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Capitol Theatre serves as a 'memory builder' 101 years after its construction

Published: Saturday, Aug. 23 2014 8:05 p.m. MDT

The Capitol Theatre has undergone renovations as part of a joint project with Ballet West. The Capitol Theatre was closed for several months in 2013 as auditorium seats were reupholstered, aisle lighting was replaced, acoustics were improved and more.

Dennis Mecham, Provided by Salt Lake County Center for the Arts

Editor’s note: This is the seventh story in a series highlighting arts organizations around Utah.

A glance at the monitor in her office was all it took for Kerry McCoun to recognize that the climax was coming.

It was at the Capitol Theatre during a matinee performance of “Wicked” as the song “Defying Gravity” was about to conclude the first act. McCoun, patron services manager for the Salt Lake County Center for the Arts, the organization that manages the theater, had previously seen the show as a patron and knew it was a moment she didn’t want to miss.

She quickly ran to the mezzanine level, positioning herself in just the right spot.

But it wasn’t the performers she was hoping to see — it was the audience. Just as she caught a glimpse of those in the crowd, they exploded into a loud roar of applause.

“When people love to be here and love to see a show … it’s a real reward to me,” McCoun said.

It’s 101 years of moments such as these that have turned the Janet Quinney Lawson Capitol Theatre into one of Utah’s most recognizable artistic landmarks. Countless patrons have walked through its doors over the years to participate in its many offerings and have left having had an unforgettable experience.

“Something exciting happens at Capitol Theatre, whether it’s an opera, play or a silent film,” said Cami Munk, Salt Lake County Center for the Arts communication manager. “When you come to the theater, it’s for something exciting. It’s a memory builder.”

Creating a legacy

Theaters were not new to Utah’s artistic landscape by the time the Capitol Theatre came around.

According to John S. Lindsay’s “The Mormons and Theatre, or, the History of Theatricals in Utah,” amusement halls began springing up in the Salt Lake area as early as 1850 and flourished from then on.

Capitol Theatre, originally known as the Orpheum Theater, was constructed as part of a chain of Orpheum theaters built throughout the country during the first three decades of the 20th century, McCoun explained.

According to a written history by Steven T. Baird Architects, the company hired San Francisco architect G. Albert Lansburgh to construct the $250,000 theater in an Italian Renaissance style, complete with lighting, ventilation and water sprays in case of fire, all of which were state-of-the-art technology for their day.

“In point of architecture, appointments, size and all the latest improvements, Salt Lake can now truthfully boast of having one of the finest theaters in America,” stated a Deseret Evening News article published to announce the theater’s opening.

The vaudeville house first opened its doors on Saturday, Aug. 2, 1913, and received a positive response.

In a review following the inaugural performance, the Deseret News wrote that the Orpheum Theater opened with “a blaze of brilliance” and that “long before 8 o’clock, the street in front of the lobby was congested by the arrival of throngs of automobiles.”

The theater continued to serve as a premier vaudeville venue for several years, and in 1923, silent films were added to the theater’s roster, according to SLCCA. The Orpheum company sold the theater and the theater was renamed to Capitol Theatre in 1927, and two years later, the first “talkies” were shown on the screen.

Tragedy struck the theater on July 4, 1949, when the building caught on fire during a matinee performance. While all of the patrons were safely evacuated from the building, the fire claimed the life of one of the theater’s ushers, 17-year-old Richard L. Duffin, according to a July 5, 1949, edition of the Deseret News.

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