During the renovation of Capitol Theatre, Ballet West dancers found themselves rehearsing in windowed space at the Salt Palace Convention Center during Comic Con.
In a lovely juxtaposition of artistic and popular culture, dancers observed costume-clad attendees wandering by, everybody from Iron Man to Spider-Man and Wonder Woman, all watching them rehearse. Once, a mime came up and performed for them through the glass.
But perhaps the most humorous moment was during a rehearsal when the dancers cracked up laughing: They'd just been mooned by a dude on a skateboard. "It takes a lot of nerve to moon a studio of ballet dancers, as they have some of the best rear ends in the world," says Adam Sklute, the company's artistic director.
Welcome to Salt Lake City's new arts season, marked by the renovation of the Capitol Theatre, the venerable former vaudeville house that's being retrofitted to be a better home to Utah's ballet and opera companies, as well as touring Broadway shows and Jazz SLC concerts.
The renovation, along with the building of a new Jesse E. Quinney Ballet Centre, is part of a years-long plan to create "the right-size venue for the right-size work," according to Phil Jordan, director of the Salt Lake County Center for the Arts. That vision includes plans for the controversial, larger 2,500-seat, $116 million performing-arts center to be built just around the corner on Main Street.
For now, construction at the Capitol means Ballet West and Utah Opera will be nomads this fall. The dance company kicks off its season with a revival of "The Firebird" at the University of Utah's Kingsbury Hall, while the opera company will present its first show at Abravanel Hall. Broadway Across America-Utah shows will be presented at Kingsbury, while the Capitol Theatre's newest resident company, the Jazz SLC series, will move to the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.
Touching up the grande dame's makeup • Don a hard hat and step into the construction zone of the Capitol Theatre on a recent weekday, and you'll see workers detailing molded plaster to match the pattern of the lobby's historic gold friezes.
The renovation was planned "to keep a very careful and responsible eye toward the history of the theater, the finishes, and the sense of high decorative art that occurred at the time it was built," Jordan says. "Every single finish selection was done with the inspiration of the theater as it is, or as it was historically. We saved the best of the best, and at the same time, improved it for more contemporary bodies."
The theater "will look modernesque with these century-old elements still in place," says Michael Currey, Ballet West's director of production. "It's a good mix."
The project, five years in the planning, will be completed in two phases. The remodeled building will open in December for Ballet West's run of "The Nutcracker" with a new name, the Janet Quinney Lawson Capitol Theatre.
But the promised 30 new toilets, in the adjacent Jesse E. Quinney Ballet Centre, won't be available until the second phase when the new building opens in October 2014.
For theatergoers, the most prominent visual change will be a new carpeting scheme more on that later. "Elegant" is the word Cami Munk, communications manager for the Salt Lake County Center for the Arts, uses to describe the selection.
One prominent change is that the lobby's glass atrium, circa a 1978 remodel, has been removed, while the outlines of expanded concessions, patron services and box-office areas have been added. Planned for installation are six chandeliers that are replicas of those in the original theater.
From the lobby looking to the west, you can see where the theater arches will connect to the angled lines of the new building. Ground was broken Sept. 16, but for now the new building site is just an open pit, with construction details contained in HKS Architects plans and Okland Construction's work schedules.
Inside the house, theater seats have been removed to prepare for the floor's refinishing. Seat frames will be painted and refinished, then fitted with new upholstery, complete with more comfortable cushions that also have acoustical properties. New lights will line the aisles, and in front of the stage, new seat wagons will provide more comfortable infill seating, replacing the 44 not-exactly-comfortable chairs currently used for larger Broadway shows.
What most theatergoers won't ever see are two new separate air-conditioning and heating systems that will regulate temperature differently for performers and for the audience.
On the stage, crews are installing the wooden latticework to support the new sprung floor. The entire stage has been raised to improve sightlines. "We've added 6 inches so everybody has a better view of the stage," Jordan says.
In front of the stage, the expanded orchestra pit, which now will fit 50 players, yawns wide open, awaiting the reflective wood surfaces and new electric lifts aimed to improve the sound for musicians and theatergoers. While digging below the stage to expand the pit, construction crews found one of the surprises that come along with any historic project. The exposed soil appeared to be a creek bed, perhaps a branch of City Creek, and needed to be filled in, according to Charles Piper, Salt Lake County project manager.
For stagehands, one of the most heralded changes will be the 2 inches shaved from ceiling beams to allow better access for Broadway-sized set boxes to be wheeled through the hallways.
What won't change is the theater's limited backstage space, as the building's tight fit on the site means there's no room for expansion. Also not changing will be the expertise needed to back a 53-foot truck into the adjacent parking garage on 200 South, threading through a driveway split by a parking attendant booth "with literally 2 inches to spare," as Currey describes it.
