Like yellowing photographs in a well-used scrapbook, memories of familiar images from movies that once flickered across the giant screen at the Centre Theater come easily to mind . . .
. . . the effervescent Audrey Hepburn leading Gregory Peck on a merry chase in "Roman Holiday"
. . . Judy Garland soulfully lamenting "The Man That Got Away" in George Cukor's classic 1954 remake of "A Star Is Born"
. . . Ray Milland desparately in search of a drink in "The Lost Weekend"
. . . umbrella-toting Julie Andrews alighting on a London rooftop in "Mary Poppins"
. . . Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire hoofing and singing through a bevy of Irving Berlin ballads in "Blue Skies"
. . . John Wayne righting the wrongs of the Old West in any number of classic westerns
. . . Doris Day warbling the Oscar-winning "Secret Love" in "Calamity Jane"
. . . George C. Scott standing at attention in front of a wall-to-wall American flag in "Patton"
. . . Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd racing their chariots around the immense coliseum in "Ben-Hur"
. . . Mark Hamill's interplanetary heroics in "Star Wars" (1977), for which lines of patrons extended down the street and around the corner.
We could go on . . . and on and on _ but it would be impossible to list every one of the hundreds of movies (some memorable, some maybe not) that have played at the Centre Theater during the past 51 years.
In December 1937 you could buy a wringer washer from Claude Dodge's at 153 E. Broadway for $34.95 (marked down from $69.95) or you could fly from Salt Lake City to sunny Los Angeles on Western Air Express for $43.44 _ round trip!
You could go dancing to live music at the Coconut Grove.
Roe's apparel store at State and Broadway had women's coats (values to $10.95) selling for $5. Firmage's, a men's store, was selling suits at prices ranging from $18.75 to a whopping $45.
At home, you could tune in "Amos and Andy" on KDYL on your Philco radio, or listen to a 78 rpm record on your Victrola.
You could go shopping at Piggly Wiggly/Safeway stores (apples were going for 69 cents a dozen).
And on Christmas Eve in 1937 you could take your family to the grand opening of what was considered one of the finest motion picture theaters in the country, the brand new, 1,623-seat Centre Theatre, a snazzy, art-deco palace at the corner of State and Broadway _ the first new major theater to be built in Salt Lake City in more than a decade.
"Showgoers will find a streamlined new showhouse embodying the last word in modern theater beauty," a story in the Dec. 23 Deseret News promised. "It will become a new Salt Lake landmark."
And it did.
The opening bill included Fred MacMurray and Carole Lombard in "True Confession," along with a two-reel Technicolor short subject ("A Man Without a Country"), a sports "featurette" titled "Ball Tossers," and the latest Paramount newsreel.
Ticket prices were 25 cents if you arrived before 2 p.m., 35 cents between 2 and 6 p.m., and 45 cents in the evenings.
To compare how things have changed in the last five decades, when I took my family to the Centre for a last-chance look at the grand old theater recently, it cost us $16.50 just to get past the box office. That was for two adults, one student and one child.
In the lobby, a middle-aged moviegoer gingerly skirted around the "Balcony Closed" barrier and commented, "Hey, it's still fun to sneak into the balcony."
Balconies and movies with Fred and Carole . . . or with the other Fred . . . and Ginger (their "Story of Vernon and Irene Castle" played at the Centre in 1939). They don't make movies like they used to _ and they certainly don't build movie theaters like they used to.
(BU) "A PREMIERE THEATER" was probably an apt description of the Centre during the heyday of the 1940s and '50s. Salt Lake City frequently played host to trainloads (and later, planeloads) of Hollywood celebrities attending kleiglight-style premieres, many of them at the Centre.
Helen Garrity Yorke, who was publicist for Intermountain Theaters until 1953, when she moved to California, was involved with the Centre from Day One. In fact, she had worked since 1930 for Intermountain's predecessor, Paramount-Publix Theaters, the chain that later evolved into Intermountain. She edited the souvenir program for the Centre's gala grand opening in 1937.
We talked with her this past week during a phone interview from her home in Santa Monica. She noted that while the Centre didn't have as many actual world premieres as its older downtown cousins, the Capitol and the Utah, it was still considered the chain's flagship theater.
One of her former colleagues, John Krier, who managed Intermountain's theaters in Salt Lake City for many years and who now operates Exhibitor Relations, a firm in Los Angeles that collects and analyzes box office receipts for studios and theaters, agreed that the Centre was the "preferred showhouse" for many of the industry's most important films.
Yorke noted that one of her biggest thrills in connection with the opening of the Centre was the opportunity to interview President Heber J. Grant of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who was one of the many dignitaries attending the invitational screening of "Wells Fargo" on Dec. 23, 1937 _ the day before the theater was opened to the public.
The church leader told her that he had an avid interest in this particular film because he had worked for Wells Fargo as a young man.
