The Utah Pageant of the Arts is at a critical junction in its fight for survival: Its very future seems to hinge on what the organization is able to accomplish in 1989.

Internal struggles, mounting debts and, at least in the eyes of some, decreasing quality in the production during the past several years have placed the pageant in a precarious position.Those most closely associated with the pageant, however, believe its survival is worth fighting for.

"I would like to see success in the pageant's production," said American Fork Mayor Kent Evans, "and in the long-range goal established years ago - to be an umbrella organization for arts programs (in the city). But first we've got to walk before we can run. That's what we are doing right now."

Stability and success - both artistic and financial - will not be easy to achieve.

First, the pageant board must fill the holes on its executive committee with competent people who are willing to make hard decisions and keep a tight fist on expenditures.

To that end, the committee has recruited a volunteer controller, Roger Elkins, who is responsible for providing fiscal integrity by managing the pageant's operational funds and ensuring budget compliance.

Betty Spencer, who served as the pageant's marketing and public relations director before resigning three years ago, has rejoined the production in that capacity, bringing experience and credibility.

There has been some effort to refocus the pageant's operations. This year, the pageant will not support a theater production, and an orchestra formerly associated with the pageant has accepted sponsorship from Pleasant Grove City. The absence of these two programs should ease somewhat the pageant's financial responsibilities.

"The pageant itself hasn't been a money loser," said Ron Tiffany, former executive committee president. "The other responsibilities of the pageant have lost money. We need to re-evaluate what entities are necessary."

David Brockbank, pageant artistic director, said the pageant's current debt liability, after a final look at 1988 records, is approximately $74,000. Previous Deseret News stories had estimated the debt at as high as $120,000.

Four factors appear to have created the bulk of the pageant's spiraling debt.

-First is the pageant's relationship with the Alpine School District. The district has said it will not allow the pageant to use the auditorium at American Fork High School unless it is paid approximately $10,000 in past- due rent and unless rent is paid annually hereafter.

American Fork Councilman Don Hampton expects to meet with Alpine district officials in early January to discuss the situation.

-Second, many believe the pageant would be well-served by jettisoning its lease on the old high school building (the building is leased from American Fork City) and renting a smaller, less cumbersome space elsewhere.

"The most important thing that has happened that caused us to get into arrears was taking on the old high school," said Brockbank.

The pageant stores and builds its sets in the building and leases out space to other tenants. But the building is in disrepair, and maintenance and insurance costs are beyond the pageant's capabilities.

-A third financial burr is the pageant's sales tax debt. In 1973 the pageant acquired non-profit status and was exempt from paying taxes on ticket sales. However, three years ago that exemption was withdrawn. The pageant has not paid the taxes that have been accruing since then and is negotiating with the state on its tax status and debt.

-The fourth burden is the cost of the production itself, including staff salaries and marketing costs. The pageant began as an all-volunteer effort, and some believe it needs to return to that or to only a minimal paid staff.

Brockbank, who has been a full-time pageant artistic director for the past five years, will direct the pageant on a part-time basis; his salary has been adjusted accordingly. Whether the pageant can be adequately run in this manner remains to be seen.

Command performances, which are less expensive than all-new shows, may be necessary not only this year but for several years in order to put the pageant back on stable financial footing.

The length of the pageant's run also may need trimming. The pageant has increased from a four-night presentation in 1973 to a six-week run in 1988. Four nights would surely be too few, but six weeks - defended as necessary to accommodate tourists and produce the greatest possible ticket revenue - may be too long. Staging the production for that long is expensive, and during the final weeks, attendance weakens.

In order for the pageant to build patronage and a reputation worth an audience's repeated attendance from year to year, the pageant needs an infusion of artists and experts in costuming, painting and makeup.

For the 1989 production, a successful fund-raising effort followed by well-received and well-attended performances would allow the pageant to begin reducing its sizeable debt and would indicate confidence and support for the production's continuation.

Several months ago the American Fork City Council agreed to provide $20,000 in matching funds for the pageant's 1989 production, and Tiffany said another $10,000 in donations had been secured before his departure.

Brockbank said production and casting work will get under way in January. The pageant will present a command performance in 1989, featuring favorite selections from previous years. Brockbank says the performance, which will cost an estimated $60,000 to stage, will be "the biggest show we've ever had, faster-paced and with the most pieces ever."

Staff members who have not been paid for their work on the last production have agreed to "come along with us," said Brockbank. Their only hope in ever being paid depends on the success of the 1989 production. Brockbank says pageant representatives also have met with supply vendors and they too "are willing to work with us."