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SCERA showing wear, faces shaky financial future

Orem complex may close if funding dries up

OREM — The Wall Street Journal described Orem's SCERA show house in 1992 as "an art deco movie palace in the grand style."

The stately show house has since aged, but its grandeur has not diminished. The red carpet, the balcony seating and the 1,000-foot movie screen all hint of a golden era when SCERA ushers wore tuxedos and Hollywood stars such as Charlton Heston came to visit.

But there are some signs the beloved palace is crumbling. The cream-colored exterior is chipping, popcorn and candy wrappers often litter the entrance. The movie theater's floor is sticky and its seats creak.

Outward appearance of SCERA — an acronym for Sharon's Cultural Educational Recreational Association — is not cause for great alarm, because it is maintained by volunteers, as it has been since it opened in 1941. Its financial situation is another matter.

SCERA board members, including chairwoman Joyce Johnson, say without more funding the community recreation complex, which includes an outdoor amphitheater and a showroom for live plays, could cease operations in the next five years.

"It's yellow alert right now, not red alert," said Orem City Councilman Dean Dickerson. "We can stem the tide, if things happen right now."

Dickerson, who served on the SCERA advisory board before his election to the City Council, says SCERA has lost money for the last four years, and estimates the non-profit group lost $100,000 last year.

This is a figure SCERA President and CEO Norm Nielson is unsure of, but he admits SCERA is losing money.

"We're not going in the hole, but yes, we are using at times money from our endowment, which we'd rather not do," Nielson said. "We're not breaking even."

SCERA's slide began in the mid-'90s when the construction of several multi-plexes in the valley led to the loss of SCERA's exclusive right to show Disney films.

"In the past we were the only theater in the market showing family movies," Nielson said. "Now for a movie like 'Harry Potter' or 'Lord of the Rings' there are nine prints in the valley."

The movie business was SCERA's bread and butter. In 1992, SCERA grossed around $400,000 as the only theater in Utah County showing Walt Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." The Wall Street Journal called the profit "an astronomical amount for a single-screen theater in such a small market."

The money SCERA made showing films such as "Aladdin" and "Little Mermaid" went into its other cultural arts programs, which include a youth performing-arts academy and a museum. In 1984, SCERA's outdoor amphitheater opened, and in 1996 SCERA expanded its auditorium to 26,00 square feet.

Nielson said most of SCERA's programs now lose money. Only the SCERA's outdoor theater, called the Shell, "does a little better than break even."

SCERA would not be facing a financial crisis had Utah County voters passed a proposed Zoo, Arts and Parks (ZAP) tax last year, Nielson said. But he says he was encouraged that 33 percent voted for it.

"It's not uncommon for a community to say, 'We can get along without cultural arts. We need our streets and sewers.' . . . But once it stops it's going to take a huge effort to get it started again," Nielson said.

Nielson says SCERA must remodel its movie theater to include stadium seating or it will meet the same demise as hundreds of other movie theaters across the country.

While Nielson thinks SCERA should stay in the movie business, others say that time is past. The SCERA board has hired a consultant to find new funding sources.

Dickerson hopes some of that money comes from the city, which gives SCERA about $32,000 a year. Dickerson and other SCERA board members think the city should give SCERA $2 per resident, or around $180,000 a year.

Orem Mayor Jerry Washburn says any increase is unlikely, considering the budget crunch the city is facing.

"To what degree the city should step in and provide all cultural arts and entertainment for the city is very debateable," Washburn said. "There are some who do not believe that's the city's responsibility."

Like most longtime Orem residents, Washburn has fond memories of SCERA. Washburn learned to swim there, Nielson peddled his bicycle across town as a boy to watch Saturday matinees there, and Johnson watched her boys play T-ball at the SCERA park.

"To this community SCERA is more than a movie theater, it's an institution, and we feel protective of it," Johnson said. "We want to bring it back to the splendor it once was, and I think we owe that to the community."

SCERA, named after an Orem neighborhood called Sharon, actually belongs to the community. SCERA is run by a non-profit corporation managed by elected Orem residents. Dickerson recognizes that many Orem residents do not know this and admits that SCERA has lost some of its relevance to the community.

"In 1933 Orem was a different place. SCERA provided all of the entertainment to the community during that time," he said. "SCERA must redefine its role and endear themselves to the people of Orem again."


E-MAIL: jhyde@desnews.com