But, Yorke added, the movie that was used for the theater's public debut the next day, "True Confession," was "a perfectly dreadful film."
One of the biggest premieres to hit Salt Lake City was, of course, Darryl F. Zanuck's sprawling epic, "Brigham Young _ Frontiersman," on Aug. 23, 1940. (When the Centre closed this past week it was playing a film co-produced by Zanuck's son, Richard _ "Cocoon: The Return.")
When "Brigham Young" premiered it was initially screened simultaneously on seven different screens. Today, likely as not, those screens would've been in one, shopping mall-style "cinema complex," but in 1940 they were in seven separate theaters.
For the formal, star-studded premiere of "Brigham Young," the prestigious Centre shared the spotlight with the Capitol, Utah, Paramount, Studio and Victory, all downtown, and the Marlo in Sugar House. (The Capitol and Utah continue to operate as performing arts centers; the old Studio, a couple of doors north of Lamb's cafe, is boarded up; the Paramount later became the Uptown, where ZCMI Mall now stands, and the Marlo, I'm told, is now a Chinese restaurant.)
Following the premiere, which featured personal appearances by Tyrone Power, Dean Jagger and other stars, the movie was shown exclusively at the Centre, then later at both the Centre and the Studio, in order to accommodate the crowds.
The Centre was the ideal theater for showing a movie about the trek of the Mormon pioneers. Not only did the lobby contain a beautiful mural-sized wood carving depicting the dramatic "miracle of the gulls," but the theater was constructed on the site of the valley's first irrigated plot of farmland. A Daughters of the Utah Pioneers plaque in the lobby attests to this significant incident. According to Richard Nordland of Commerce Properties, which is developing the new Broadway Centre office-retail complex on the site, the DUP plaque will be remounted in the plaza where it can be seen by the public when the high-rise tower opens in 1991.
The mural's history skimpy. There's no record of who created it, but Yorke said it apparently was commissioned by the theater chain especially for the Centre.
Gordon Schettler and James M. Williams Sr., formerly partners in the Schettler-Williams auto dealership, owned the Centre Theater property for many years. They purchased it from the Auerbach family, who had originally built the theater.
Schettler told the Deseret News that when he and Williams sold the property to the current developers in 1984 it was with the stipulation that if and when the theater eventually was razed, the two former partners would retain ownership of the mural.
He indicated that the work will most likely be donated, either to a museum or to the city, which has also indicated an interest in preserving the wood carving.
Either way, residents and Centre Theater fans can rest assured that the mural will not end up in a pile of rubble along with the building's bricks and cement.
On Aug. 21, 1941, the Centre was once again in the Hollywood spotlight with the world premiere of Sonja Henie's "Sun Valley Serenade." The ice skater didn't come to Salt Lake City, but John Payne and Joan Davis, her co-stars, did, along with several other 20th Century-Fox performers, including Linda Darnell, Brenda Joyce and Marjorie Weaver. Reserved seats for the premiere went for 75 cents, with "regular prices" resuming the following day.
In December 1946 the Centre staged a gala "ninth anniversary" wingding with the "regional premiere" of one of Columbia Pictures' big hits, "The Jolson Story." There were no Hollywood stars this time, but there were kleiglights and hundreds of local dignitaries.
*THE CENTRE THEATER is considered one of the city's two finest examples of art-deco architecture. (The other is the Glade Candy Co. building, 55 W. Eighth South) At the time the Centre was constructed, the sleek, streamlined look was a marked departure from the ornate decor featured in the city's older theaters.
James McPherson, who is on the board of directors of the Utah Heritage Foundation, said he and the foundation had hoped the Centre could be preserved.
"I recently visited Cincinnati for a convention and they are now agonizing about that city's one big downtown theater being torn down several years ago. Today, it could have been incorporated into their downtown master plan. It's too bad we can't learn from the mistakes of others," he said.
McPherson felt that the Centre could have been utilized as a performing arts facility of some type, with the peripheral retail spaces used as galleries, boutiques, cafes or other arts-oriented sites.
Soaring ticket prices, the trend toward smaller, multiscreen complexes, competition from video rentals and excessive overhead are among reasons cited by various people we interviewed and who commented on the closure of the landmark.
When I took my family to the Centre last week, there probably weren't more than 30-40 patrons in the place.
But that hasn't always been the case. When the Centre first opened, the United States was just entering a new "best of times" era following the devastating Great Depression. During the war years of the '40s, folks flocked to movies sometimes two or three nights a week.
Famed producer-director Cecil B. De Mille hand-picked Salt Lake City - and the Centre - for the official sneak previews of "The Greatest Show on Earth," "The Ten Commandments" and "The Buccaneer." After these movies were "sneaked" at the Centre, and patrons had dutifully filled out their comment sheets, De Mille would take the master print back to the Paramount Studios in Hollywood, where the films would be edited for their final release.
