I always wanted to play the piano. I don't expect to perform Chopin on the concert stage, although that would be nice. But I envy friends who can sit at the piano and play by ear, or improvise from "fake" sheets, or sight-read simple music. I took lessons when I was young, but I never had the talent, the confidence or the chutzpah to play well. And I certainly did not practice enough. In later years, I even bought a couple of electronic pianos, thinking that if I had them around the house I would surely learn to play. Wonderful instruments. But having a piano didn't make me a piano player.

I think about my piano experience whenever I hear talk about building a large new theater in Salt Lake County.

Politicians and promoters are like Don Gale and his pianos. They think that if they build a new theater, thousands of Utah residents will miraculously become theatergoers. It doesn't work that way. Practice and education come first.

Instead of building expensive new theaters, we should focus on filling the excellent theaters we already have.

It seems those who talk about new theaters rarely go to the Utah Symphony, Ballet West, Utah Opera, Simmons Pioneer Theatre, Kingsbury Hall, the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, the Utah Shakespearean Festival, Utah Festival Opera, or other performance venues around the state. If politicians, developers and big-theater proponents attended those performances or sat on the boards of those organizations, they would know that performances are rarely sold out and that all auditoriums must be subsidized by taxpayers and donors in order to survive.

We are fortunate to have generous donors and, in some counties, a voter-approved ZAP tax. Without them, our outstanding arts organizations would soon disappear. Taking money from excellent but struggling organizations in order to support a new theater doesn't make sense.

Some claim existing theaters cannot accommodate major Broadway shows. That's nonsense. There isn't a single Broadway show that has not played in venues smaller than the Capitol Theatre or Kingsbury Hall. Not a single one. In fact, most New York theaters are half the size of the Capitol or Kingsbury. And serious theater fans know that large theaters provide disappointing theater experiences. Perhaps we need larger stages or larger off-stage assembly areas at the Capitol or Kingsbury Hall or Simmons Pioneer Theatre. If so, invest in those improvements, not in new facilities and more seats.

As for quality, no performance by any traveling Broadway company will ever match the quality of performances presented all season at Simmons Pioneer Theatre. If you doubt it, plan to attend "My Fair Lady" at Pioneer this fall ... then compare it to the traveling company sure to perform here within a year or two. Or compare what Pioneer will do with "Miss Saigon" next spring with the so-so traveling production we saw here a couple of years ago. Or find touring companies to match what the Utah Shakespearean Festival does with "Othello," "Cyrano de Bergerac," and "Fiddler on the Roof" this summer.

If parking is a problem — as it is at Kingsbury Hall — build parking stalls closer to the theater, not seats farther from the stage.

The busiest performance venue in the state is the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, with 500 seats. Thoughtless folks propose building a large theater across the street on I.J. Wagner's parking lot. I wrote Wagner's biography, and he directed in his will that his parking lot should continue to serve the Rose Wagner Center "in perpetuity." Sadly, county officials can always find ways around Wagner's dying wishes, but they should certainly wait at least a few years before repudiating the intentions of a man who gave so much to the community.

The issue here is not art but greed. If it made economic sense to build a big theater, you can be sure private enterprise would have done it long ago. The only way it makes sense is if taxpayers heavily subsidize those who hope to make a profit from ticket sales.

Some years ago, a popular movie promoted the theme: "If you build it, they will come." It may work in the movies, but it doesn't work in real life any more than buying a fine grand piano would help me become a piano player.


G. Donald Gale, president of Words, Words, Words Inc., enjoys performances by Utah arts groups. He has been a volunteer board member for several of those groups. E-mail: [email protected]