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Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News
Ivan Lincoln, Deseret Morning News journalist of 39 years, sits at the Pioneer Theatre in Salt Lake City.

When Ivan Lincoln was a lad growing up on a sugar beet farm near Twin Falls, Idaho, he had neighbors who subscribed to "The New Yorker." These neighbors were a bit of an oddity, Lincoln says. "Everybody else subscribed to 'The Farm Journal."'

At any rate, Lincoln was in the habit of visiting his neighbors and reading their magazines, and that's how he learned of a new play called "Waiting for Godot." He thought absurdist comedy sounded more fascinating than sugar beets.

Thus began a lifetime of fascination with theater. He was only 15 years old and had never been to the theater, but he was intrigued.

Today, when Lincoln retires from the Deseret Morning News, he will have spent 48 years as a journalist, 39 of those years at the News. He began his career at the Twin Falls Times-News, writing PTA and Grange notices and obituaries. He worked at his hometown paper for five years, during which time he wrote his first play review. It was of the local high school musical, and he covered it the way he would have covered a city council meeting, Lincoln recalls.

He then reported for the Ogden Standard-Examiner for three years before coming to the Deseret News as a general assignment writer and copy editor. At the News, Lincoln eventually moved to the newly formed Today section (now the features department), where he designed pages. He became a theater writer and then, in 1990, the paper's main theater critic.

He's been amazed to watch how theater has grown in the state over the past 40 years, he says. Lincoln says he's watched Pioneer Theatre Company become one of the best regional theaters in the country. "It says a lot that they were able to get the rights to 'Les Miserables."'

Lincoln remembers when Salt Lake Acting Company was in Arrow Press Square. He remembers going out to write about a new little theater the Hale family was starting — and talking to Nathan and Ruth Hale while they installed the seats. Lincoln knew Pat Davis and Ralph Rogers when they were at Promised Valley Playhouse. He covered the Utah Shakespeare Festival when it won the Tony Award for Best Regional Theater in 2000.

Over the years, Lincoln says, he's only seen a handful of truly disastrous productions. Early in his career as critic, he tried to warn his readers about one company that billed itself as a "national touring company" of "Phantom of the Opera," because he was suspicious of its credentials before it even got to town. Readers called to thank him for helping them avoid wasting their money.

But for the most part, he tried to not be a vicious critic, he says. "I tried to look for both positives and negatives."

In the end, the producers, directors and actors he has critiqued tend to use the same word when they talk about Lincoln. That word is "joy."

Chris Lino, managing director of Pioneer Theatre Company, says Lincoln communicated joy to his readers. "He was so clearly and passionately an advocate for live theater."

Theater criticism is a perfectly honorable profession, Lino notes. But sometimes critics are so caught up in analyzing a production that they lose sight of the joy of a live experience. "Ivan never did."

Mark Malcolm at the Egyptian Theatre Company in Park City says when he thinks of Lincoln, he thinks of the way he looks in the Deseret Morning News ads. Those ads show Lincoln sitting in a theater, holding a fistful of tickets, and grinning. Malcolm calls it, "The quintessential Ivan — with a big warm smile, showing an obvious love for what he does."

Sally Dietlein, executive producer at Hale Centre Theatre, says it gives her joy to speak about Lincoln. She credits him with being a champion of the grassroots arts. "He felt that community theater was good for the community. He took delight in finding those little places, ferreting them out, making sure people knew they were there, trying to do theater."

She credits him also with knowing how to hold different theaters to different standards. Professional, semi-professional, community and student theater — he understood them and judged them accordingly. Dietlein also enjoyed his sense of humor.

When the Hales first opened a theater in Utah, they hung black drapes in their storefront windows, and Lincoln told them it looked like something X-rated was going to be happening inside. Later he learned that in order to exit stage right and enter stage left in that old building, actors had to run outside, changing costumes as they ran.

Lincoln had a heyday with the idea of costumes being shed in the parking lot. "He always laughed at us," Dietlein says, laughing herself.

Nancy Melich was the theater critic for the Salt Lake Tribune when Lincoln took over the job at the News. Over the years, she and Lincoln became friends. She says he loved his job, and it was evident in his writing.

Melich credits him with having a consistent voice. She says, "He was moderate without being a prude. He was never self-righteous." Melich adds, "He covered things that I think some readers of the Deseret News would just as soon he didn't cover — but that never stopped him."

One of her most poignant memories, Melich says, is of the time the Salt Lake Acting Company did "Angels in America." She and Lincoln both found it to be an extraordinary script. "It has Mormon characters and homosexual themes and religious themes."

Melich and Lincoln knew that everyone in the arts community was talking about it. Everyone who had seen it was talking about it. "Ivan felt it was important that his readers knew about it, too."

Today, as newspapers all over the country are cutting back, trimming staff, Melich says Lincoln's devotion to the local arts may become increasingly rare. On his last year on the job, Lincoln kept track of the productions of nearly 80 theater companies.

Watch him having his retirement photo taken, and you'll not be surprised when he reaches in his pocket for a clown nose. Ask him about his childhood and he'll talk about the droll parts.

He'll say he only weighed 2 pounds 3 ounces when he was born and from the time he can remember he hated going for his annual physical because his family doctor would parade him around the waiting room, introducing him as "my miracle baby." (Lincoln notes that the tiny hospital where he was born eventually became the offices for Twin Falls County's Bureau of Noxious Weed Control.)

Ask him about the highlights of his career and he'll mention meeting (and having lunch with) Carol Channing, and interviewing Debbie Reynolds, Robert Peterson, Eugene Jelesnik and even Big Bird.

When Lincoln retires, he'll spend more time with his family — wife LuAnn and three daughters. He'll work on some genealogy. He'll help a friend finish her book, a biography of her late husband. Also, he says, he's going to try to write a play.

E-mail: susan@desnews.com