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Cathy Free: Hotel Utah's glory years remembered

Published: Thursday, May 26 2011 12:33 a.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY – For years, the stately white hotel at the corner of South Temple and Main was known to many as the "Grand Old Lady."

Now, as bygone customers and employees prepare to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the former Hotel Utah, the same thing could be said about Phyllis Steorts.

She'll be turning 90 shortly after the June 11 party to commemorate the day the first guests stepped inside the elegant lobby in 1911. For 33 years, the Hotel Utah was Steorts' second home as she worked long hours to ensure that everyone from small-town newlyweds to U.S. presidents felt coddled and comfortable.

From her first day on the job as a secretary to her last day as director of marketing, "coming to work every day was a pleasure — it was like living in a palace," she recalls. "That hotel was the heart of the community and the heart of my life. I don't suppose there will ever be another place like it."

Now ensconced at an assisted living center with her husband, Lee, Steorts' limbs are frail and her memory is failing. She wanted to share her story in Free Lunch while she can still recall the glory years of Utah's majestic old hotel, which was closed in 1987 to be remodeled as the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.

"It was a slower time — people did business with a handshake, face-to-face instead of using a computer," says Steorts, who has fond memories of Jack Benny, Jimmy Stewart, Elvis Presley, Liberace, Gloria Swanson, Bob Hope and Myrna Loy. Her pale blue eyes light up as she recalls the night that President Kennedy checked in.

"I was responsible for getting his room ready," she says, "and I looked all over for the perfect high-backed rocking chair. I planted some ivy in a chamber pot to perk up a window well, and when the president arrived, he waved at me while the hotel manager whispered something to him. I found out later that he told President Kennedy I'd put a chamber pot in his room so he wouldn't have to get up in the night."

From making sure that everything was just so for Marie Osmond's wedding reception (the first one) to arranging for Elvis to take the service elevator and listening to Myrna Loy reminisce about her early trips to Utah as a child, Steorts treated every workday like it was "opening night."

She laughs as she remembers the night a guest called down to report that a naked woman was running around on the second floor. The assistant manager bounded up the stairs, flung the woman over his shoulders and headed for the service stairs before she was spotted by other guests.

"As he ran past the elevator, it opened and there stood LDS President David O. McKay, (former Salt Lake City Mayor) J. Bracken Lee and other dignitaries, headed to a gala in the Starlite Gardens restaurant," she says. "Just another day in the life of the Hotel Utah."

Then there was the time eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes holed up in his 10th-floor suite for a week, refusing to allow maid service in and rarely venturing out.

"He'd requested a lot of Kleenex boxes," she says, "and we later learned he'd been wrapping them around his feet to avoid germs from the floor."

Not that Hughes had reason to worry.

"That hotel was polished top to bottom," says Steorts, who developed long-lasting friendships with chamber maids, bellhops, doormen and waitresses.

"Most everyone's gone now," she says, but just like the hotel, "they're not forgotten. They'll always live in our hearts."

More information can be found at hotelutah100.com.

Have a story? Let's hear it over lunch. Email your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to freelunch@desnews.com.

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