Ignoring Thomas Clayton Wolf's oft-quoted adage, "You can't go home again," actress-playwright-theater matriarch Ruth Hale is doing just that.
The theater that bears her name - Hale Centre Theatre - is moving into a $9 million, state-of-the-art facility just a few blocks from where Ruth, who turns 90 on Oct. 14, grew up.Back then it was Granger. Now it's West Valley City.
If you're just looking at the numbers, the new Hale theater at 3333 S. Decker Lake Drive (2200 West) is nearly eight times larger than the 13-year-old South Salt Lake venue it's about to replace.
But that doesn't mean it's expanding from 386 seats to nearly 3,000 seats.
What patrons will find, when HCT opens its new doors (once you've parked in the theater's very own gated and protected parking lot), will be 530 high-backed seats, complete with lumbar supports, arranged around what is believed to be the most technically sophisticated centerstage theater in North America.
Remember the old Valley Music Hall stage, the one that rotated - in just one direction? The one at Hale, not only has the capability of revolving two directions at the same time, it's divided into sections that can also be raised and lowered . . . separately . . . also at the same time. The computer-operated stage alone, designed and built in Montreal then delivered in sections and installed in a big, round hole in the basement, cost nearly $1 million.
The auditorium itself will be known as Harmon Hall, in honor of the Utah millionaire who Ruth used to baby-sit - Pete Harmon, a major benefactor in the new project. The octagon-shaped hall maintains a feel of cozy intimacy. The top row of seats is only eight rows back. (A ninth row of seating can be added at stage level, depending on the space required for particular productions.)
The Harmon and Hale families have deep roots in the area. Ruth Hale has fond memories of growing up in Granger. That was before Ruth married Nathan Hale and the two of them headed to Southern California, where they founded the Glendale Centre Theatre (which celebrated its 50th anniversary during the past year).
Ruth and Nathan made a feeble attempt at retirement 13 years ago (to which Ruth announced "you could die from tatting doilies and watching television"). So part of the Hale and Dietlein families returned to Utah and leased a small building in South Salt Lake - the Hale Center Theater. (The name was later modified with "re" on the ends of the name instead of "er" - to differentiate it slightly from the Hale Center Theater in Orem.)
The family also operates the rustic Hale Summer Theater on its ranch near Grover (west of Capitol Reef National Monument).
After expanding the South Salt Lake theater twice and still being cramped for space, the Hales got an offer from West Valley City - the lure of a spacious, state-of-the-art building.
For the theater's gala grand opening, Ruth Hale will star in one of her most popular plays (she's written more than 80). "Thank You, Papa," which relates her own life story, will have a limited engagement, Oct. 2-10, with Ruth performing nightly in the role of her own mother, Edith Hudson. (Ruth says the story is "two-thirds true," and leaves it up to audiences to guess about the other third.)
Long before patrons make their way up the grand staircase in the main lobby (or - if they're handicapped - take a nearby elevator), they'll find themselves surrounded by elegance and luxury.
Instead of the almost claustrophobic hallways, the tiny restrooms and the miniscule concession stand at HCT's old Main Street theater, the ever-growing list of subscription patrons (as well as single-ticket buyers) will discover:
- a homey, circular waiting area, with fireplace, plenty of seating and a large-screen TV monitor (connected to a video camera inside the auditorium, so latecomers can watch the show until they can be ushered to their seats at an appropriate break in the action).
- a considerably larger box office, including several ticket windows.
- seating with slightly more legroom (but not quite as much as the Hales and Dietleins had hoped for). The seats themselves are quite a bit more comfortable than the old ones, but because of the higher backs - which tilt slightly over into the row behind them, there was not enough room to accommodate cup-holders.
- spacious restrooms, on both floors, including designated stalls for the handicapped. (If you've spent the entire intermission lining up outside the tiny restrooms at the soon-to-be-closed HCT in South Salt Lake, you'll appreciate this aspect.)
- one of the largest costume storage shops in the region, connected to a well-lighted room where sewers can construct new costumes for HCT performers, with several fitting rooms and complete laundry facilities.
- two concession stands (a large one on the main floor and a smaller one on the mezzanine), designed to handle the crowds.
Behind the scenes, there are even more high-tech surroundings for the performers and crews, including two sound-proofed rehearsal rooms (both of which have floors marked the same size as the main hall's stage), one of which has a spring-tiled floor designed especially for dance. There's also a large green room, where actors can await their cues, a kitchen and a fully equipped recording studio.
When it comes to stage lighting, sound equipment and other technical stuff, the new Hale Centre Theatre probably has more bells and whistles than an F.A.O. Schwartz toy store:
- spotlights can be controlled by small transmitters attached to individual actors. Wherever the actors move, the lights will automatically follow.
- a lighting grid that can be safely maintained via catwalks with side railings, including one that moves back and forth the entire length of the grid system.
- a "fly system" (a standard item in most proscenium theaters but a real rarity for centerstage venues), which will permit props and scenery to be lowered from high overhead.
The award-winning architecture firm of Sizemore Floyd Architects, based in Atlanta, designed the new theater. Project engineer was Don Reszel.
Performances of Ruth Hale's "Thank You, Papa" will be at 8 p.m. Oct. 2-3 and 5-10, with one matinee at 3:30 p.m. on Oct. 10. All performances will include a self-guided tour, preshow entertainment and light refreshments.
Ticket prices are $13 for adults and $10 for children, Monday-Thursday and the matinee, and $15 and $11 on Friday and Saturday evenings.
The Hale Centre Theatre's new box office number is 984-9000. Until Oct. 1, the HCT box office will operate out of the theater's old address, 2801 S. Main, South Salt Lake (where "The Pirates of Penzance" will continue through Oct. 14).
The new theater is located at 3333 S. Decker Lake Drive, across the street from the E Center.