GUNNISON, Sanpete County The day Lori Nay and Diana Spencer closed a deal to buy the 92-year-old Star Theater on Main Street in Gunnison, the marquee announced, "New Ownership" a reflection of nearly two decades of their intentions to restore the historic building.
Back in the late 1980s, Spencer, now a retired Snow College professor, and Nay, a doctor's wife and Gunnison city councilwoman, had helped organize a group called Save Our Star (SOS), in order to purchase the ornate theater. But their efforts were unsuccessful, and it went to another buyer.
In 2004, a for-sale sign again went up in the box office of the Star, one of the most notable structures along U.S. 89. Within five weeks, Nay and Spencer incorporated a nonprofit organization, put up earnest money with 24 hours notice and came up with an $8,000 down payment and the theater was theirs.
"How many times," Spencer says, "do the fates provide a second chance on frustrated dreams?"
Built in 1912, the structure was originally called the Casino Theater. (That was before the word "casino" conjured up images of Las Vegas gambling houses, Spencer says.) A later owner changed the name to the Star Theater.
Nay and Spencer renamed it the Casino Star Theater in recognition "of the theater's entire history as an entertainment center for the Gunnison Valley."
Around the turn of the century, theaters were the most elaborate buildings in many communities. The Casino Star was built in the same era as the Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City, the Empress Theatre in Magna and Peery's Egyptian Theater in Ogden.
The Casino Star has the intricate decoration characteristic of beaux-arts architecture. The decorations tend to deteriorate, which is why few beaux-arts structures remain. Spencer, who has done research on the building, says that as far as she can determine, the Casino Star is the only beaux-arts theater west of the Mississippi that is still operating.
The original facade included columns, statues, cherubs and flowers. People entered through a huge arch lined with more than 350 terra cotta roses. Inside each rosette was a light bulb. Those bulbs lit up not only the theater but virtually the whole Gunnison Main Street, Nay says.
As part of a potential $1 million restoration, the women hope to restore the arch, flowers and light bulbs. "When we light it up, the (Gunnison) prison won't have anything on us," Nay says.
Another unique feature was the artesian well in the basement. In what must have been one of the earliest versions of swamp cooling, bales of hay were stacked in the basement and drenched with water from the well. Huge fans forced air through the hay and blew it through ductwork upstairs into the theater auditorium.
During the winter, artesian well water was channeled into a boiler to create steam, which flowed into radiators to heat the building.
Nay and Spencer also found a tunnel leading out of the building and under Main Street. Inside the theater basement, to the side of the tunnel opening, was a room with rough concrete walls with old whiskey bottles here and there on the floor. "We think this was a little speakeasy," Spencer says.
The Casino Theater was built by Sims Duggins, an entrepreneur who moved from Provo to Gunnison in the early 1900s. At the time, sugar beets were the dominant cash crop from Payson to Centerfield (a town just south of Gunnison), and Duggins believed Gunnison was destined to become a wealthy, sugar-beet mecca.
In 1912, he built what Spencer describes as a "big box" as the first step in constructing the theater. Meanwhile, he turned to the Beaux-Arts School of Architectural Design in Paris to design the facade and hired a Pittsburgh company to build it. Components of the facade arrived by train and were installed in 1915.
After Duggins died in 1928, his widow hired C.E. Huish, whose family owned theaters throughout Utah, to manage the theater. Huish installed a metallic false facade over the arch and lower part of the ornate facade, and the addition ended up preserving many of the original decorations over the years.
In 1940, the Cryill E. Anderson family of Gunnison bought the theater and in the 1950s put up the triangular marquee that is still on the building. They continued to operate it until 1973, although it became less profitable as the years passed, and it faced competition from TV movies, videos and DVDs.
The theater served the whole Gunnison Valley, including not only Gunnison and Centerfield but the tiny surrounding towns of Mayfield, Fayette and Axtell. People came there for political rallies, vaudeville performances, stage plays and movies.
From 1973 to 1987, there were two more owners, and the theater scaled back to showing movies on weekends only. In 1987, while the SOS group was still trying to buy the theater, Paul Mower, owner of the Huish Theater in Payson and a descendant of one-time Star Theater manager C.E. Huish, snatched up the facility. But it wasn't profitable, and by 2004, he was trying to sell it.
With the deal done, Spencer and Nay had to face up to the reality of what they'd purchased. "The lovely elm trees out back had roots in our cast iron pipes," Spencer said. The building was also stuffed with junk.
They closed the theater for five days in order to renovate the foyer and present a fresh, clean entry to the public. They called in high school volunteers to help. At one point, students pulled up worn, soiled carpeting in the lobby and Nay stepped on the concrete underneath. It was spongy.
She decided to drill into the concrete to find out what was underneath. "With the first vibration of the jackhammer, one-third of the lobby sank," Nay says. "I thought the building was coming down."
It turned out water and sewer mains from the street into the building were leaking. The women had to have the plumbing replaced and a new concrete sidewalk and lobby floor poured.
On Nov. 24, 2004, the theater reopened with the movie "Christmas With the Kranks." Since then, the Casino Star has been showing family movies six nights per week with two shows on Fridays and Saturdays. Proceeds from operating go toward restoration.
Nay and Spencer formed the Casino Star Foundation, dedicated to restoring the theater, and in September, the Internal Revenue Service granted the foundation tax-exempt status as a charitable organization. The foundation still has a long list of restoration work that needs to be done. The list ranges from removing the metallic false front and restoring the central arch to replumbing, rewiring and seismic upgrading."We know we have a treasure," Nay says. "Now the serious fund raising has to be done."