About that new carpet • So what's the fuss about the new carpeting? The selection process took a year for a committee composed of donors, county and Ballet West officials, and the architects. The process was as complicated as negotiating a war treaty, one county official joked.
"The carpeting is the largest surface area of any project," Currey says. "It's the thing everyone will see, and hopefully nobody will notice."
Munk adds: "We hope to honor the integrity of the building with the carpet. It's such a big part of the theater. You don't realize that until you look at the theater empty, and you realize that the carpet is a big statement."
In the lobby, the new carpet will have a blackish gray background, with gold, red and black accents to complement wall colors and gold-accented wall friezes, replacing the old red carpeting with gold swirls.
In the house, the complementary carpet pattern will have a black background with gold swirl accents "very tasteful," Munk says. The darker background was selected so it won't provide illumination when the theater is darkened during shows.
The custom-designed wool carpets, from Shaw Contract Group, were the unanimous choice of the selection committee. The price was $185,296 for the flooring and installation in the Capitol Theatre, with an additional $230,430 planned for matching carpet and installation in the new building, according to Piper.
'Poetically right space' • Bené Arnold was ballet mistress when Ballet West debuted Willam F. Christensen's "The Firebird" at Kingsbury in 1967. Mr. C had choreographed a big ballet based on a classic Russian fairy tale. She's delighted to return to Kingsbury, Ballet West's original home, for the Nov. 8-16 revival.
How Sklute promotes the Kingsbury performance: "It was the physically right space, but also the poetically right space for us to open our 50th-anniversary season."
For Utah Opera, the Capitol Theatre's renovation offers an opportunity to experiment with theatrical elements, such as thrust staging platforms and dramatic lighting, to transform Abravanel Hall. Most of the front of the stage will be extended into the seating area for the company's season-opening "Salome," a co-production with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Opera Philadelphia.
"The box seats in the first tier are practically going to be in the action, it's that up close and personal," says Christopher McBeth, artistic director. In addition, orchestra players will be on the stage instead of a pit, "completely surrounded by the story of 'Salome,' " McBeth says. It helps, of course, that "Salome" is a one-act opera "with no real changes to the set, no matter how you present it. It works out perfectly."
In another experiment, from Nov. 14-17, the opera company is producing "Fatal Song," a stage play with musical moments featuring opera divas in an alternative universe who complain about having to die in the final act. The work, by Utah-based playwright Kathleen Cahill, will be performed with cabaret seating at The Rose. "I'm not letting anyone sit in the actual auditorium," McBeth says. "Everybody will be onstage."
For now, the effort to attract different audiences to opera appears to be working, according to McBeth, who claims the 250 seats available nightly are "selling like hotcakes."
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We want to hear your memories of Utah's Capitol Theatre. Call 717-850-TRIB (8742) and record your story, to be used with our Look Back historic photos gallery on Friday at www.sltrib.com. Fall arts season
Find tickets and schedule information for Capitol Theatre's resident companies at ArtTix or at these company sites:
Ballet West • balletwest.org
Utah Opera • utahopera.org
Jazz SLC • jazzslc.com
Broadway Across America-Utah • magicspace.net/saltlakecity/#.UkNEwIW7OSE
Backstage at the Capitol Theatre
Capacity • 1,876
Opened • 1913 as the Orpheum Theatre, a vaudeville house, which also screened silent movies and "talkies"; renamed Capitol Theatre in the 1930s; purchased by Salt Lake County in 1976.
Renovated • In 1970s renovation, the stage was rebuilt, lobby expanded, adding box office and atrium; opened as a performing-arts center in 1978.
Current renovation • Begun in July; will be completed by December.
Phase 1A • $6 million renovation of the newly renamed Janet Quinney Lawson Capitol Theatre; improved sightlines, expanded orchestra pit; also new carpet, improved acoustics, audience seating and accessibility, and heating and air-conditioning systems.
Phase 1B • Construction of adjacent Jesse E. Quinney Ballet Centre, complete with 30 new bathrooms, ballet company offices and studios; scheduled to open Oct. 1, 2014.
Total project • $33.4 million combined budget for renovation and construction.
Backstage at Kingsbury Hall
Capacity • 1,913
Opened • May 22, 1930, as a performing-arts center at the University of Utah; original home for Utah Symphony, Ballet West, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company and Repertory Dance Theatre.
Renovated • 1996; $14 million project expanding back-of-house operations, dressing and rehearsal rooms.
Renovated • 2007; front-of-house changes, eliminating center aisle, adding a rake to the floor and staggered center seating.
Historic elements • House murals, circa 1936, were a Works Progress Administration project; the 17-foot-square panels, designed by Florence E. Ware, depict drama through the ages.