake, Boggess/Turpin and Fox families, early settlers whose numerous descendants remain in the area.

"I fictionalize it a little bit but most is from their stories," Skidmore said, not wanting to give away the "Union Forts" plot. "Characters were taken from stories written by the pioneers."

After all the hours of research, Skidmore said, the most rewarding part of the show has been seeing people get in touch with their descendants. "Some of the people that came to auditions found out about their ancestors through the play."

Though the park's Pioneer Festival wraps up on July 24, Bennett plans to keep the Deseret Dramatic Association going with shows like "She Stoops to Conquer" and Shakespeare's "King Lear."

"Take a left at the zoo and go back 150 years," Bennett said. "That's our motto."


E-mail: ptruman@desnews.com