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Tuacahn born of a dream

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ST. GEORGE, Utah — True life has more plot twists and turns than any made-up play or film, and no one needs to tell that to Doug Stewart.

Stewart is the playwright who wrote the script for "Saturday's Warrior" and screenplays for any number of films, including such noted family movies as "Against a Crooked Sky" and "Where the Red Fern Grows."

He lives on a comfortable, tree-lined street in St. George, where he claims a status these days as "mostly retired" but admits to still being involved in movie projects and other creative endeavors.

There is no plaque out front designating him as the catalyst for what may very well be the most spectacular amphitheater in the world.

But the simple truth is, St. George's acclaimed Tuacahn Amphitheatre would not be celebrating its 15th birthday this summer — to considerable fanfare and long lines at the box office — if not for this lone playwright's dream.

The founding of Tuacahn isn't exactly ancient history. Stewart, his wife, Mary, and their eight children didn't move to St. George until 1983 — back when, as Stewart recounts, "They didn't even have a Kmart."

The population boom that would transform a city of 15,000 in 1983 to a city today of more than 65,000 was just beginning.

Stewart had brought his family with him to St. George that summer, where he was producing a movie on location. When it was fall they decided they liked the area so much he and Mary enrolled the kids in school, bought a house and never left. (Although Mary hauled the kids to Los Angeles every other week for their voice and music lessons — for the next 12 years.)

Taken by the area's spectacular redrock formations, Doug liked to hop on his moped and explore the canyons.

While cruising, he dreamed of finding the perfect amphitheater where he could stage an epic outdoor performance.

For years he searched on his moped, looking, as he puts it, "for somewhere that would scream out, 'This is the Place!' "

In August of 1991 — about this time of year — he found it.

He'd parked his bike next to the towering cliffs just around the corner from Snow Canyon — the popular state park — and decided to hike up the wash to see where it led.

A mile-and-a-half later, he sat on a rock, looked around at the magnificent towering box canyon that had him surrounded and "it was like a two-by-four hit me over the head."

"I could hear the music, feel the drama," he says.

He was sitting in the very spot where this week you'd have to fork over $56 to see the stage production of "Tarzan."

Trying to describe the setting does not do it justice. The end of that box canyon is God and nature at their finest — a natural stage just waiting for someone to walk out of the rocks and say, "Is this mic on?"

The next four years went by in a blur. Doug's enthusiasm was so contagious he'd already raised a $10,000 donation BEFORE he found the site, getting a check from St. George resident and arts lover Rex Meikle.

Now that he had an actual place — Doug's the one who named it "Tuacahn," by the way, a Mayan word meaning "Canyon of the Gods" — he got a $50,000 donation from Rick and Peg Young.

He was still well short of the $300,000 the property's owners, a collection of investors who lived in Bountiful, were asking for the 80 acres Doug wanted to buy.

But then he drove Hyrum Smith, of Franklin Quest, out to the area and Smith was an easy convert. He saw the same dreams Doug saw. He committed then and there to the whole $300,000.

A year later, the Smith family committed another $10 million to underwrite the entire nonprofit project.

By that point, Stewart was already writing "Utah!" the production he envisioned being presented every year at Tuacahn.

But, alas, "Utah!" didn't last — quickly giving way to Broadway-style productions — and less than two years after Tuacahn's grand opening in 1995 Stewart was off the set.

He dreamed the dream, found the site, raised the money and built the theater — and then moved on.

"I'm extremely proud of what goes on out there," says the playwright 15 years later as he sits in his comfortable St. George home. "It's not what I envisioned, so there's some sadness involved, but they do things right. I sincerely appreciate the hundreds of dedicated individuals who have made it a shining example of artistic excellence, second to none."

He's planning on running out to see "Tarzan" this weekend, in fact.

Although not on his moped.

Life. You can't make this stuff up.

Lee Benson's column runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday on DeseretNews.com. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com