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Rose Wagner Center blooms on 300 South

Years ago, during the Great Depression, the area around West Temple and 300 South was a ramshackle collection of warehouses, small stores and the red-light district.

This weekend, on the same property where he grew up, three of the most important women in I.J. "Izzi" Wagner's life will be formally honored as the second phase of the Rose Wagner Center for the Performing Arts is opened during a private celebration. The event coincides with Wagner's 86th birthday.

The Rose Wagner Center is named in honor of Wagner's mother, a native of Latvia who came to Utah in 1912. The complex encompasses two performing-arts venues — the 180-seat Leona Wagner Black Box Theatre, completed in 1966, named in honor of Wagner's late sister, and the new, 500-seat Jeanne Wagner Theatre, a state-of-the-art proscenium theater designed to handle everything from fully staged theater productions and dance to chamber concerts, named in honor of Wagner's wife.

The newly completed complex, according to Marian V. Iwasaki, director of the Salt Lake County Center for the Arts, will free up five weeks of performance dates in the Capitol Theatre. (The County Center includes Abravanel Hall, the Capitol Theatre, the Salt Palace Convention Center and the Rose Wagner Center.)

The complex's second phase, where workers have been scrambling to get things finished in time for the formal grand opening, includes new office space for Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, several rehearsal halls, a convertible orchestra pit, a large reception hall (called the Rose Room) and rest rooms. There will also be an ArtTix box office with five windows.

John Stasco, operations manager for the Salt Lake County Center for the Arts, notes that the entire complex is entirely ADA accessible, with ramps, elevators and wide doorways throughout for those in wheelchairs.

Wagner, whose family's holdings grew from a small grocery store into one of the region's major bag companies, is a self-made Utah industrialist who can tell dozens of colorful stories about growing up in the area.

He learned his financial savvy from his mother. She once told her son, "Did you see where President Truman fired General MacArthur? Never work for someone who can fire you."

That was just one bit of sage advice "Izzi" gained from his mother.

The theater's "rose" theme is carried out not only in the specially woven Swedish carper, which features a rose pattern, but also the unique reflective glass windows on the second level, which change to a rose hue as you walk past.

His wife, the former Jeanne Rasmussen, who once performed throughout the country as a tap dancer on the vaudeville circuit, was pretty frugal, too. "She was half Scottish and half Danish, and she could pinch a dollar," Wagner said during a brief interview earlier this week in the Green Room of the Leona Wagner Theater. Much of the funding for the new complex came from Wagner.

The fully completed complex will include new office space not only for Ririe-Woodbury, but also for Repertory Dance Theatre and the Gina Bachauer Competition.

The Emily Company, one of the city's up-and-coming theater companies, has already utilized the smaller Black Box space for productions of "Wit" and "Hedda Gabler," and will stage "Hamlet" and "Company" in the larger Jeanne Wagner Theatre.

According to Iwasaki, the Jeanne Wagner Theatre is already booked for performances through the end of the year.

In addition to the by-invitation-only dedication of the new theater on Saturday, there will be a special "Rose Blooms Festival" July 30-Aug. 4, coordinated by the Performing Arts Coalition, showcasing the talents of several of the performing arts groups involved.