Feature Story: Saving the Tower Theater…

SLUGmag

Opened in 1928, the Tower Theater at 9th & 9th (900 S and 900 E) looks relatively small and unimpressive when passing by, but to some, including Cinema In Your Face! (CIYF) owner Greg Tanner, it represents the last link to a past when premieres brought out the stars and a night at the movies was a night to remember.

But why save the Tower Theater? I mean it’s not The Centre, The Regency or The Utah, all theaters representative of the bygone era in which moviegoing was a gala experience, not a six-plex drive-up experience with overrated, overpriced gooey popcorn, and that is precisely why it should be saved. “Make way for progress,” should not be accepted as justification for tearing down every link to the past and perhaps a slower pace of life Americans have forgotten about in their hurry to get THERE before everyone else.

“It’s important to us. I’m not sure if it’s important to everybody, but to us it represents the last vestige of the old style of film presentation (the big, old theaters with high ceilings)— and it has sort of of a style and grace not built into present day theaters,” said Tanner, who formed the Independent Film Foundation (IFF), a non-profit organization the express purpose of which “is to facilitate the education and exhibition of the film arts in Utah, and [saving] the Tower is our first project.”

According to Tanner, the Tower Theater isn’t as big as The Centre or The Utah. “It’s about half the size of The Centre, which makes it twice the size of your average theater that’s built today,” he said, noting that the Tower can seat 480 people.

“We had already started our plans for the fund drive to remodel the place back when it was up for sale by the FDIC,” explained Tanner, “when by chance we ran into the owner in an elevator. Not more than five minutes earlier, the new owner, Harold Hill, had purchased the Tower Theater.

Tanner added that the IFF has struck a deal in principle with Hill that the IFF will “renovate it [the Tower Theater] on top of a long term lease in which we get part ownership for doing renovation.”

“We were on our way upstairs to the Utah Film Commission to talk to them about getting funds for the Tower when we ran into him and he had not had in mind keeping it as a theater,” said Tanner, who added that Hill originally wanted to turn the Tower into several retail spaces, much like the surrounding speciality boutiques found at 9th and 9th.

“The basic premise, in a sense, is that they’re going to get an equity position because I’ve lowered the rent enough to enable them to enter into a long-term lease,” said Hill, owner of the Judge building in downtown Salt Lake and principal in the Epicurious Food Group which owns and operates Eibo’s Famous for Nothing and Ferrantelli’s restaurants in Trolley Square, the American Grill and Red’s Frozen Yogurt.

“I think as a community, we all have to do something to put back what we’ve taken out,” said Hill, regarding his contributions toward saving the Tower. “It’s as important as the new arena for the Jazz. I think historically it’s worth is beyond calculation, and it’s a very integral part of our marketplace,” added Hill. “Intrinsically, you can’t replace it. I’m going to roll up my sleeves with Greg and see if we can’t get things done,” said Hill, who noted he has received offers from parties interested in opening restaurants in the theater’s location.

“It’s quite an investment to buy a theater. They’re not known to be a very stable business in these hard days when multiplexes are the way to go,” said Tanner, regarding the IFF’s efforts to recruit Hill. “But we have a unique position in the film market here in Salt Lake in that we specialize in something that no one else does—our film programing,” Tanner said, “so we can make the Tower a viable economic investment whereas I don’t think anyone else really could. I think he saw the opportunity to get one long-term lease with a very stable business that would save him the headaches of trying to, in the first place, renovate the building for other space usage,” he said.

Tanner claimed that at least $70,000 to $80,000 is needed to begin the minimum renovations which for the most part the IFF will perform itself.

“We’ve received quite a few small donations, but what we really need is some larger donations,” said Tanner, who noted that volunteer labor donations are also welcome.

“Labor is just as good as money in some instances, particularly skilled construction labor would be nice,” he said. “We need painters with spray guns, we need plasterers, electricians would be very helpful, people with carpet experience, and unskilled labor, we can use that, too. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done that doesn’t call for any skills,” noted Tanner. “It’s dusty, and on the ceiling some of the plaster has fallen in. We can use the preexisting seats, but we do need to recover them,” Tanner added.

According to Tanner, remodeling calls for the Tower’s balcony to be turned into a separate theater, which would allow the IFF to program more films. The main floor theater would also double as a live performance theater, noted Tanner, who hopes to incorporate performance art into the Tower’s offerings once it is on line, much as CIYF does from time to time.

“Hill has held the place open for us [even though] he has had other offers, apparently to turn it into restaurants,” said Tanner. “It’s already one of the nicest little shopping areas, but I think the Tower would really boost it into just a really great little niche,” he added.

However, fundraising to save the theater has been slow, due in part to what Tanner felt was the IFF’s inexperience in such matters. “We’re kind of new to this fundraising,” he said. “We’ve actually had quite a bit of positive feedback from the people we have gotten to, and I think that’s generally the audience that we already have built into the Cinema.”

To date, the IFF has held some small scale fundraisers, including a two-night run of The Rocky Horror Picture Show—the first night antics of which were more than the host theater (the Murray Theater) had bargained for. Subsequently, the second night was moved to CIYF—and a block party last October, which included speakers, live music and a free outdoor, screening of Bugs Bunny cartoons and the academy award winning Cinema Paradiso at dark at the Tower

Looking ahead to this spring, “We are doing the 1935 version of Les Miserables, and that will be at the Capitol Theater and will preempt the stage version which is coming in late April [to the Capitol Theater],” said Tanner, who noted that there will be tiered seating available that night with seats ranging from $25 to $100.

To aid in its fundraising efforts, the IFF has enlisted the aid of Salt Lake’s Mary Kay Lazarus  public relations firm which plans to further involve their community leaders in the project and organize future fundraising events.

“The Utah Film Commission has been very helpful. The University of Utah Film department and Fine Arts program, the people here have been very supportive. The Mayor’s office has been very helpful,” said Tanner of community support. “I think they might see us as an asset.”

If all goes as planned, the IFF expects to reopen the Tower Theater this May, at which time CIYF will become part of the Tower experience and close its theater doors at 45 West and Broadway, concluded Tanner.

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