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Editor's note • In this regular series, The Salt Lake Tribune explores the once-favorite places of Utahns, from restaurants to recreation to retail.
For a vast swath of western Salt Lake County a half century ago, the only nearby place to see movies in an indoor cinema was at the vast-itself Plaza Theatre in Kearns.
It was built in 1964 with 950 seats, a wide screen and a full stage to also allow live performances and advertised itself as Utah's third largest. Before it was built, the only movies shown in the general area were those hosted by churches or schools as fundraisers, or at a few drive-ins.
The Plaza may have been the only Utah cinema initially built to allow the fancy three-projector Cinerama process although the Villa in Salt Lake City was modified for it 12 years after it was constructed, and the Century 21 in Salt Lake City had a one-projector Cinerama system, according to the Cinematour website.
Those who grew up with the Plaza remember it mostly for sometimes-wild youth matinees, with kids throwing candy and popcorn, ushers with flashlights trying to stop youth from making out, "Going Ape for a Day" marathons for Planet of the Apes movies, and managers tossing candy to the crowd before shows as a draw.
Many people shared memories through social media with The Salt Lake Tribune about the theater which eventually was subdivided into two theaters (the Valley Twin in 1977), then five (Cinemas 5), later becoming a Spanish-language cinema (Tu Cine in 2002), and finally closing in 2007.
"The Plaza was very large and very nice for an indoor cinema at the time," remembers Byren Stowe. "Watching movies there made me feel what lucky people we were to have such a facility in little old Kearns, Utah. It was something special."
With people in Kearns, Taylorsville, Bennion, Granger, Hunter and West Jordan often talking about going to the Plaza, Rick Haslam said, "Because I grew up there, I always thought the word 'plaza' meant a movie theater."
Pam Todd, who operates the Kearns Historical Society, said she remembers the theater had two cry rooms in back, where parents could take unruly kids and still watch the movie through windows.
"Teens would sneak in there to make out" and try to escape policing by ushers, remembers Barb Cantonwine. Anne Spendlove remembers seeing those ushers as she went to the theater every Friday, and "getting flashlights on me for kissing my date."
In the early years, the theater often sold out, even with its large size.
"I remember the first time I went there was when I was in grade school and watched 'Batman.' It was so packed my family sat on the front row, but there weren't enough seats so some of us sat on the ground," said Travis T. Jones.
The big screen • The front row was close enough to what the Plaza advertised as its "drive-in size screen" that some said it was tough to see the entire picture in one glance from there, and joked they only saw half the movie because they could focus only on half the screen at a time.
Russell Cranney remembers "sitting in the front row getting a sore neck from looking up at the screen to watch Raquel Welch dance behind a sheer sheet in the buff," in what he thinks was an old James Bond movie.
That big screen could make some people queasy. Sandra Gines Chidester remembers that happened on one of her first dates, when she was taken there to see "Ben Hur."
"When it came to the chariot scene, he [her date] said we had to leave. What? The most exciting part of the whole movie and he wants to go? He insisted, and halfway up the aisle he passed out. Too much blood on the big Plaza screen for him. The usher helped him to the lobby until he felt well enough to drive me home," she said.
Several remember that the Plaza sometimes offered free tickets for good grades at local schools, or sold discounted packs of tickets for a movie a week during the summer.
With those tickets, "I swear half of Kearns used this theater as a form of babysitting in the summer when school was out," said Sherrie L. Davis.
In the early years, the theater had double features, and movies would run continuously back to back. If someone arrived late, they could sit through the next showing to see what they missed or sit through a good movie twice or more.
Cantonwine, for example, remembers "sitting through three straight showings of 'Billy Jack.'"
Marita Hunsaker Mathie remembers enjoying "A Hard Day's Night" with The Beatles so much that she sat through several showings, but forgot to tell her worried parents what she was doing.
"I didn't want to leave, until I saw my dad walking up and down the aisles looking for me," she says. "So, I sunk down in my seat so he wouldn't see me. Didn't work. I was in so much trouble."
Sweet times • Many remember that the theater featured a large and well-stocked candy counter, and offerings were cheap with some priced at 5 cents.
"I remember buying those Jolly Rancher sticks: cinnamon, caramel, apple," wrote Kent Connell. Joni Player remembers the "Jolly Rancher's fire sticks, and a Chick-O- Stick." Pamela Steck says it was "always a treat if you could buy the licorice ropes."
Diana Perry says, "I remember every Saturday going to the movies, and getting the lucky suckers." Some of them had "winner" stickers on back inside the label, awarding a second sucker for free.
Cody Skinner remembers "eating Swedish [gummy] fish while watching 'Jaws.'"
At some points in the theater's history, even more candy was free. "I remember before the movie started they would come out and throw candy out, they though stopped doing it later before they closed," says Jennifer Draper.
Even with the cheap or free candy, many remember always stopping first at a drug store next door to buy penny candy to bring in.
Cantonwine remembers buying 10 pieces of candy for a penny there "and taking the small white bag filled for a quarter to the movie. They used to allow outside candy. Later, they changed the rule so we'd hide it before going in."
Special events • With a full stage, the theater also had special events including sometimes featuring bands between movies, playing for dances after movies or competing in battles of the bands.
"I remember seeing a hypnotist," says Sheila Buchei. Others remember talent shows and some plays.
Some of the best-remembered special events were movie marathons, including one for all the "Love Bug" movies and some for all "Planet of the Apes" movies.
At a "Go Ape for a Day" event, lasting about 10 hours, Barbara Miles remembers "a person in an ape costume running up and down the aisle."
Todd, with the historical society, adds a note of interest that few probably realized during the Ape for a Day events.
"The make-up artist on 'Planet of the Apes' was also stationed at Camp Kearns [an Army Air Force Base during World War II] in 1943. John Chambers was stationed at the dental department and was at Kearns for 20 months." Not only did he win an Oscar for "Planet of the Apes," he created the ears for Mr. Spock on "Star Trek."
Many remember that Plaza tickets were affordable, often because it featured second-run movies.
"Thinking back, the Plaza was a positive asset for the Kearns community. It was fortunate that teenagers had somewhere to go to mingle and not just have options for other activities that could have led to more mischief. Plus families could have an affordable way to view movies, said Diane Dell'Andrea.
Still, the movies stretched the budget for some.
"I remember saving my lunch money all week so I could spend Friday and Saturday night there," says Marlene Corum.
Death knell • Newer theaters and multiplexes that eventually came to the westside would kill the Plaza. It fought to compete initially by dividing its large theater into two, and changed its name to the Valley Twin.
Not long afterward, it subdivided again this time into five theaters called Cinemas 5. It later also converted into a dollar theater.
Levi Park says, "I went there in the late '80s early '90s and it was a dump, but pretty much the only thing to do in Kearns."
It eventually converted into a Spanish-language theater called Tu Cine, but closed in 2007.
The building is still there on 5415 South, about 4100 West. It is now subdivided into numerous businesses including a payday lender, an insurance agency and a cosmetics business.
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