OREM — Theater lovers who religiously attend the musicals and dramas at the Hale Center Theater in Orem will be celebrating more than the opening of "Xanadu" this next week.
The sagging, flattened seats that have supported cast, crew and audiences for the past 22 years and 168 shows are gone — replaced by rich, burgundy, velvet-covered seats that actually have support and comfort to offer.
"We have had people who love our shows tell us they're not coming back until we replace these chairs," said one of the owners, Cody Swenson. "We're not surprised. They were old when we got them."
The seats going out were bought by members of an LDS congregation in Richfield many years ago.
When "Grandma" Ruth Hale prayed for a way to find theater seats for the Orem playhouse in 1990, that led to a phone call from a church member who said they needed to replace their seats with pews. "Did Hale Center want them?"
Soon after, the Hales and Swensons were on their way with a U-Haul to pick them up.
"We had no money. These were an answer to her prayers, but they've served their time," Swenson said.
The 304 new seats that arrived in a semi-tractor trailer Monday come in four sizes so patrons can choose a size that fits their comfort zone — from 19 inches to 22 inches. They're soft, they're clean and they won't detract from the theatrical experience.
They match the new carpeting, which was also long overdue for a change-out.
The seats on the north wall can more easily be removed when that end of the theater is needed for stage space.
"We used to have to take out the bolts, lift a four- or five-chair section (and they're cast iron) and haul it downstairs," said Cody Hale. "These can be moved in two- and three-seat sections. It'll take more trips, but it'll be so much easier."
Seats in the far upper west corner will now be turned to face the stage, making that area much more desirable for ticket-holders.
The Hales and Swensons are spending $100,000 for the upgrade. Some of the money is coming from the fundraiser show last summer that featured Will Swenson and his soon-to-be bride, Audra McDonald.
Other money is coming from patrons who've bought a specific seat with a cash donation.
Maren Mouritsen is one of those people. She bought six seats because she believes in the theater and its mission.
"I just think it's a gem that can't be matched. It provides a venue for people every bit as talented as anyone in the country, and you can go down there and see a show that's entertaining and good for the family," Mouritsen said. "I'm a regular donor."
"One couple came in and asked for the seat the man sat in on the night he met his future wife at a performance of 'The Grouch, The Goat and The Girl,'" Swenson said. (Swenson and his crew found it at the bottom of a dumpster after a tedious search.)
People from the community alerted on Facebook came out on Feb. 11 to help tear out the old seats and carpeting. Workmen, meanwhile, are painting the ceiling and walls, reinforcing the risers from beneath, laying carpet and bolting in seats.
The Swensons and Hales are working to get the space ready for "Xanadu" preview shows and opening night Feb. 24.
"It's exciting," Hale said.
"It's like brand, new space," Swenson added.
Sharon Haddock is a professional writer with 35 years experience, 17 at the Deseret News. Her personal blog is at sharonhaddock.blogspot.com.