Saying “No” to Big Real Estate to Save the Utah People’s Pantages Theatre
Activism, Outreach and Education
What if I told you that you could buy one of the most opulent, historic theatres in the country—built in 1918 and containing a pristine Tiffany skylight, intricate chandeliers and other unique architectural features—for $0? The theater in question is located in downtown Salt Lake City, but unfortunately, the opportunity to buy and renovate the Utah Pantages Theatre was not given to the public or even the wider real estate developer community in general, says Michael Valentine, a local filmmaker who even offered $500,000 of his own money to save this one-of-a-kind treasure from destruction. Instead, in 2015, Mayor Jackie Biskupski and the Redevelopment Agency (RDA) quietly extended the zero-dollar deal to Hines and LaSalle, two multibillion-dollar real estate firms, with a six-year exclusive agreement. These companies are now moving to demolish the theater and put in 270 luxury condominiums. Valentine and architect Casey O’Brien McDonough, members of the Save the Utah Pantages Coalition, are suing the city with “the ultimate goal to overturn their unconditional and erroneous ruling so we can proceed with our initiative and start gathering signatures to put it on the ballot,” Valentine writes in an email about the recent lawsuit.
Cloistered away from public view for over 15 years, the Utah Pantages Theatre was once a beloved, 1,700-seat venue where the likes of Abbott and Costello and Babe Ruth performed before it was converted into a grand movie palace in the 1930s. Created by the vaudeville motion picture producer Alexander Pantages, who designed multiple theaters across the country, the Utah Pantages Theatre is one of the most opulent and especially important to Pantages himself, giving the building national historical significance. “Pantages spared no expense at the time … It cost around $45 million in today’s money,” says Valentine. “We have a theory that this one was his crown jewel. He lost the theater in the ’30s and came back to try to buy this one, specifically.”
“The Capitol Theatre and the Utah Pantages are the last two theaters of their kind in downtown Salt Lake or in the whole state, for that matter.”
Hidden in plain sight on Main Street, the theatre’s interior has elaborate plaster molding on the foyer ceiling, Alaskan marble floors, gilt staircase railings and a one-of-a-kind stained glass Tiffany skylight in the auditorium ceiling. All of these artistic touches are done in a neoclassical style that’s often imitated but can never be recreated with the craftsmanship of the original. Although some architectural details would be salvaged before the demolition and used in the planned skyscraper, the result would be a “Frankenstein,” says Valentine, just another metal and glass building with no character, like much of the city’s architecture.
“They’ve been tearing down [historic buildings] left and right,” McDonough says. “The Capitol Theatre and the Utah Pantages are the last two theaters of their kind in downtown Salt Lake or in the whole state, for that matter. Other cities have smaller theaters of similar opulence, but not nearly as big or culturally relevant.” Photographs of the beautiful architectural features and a virtual tour can be seen at the Pantages Theatre Archive.
With such significance both locally and nationally, why would Mayor Biskupski and Salt Lake City Council have voted to raze the theatre, which they had long stated would be renovated for the citizens of Salt Lake to use, who technically own it? Councilman Chris Wharton cited estimates to renovate the theater that he said were as high as $60 million dollars, according to Katie McKellar in a story for KSL, but the architect McDonough argues that this sum is more than twice what his construction and historical restoration contacts have quoted, or what other Pantages Theatres around the country (in worse condition) have been renovated for.
“We have a theory that this one was his crown jewel.”
“It’s community property and the theater belongs to all of us, which is why we’re fighting so hard to save it. It’s about the future generations and building on its incredible 103-year history,” says Valentine.
Further, the costs of renovating other Pantages Theatres supports these quotes. “Tacoma and Minneapolis have Pantages theaters with identical interiors to the Utah Theatre. Tacoma restored their theater in 2018 with seismic upgrades, plaster rehabilitation, entirely new seats, and paint removal/restoration for $24.5 million … Minneapolis restored their Pantages in 2002 for $8 million without any seismic upgrades,” according to the Save the Utah Theater website.
“There’s not a theatre like this in 20 states … It’s so gorgeous still. It’s insane that the [current] City Council and the Mayor [also] think it’s dilapidated because it’s still beautiful even though it needs work done” says Valentine, referring to the current administration’s position on the issue. “We’ve put together a national team of 20–30 people working on different elements of this, and we have a whole plan to see it saved and restored in a really strategic and effective way.”
This May, Valentine filed a lawsuit against the city, hoping to gather enough signatures to put the fate of the Utah Pantages Theatre on the ballot and let the people, who own the theater and have been denied access for almost two decades, decide what will become of it.
To help save the theatre, sign the online petition so it can reach 10,000 signatures and donate to the Pantages Go Fund Me. Stay up to date with the latest information about the initiative by following Save the Pantages on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.
Editor’s note: Per reader feedback, SLUG acknowledged that this article doesn’t present the current state of the Utah Theater nor that the photos we used are archival photos, other than in the photo credit. Snapshots of what this Pantages theater presently looks like may be found here.