Both "The Greatest Show on Earth" and "The Buccaneer" later played at the Centre, but "The Ten Commandments" played its initial engagement at the rival Uptown, instead.
When it opened in 1937, the Centre featured what was then the very latest in state-of-the-art projection and sound equipment.
Unlike many of the big theaters that existed in downtown Salt Lake City at the time, the Centre was not built to handle vaudeville shows or stage productions. Krier said it was constructed specifically as a movie theater - with excellent acoustics and good sightlines.
And it kept abreast of the times as Hollywood's technology changed. In 1953, while the movie industry was in the throes of switching to 3-D and an assortment of wide-screen techniques, the Centre installed a 45-foot-wide screen. In July of that year the theater's advertisement for the James Stewart adventure movie, "Thunder Bay," touted it as "a picture whose bigness was made for the Centre's newly installed giant wide vision screen and the amazing miracle of stereophonic sound!"
Six years later, an even larger (56-foot-wide) screen and new 70 mm projection equipment was installed for a long-run, reserved-seat engagement of MGM's Biblical epic, "Ben-Hur." Eight rows of seats in front were removed to allow for installation of the wall-to-wall screen in front of the proscenium arch. This cut the theater's seating down to 1,174. Even the theater's unique 90-foot tower atop the circular marque was remodeled. The vertical, neon-lighted letters which had spelled C-E-N-T-R-E were revised and/or replaced to spell B-E-N-H-U-R. It was the kind of promotion you'd expect to see in New York or Hollywood, not Salt Lake City.
Just as moviegoing habits have changed in the '80s, the 1960s saw a big transition for the film industry. For much of that decade, the most important films, especially those that were shot in 70 mm, were released first as "roadshow" attractions, with reserved seats and higher prices.
And the Centre played a good share of these "blockbuster" pictures - starting with "Ben-Hur" and continuing on with such shows as "Cleopatra" (which nearly bankrupted 20th Century-Fox because of the excessive spending), MGM's lavish remake of "Mutiny on the Bounty," "My Fair Lady," "Patton" and others, including the three intergalactic "Star Wars" adventures.
The Centre's giant screen and multichannel sound system gave patrons a thrilling, larger-than-life experience that was a major ingredient in the epic blockbusters of the time.
But it wasn't always just hits and no misses at the Centre. The people who booked movies for the huge theater couldn't pick a winner every time. Some of the industry's more notable clunkers have played there, too - such as one embarrassing movie touted as "the first X-rated movie from a major studio," 20th Century-Fox's "Myra Breckenridge," a picture that film critic Leonard Maltin calls "as bad as any movie ever made." That was in 1970. Eleven years later, Michael Cimino's financial fiasco, "Heaven's Gate," a film that virtually bankrupted United Artists, had a thankfully short run at the Centre.
Two photographs in our Deseret News files draw an interesting comparison about the Centre Theater and about how things have changed in the movie industry.
One shows long lines of patrons waiting to get into the only sneak preview of DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" and the other - shot from almost the same angle - shows a parade of irate citizens protesting and picketing the recent showing of Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ."
Both dealt with Biblical themes - but each drew markedly different responses from the public.
C.H. Lyman, who is now a projectionist at the Crossroads Cinemas, but who worked for several years at the Centre in a variety of positions, noted this past week that when an unknown person broke into the Centre and slashed the theater's screen one night during the "Last Temptation of Christ" engagement, it reminded him of a similar incident a few years ago when the theater was showing "Hawaii."
An ex-employee with a grudge came into the theater during a performance and slashed the screen with a stiletto.
"It was a pretty tense situation," Lyman said, "until the police and an employee from nearby Film Row subdued the man."
Lyman had some other interesting stories, too.
Once, in 1980, several people came in and admitted that they had sneaked into the theater five years before on a dare and now wanted to repay the theater.
"We decided that the guilt they'd suffered during the previous five years was sufficient."
On another occasion a few years ago, a singles group from Riverton wanted to stage their own "premiere night" activity. Gussied up in "best-dress" attire, they arrived at the theater in limousines.
"We let them sit up in the balcony," said Lyman.
Ron Van Woerden, who is head of the Entertainment Division at Lagoon/Pioneer Village, said he, too, had fond memories of the Centre Theater. Once, he said, his high school teachers sent busloads of students to the Centre on a field trip for a special screening of "Mutiny on the Bounty."
He added that he'll miss the big-screen, big-sound excitement that made going out to the movies at the Centre and other large theaters of the era an event.
Soon, the venerable but doomed old theater will be just a pile of rubble. Its stately, 90-foot tower will no longer be a familiar landmark at State and Broadway. In its place will rise a 13-story building with - the developers promise - touches of art-deco style. And there'll be six little "mini-theaters" to replace the once-glorious Centre.
They call it "progress."