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Many are questioning necessity of Salt Lake theater

Funding, scheduling, number of patrons are among concerns

SHARE Many are questioning necessity of Salt Lake theater

To build or not to build? That still seems to be the question.

With Salt Lake City's announcement that officials have chosen a location for the new 2,400 seat Broadway-style theater, the local theater heavyweights are weighing in — but not about the location on Regent and Main streets in downtown Salt Lake City.

What keeps coming up is this: Does Salt Lake City need it and can the theatergoing crowd sustain another local venue?

John Caywood, operations and facilities manager at Kingsbury Hall — one venue likely to be hit hard — jumped at the chance to comment.

"If you pull Broadway out of Kingsbury Hall and out of the Capitol Theatre, then neither will be able to operate without additional funding. If you look at last year, Kingsbury stands to lose $390,000. Eventually, you'll have three downtown theaters that are financially unstable."

With a season program that is a mix of Broadway touring shows plus those with acclaimed performing artists in music, theater and dance, Kingsbury often goes head-to-head with Capitol Theatre — the main venue for the Broadway in Utah series as well as home to Ballet West and the Utah Opera.

"Our big question would be scheduling," said John Roake, marketing director for Ballet West. "There are times we could use the theater for our bigger productions, like 'The Nutcracker.' Would we get to use the space?"

Other city ballet companies, according to Roake, have faced similar issues. "Some cities have brought the Rockettes to town to run at the same time, and that can have a serious financial impact on our 'Nutcracker,"' he said, mentioning that Salt Lake audiences have always been "very supportive" of the Christmas classic.

"There are some pretty significant impacts that aren't being taken seriously — as far as what it would do to Capitol Theatre and Kingsbury Hall," Plan-B Theatre Company producing director Jerry Rapier said.

Since Plan-B's focus is on original work, Rapier isn't concerned about the effect of his own company. "I think one good arts experience breeds another. There are so many arts-loving people here and more options isn't bad in that regard.

"But I do think that building a venue that cannot be used regularly for any other organization, only touring shows, and it sits empty the rest of the time — who bears the cost of that?"

Numbers, more than selection of a location, seem to be the focus: Number of seats, the number of patrons and the number that has a dollar sign in front.

"The question I haven't heard answered, never mind where they put it — it's going to have to have an operating budget. It will have to add other programs and it'll start competing. At 2,400 seats, times six shows a week, that's 150,000 seats to sell. Where will they come from?" asked Caywood, who has worked on various assessments for the upcoming county study.

"Riverdance did really well for us. That was eight shows. The other 24 Broadway performances we had in here had an average of 1,279 seats all together. Tell me why we need 2,400."

Caywood and others also worry about the possibility that the new venue will become another player for the Zoo, Arts Parks tax funding— which is already stretched thin. "Everything gets diluted."

"Most will say we don't need a big space," Rapier added, "that we need a series of Rose Wagner's (which seats 500) spread out through the county."

"We're on the record as having said, at some point, we'd be interested in renting a theater space of 300 to 350 seats to work new theater productions that don't belong in a 930-seat house (the size of Simmons Pioneer Theater). In terms of our own interest, a smaller theater makes sense," said Chris Lino, managing director for Pioneer Theatre Company.

But for now, that option is not on the table.

"We'll be struggling to make ends meet," Caywood continued. "The Broadway series and commercial things are profitable for us, and they help us provide the theater as a rental space for community events at a price they can afford. Take that away and they'll cut this down and use it only for graduations."

As for the location, no one seems to care. But Caywood added, "Asking (theater developer) Bill Becker if we need another theater is like asking the Wonder Bread man if we need more bread display racks."

E-mail: ehansen@desnews.com