SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – As talks of demolishing Utah’s 103-year-old standing legacy, the Pantages Theater, continues, community members are asking for a spot at the table with city leaders.
The historic Pantages Theater in downtown Salt Lake City was originally built in 1918, featuring many celebrities during its heyday such as Babe Ruth, Abbott and Costello, and Will Rogers. Not only that but the building itself features exotic neo-classical style architecture, Alaskan marble, and a Tiffany skylight in the ceiling. The venue also seated 1,700 people on the main floor of the auditorium and 600 people on the balcony.
Despite the building surviving through decades of hard work and toil such as; WWI, WWII, the Spanish flu, Roaring 20s, Great Depression, the Magna earthquake in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic, and decades of fandom, city leaders hope to demolish the theater for “better and appropriate” community use.
In coordination with city leaders such as Mayor Erin Mendenhall and real estate development investment firm, Hines and the LaSalle Group, the antique theater is anticipated to transform to a glass-clad skyscraper with affordable housing units for residents making between 60% to 80% of the area’s median income, as well as a pocket park, and a walkway to increase the green space in the city.
However, a local group of filmmakers and their supporters have not given up their efforts to save, preserve, and restore the historic building during the last couple of years. The coalition submitted a voter initiative, made a formal offer to buy the theater from the city for $500,000, and wrote a letter of intent to summarize the details of their purchase offer.
Michael Valentine, who is leading the efforts through Utah Pantages Cinematic Theater, recently went on a hunger strike for a nearly 16 hour period to urge Mayor Mendenhall and the Salt Lake City Council to meet for a discussion regarding the theater.
“I ended the hunger strike early late last night in an attempt to offer an olive branch to the City Council and Mayor Mendenhall to meet with me. I was out here for 15 1/2 hours, sunburned as hell, no food, taking a passionate stand for a better Salt Lake City. I was planning to stay for the entire week, but instead I’m hoping yesterday’s actions opened the door for future constructive conversations,” shares Valentine.
According to officials and Valentine, the dispute between the group primarily focuses on the cost of the theater’s restoration.
The city’s Redevelopment Agency (RDA) said they explored the idea of utilizing it as the home for non-profit film and media groups. It engaged more than 50 representatives from local and regional arts, business, community, entertainment, municipal, and other stakeholder groups, including Sundance, in an effort to find a financially-viable way for the theater to be saved. But they said it was ultimately determined to not be financially feasible, estimating that restoration and rehabilitation of the theater could cost as much as $60 to $80 million.
“The objective truth of the Pantages is it can absolutely be restored and there is a very cost effective, strategic way to do it and it has already been done dozens of times successfully around America. There are a dozen ways we could pay for it and it would cost the city nothing, but instead be an incredible investment that would pay for itself 100 times over,” Valentine states.
Since Valentine’s strike and email proposal to Mayor Mendenhall and City Council, he tells ABC4 he has not been given a response.
According to community members, those who have yet to receive a moment to experience the centuries old theater is welcome to stroll on down to 144 S. Main Street and watch the highlight premier of Queen of the Pantages on June 12 at 9 p.m.
“Our 103-year-old Utah Pantages Theatre is one of the oldest queer safe spaces in Utah! At both Utah Pantages Theatres, vaudeville and variety acts loomed large and a total of ten female impersonators performed in grand fashion in the 1910s and 1920s, several of them returning multiple times,” Valentine shares. “We are inviting the entire community, Mayor Mendenhall, City Council, Utah Pride Center, Equality Utah, and everyone else to come enjoy the Queens of the Pantages with us and Queer history so old that most don’t even know about it! Come celebrate Pride Month, amazing Utah queer history, and saving our historic Utah Pantages Theatre with us!”