History

History

-James Parker

Utah Children’s Theatre began it’s long journey in Bellevue, Washington where I grew up. Bellevue at the time was a small suburb of Seattle just across from Lake Washington. My parents, Tom and Joanne Parker moved to the northwest after they were married in 1965. Joanne had always been involved in the performing arts, being one of the original dancers in Virginia Tanner’s dance group, president of the East High Drama Department and danced at the University of Utah. 

Thomas studied music, playing all sorts of instruments from the French Horn to an upright Bass. Tom studied history in school, worked for Boeing and eventually became an attorney at law. In Washington they focused on creating a life for the rapidly growing family but they stayed creative and were always dragging me and my 4 siblings around to experience the theatre and other cultural events. 

 

In 1980 our community produced plays and musicals that performed at Bellevue Community College. Tom and Joanne produced Sleeping Beauty Persian Version, Wind in the Willows, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and other plays geared toward younger audiences. They were having fun, but their course became clear when a General Manager job opened up in Salt Lake City, Utah. 

 

The GM position was at Promised Valley Playhouse (PVP as we called it), a theatre venue owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Almost as soon as we arrived, my parents started working on a small stage at PVP called Plum Alley, named after the small street behind the building. Tom and Joanne continued the tradition of large musicals in the main theatre and The Little Bowery, a 175 seat black box. However it was Plum Alley that my brother and three sisters called home for next few years. We loved to perform on that little stage and it was at Plum Alley where we really began our training in the arts. After three years, the LDS Church closed PVP and my parents were faced with a decision of whether to go back to Seattle or to stay.

 

After serious contemplation, they agreed to stay and continue with entertaining the audiences of Utah. They started producing their first production as The Salt Lake Repertory Theatre (commonly known as City Rep). City Rep didn’t have it's own facility so they rented out Abravanel Hall, The Capitol Theatre, and Kingsbury Hall. The first production was “Cats in Concert” at Abravanel Hall. They had near sell out performances and it was a huge hit, and they continued mounting huge productions in the large venues of the city. Tom and Joanne still loved children’s theatre, but they were sidetracked for the moment. 

 

in 1987, they opened a small 100 seat theatre in the old ZCMI Mall producing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to sold out crowds. It seemed like we were putting on plays and musicals all the time. We operated an amphitheater during one summer below Abravanel Hall, producing 11 different productions in one summer! I was only 12, and my brother Ben was 16, but we ran all the lighting and sound for the theatre and if we didn't know what we were doing, we learned really fast.

 

Producing in the large venues was costly, and we could no longer continue our lease at ZCMI or gather the overhead needed to rent the theaters in the valley. A new search began to find a more permanent facility. My Dad showed us some possibilities, one being the Centre movie theatre on 300 South and State, which was demolished only a year later, and the Utah Theatre at 148 South Main Street. When we went to the Utah Theatre it smelled of buttered popcorn and soda and was so dusty and dirty, none of us could quite imagine performing there. I can still remember walking down to the dressing rooms in the downstairs theatre on that tour with flashlights and seeing a good foot of water on the floor. My Dad told us it was at about three feet deep when he visited a week ago.

 

In late summer of 1988 we moved to the Utah Theatre, cleaning, painting, sweeping endlessly and trying to get rid of that darn popcorn smell! We operated two theaters, the downstairs theatre of 700 seats (later condensed to a 500 seat theatre) and the upstairs theatre of 350 seats. The downstairs was the musical theatre stage and in 1989 the upstairs became the children’s theatre. The future of our children’s theatre in Utah had begun. In the years that followed,  the focus shifted from musicals and concerts to the children’s theatre. More programs were created with field trips and establishing the drama school. The popularity of the children’s theatre started to spill over into the downstairs theatre with performances of Phantom of the Opera and Sleeping Beauty.

 

in 1991, the Utah Theatre was purchased by HOWA and we were given a month to vacate. Another search began to find a space to perform. My Father found the Bowers Furniture store/warehouse at 638 South State Street and even though we all groaned when we saw how much had to be done, we knew that this ramshackle building could work. Why wouldn’t it work? We had operated in so many different spaces up to this point. This space had to be converted into a theatre.

 

We tore down the ceiling which was packed with mountains of rockwool insulation. It was literally an ocean of insulation two to three feet deep. Many volunteers came and shoveled and shoveled and shoveled. I remember my sister Amy and I wearing goggles, masks and jumpsuits shoveling the last section and becoming delirious with laughter at what we were doing. “This is totally vile!” Amy said muffled through her mask, I couldn’t have agreed more, and I couldn’t stop laughing. We built a stage, seating risers, bathrooms, lobby, reinforced the building with earthquake straps and pillars and many other structural and aesthetic details all while trying to keep the audience, producing the plays and selling tickets. I’m not really sure how we survived that one!

 

The 638 building turned out to be a great place to create. it was more or less a big box theatre playground. The musicals were mostly a thing of the past, but my oldest sister Jennifer continued directing the musicals and concerts.

 

City Rep started to generate great momentum but the building was never ours, so it became difficult to invest money, time and effort into it. My father had initially said that we would not be in 638 for more than five to seven years, but it turned out we were there the longest of any other space, fifteen years. In 2001, I left the theatre after suffering a major burn out and moved to Seattle with my wife Emily.

 

I went to school, worked and started a family. It was a much needed rest after doing nothing but eating, drinking and sleeping theatre. It took me about 5 years to recuperate. The next years ahead were very rough, the building was having major issues with the roof, heating and cooling. My mother was desperate to have a clean, comfortable space for the theatre school students and 638 was not accommodating it. My mother went to the Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City and they agreed to let us use the vacant Ballet West training center at 237 South State Street. It was also good to have a backup in case anything might happened down the line.

 

In the winter of 2007 something did happen, my father was vacationing in St. George when he didn’t feel very good, he checked himself into the ER and it turned out that he had severe pneumonia. When they investigated further it turned out to be pleurisy and he had a great deal of fluid surrounding his lungs. The doctors investigated even further they found his lung had collapsed. My siblings discussed all the alternatives, from shutting it down, to asking others outside of the family to carry it on. In July of 2007, my wife Emily and I decided to preserve the Children’s Theatre. We moved to Utah and started a new non-profit organization which is now Utah Children’s Theatre.

 

We assessed the situation, consolidated the business, and vacated 638 which was in horrible condition (It was literally raining inside that building and was very tattered) with no possibility of a long term lease and no commitment from the landlord. The 237 South State building became a 99 seat theatre which was very small, but a fabulous rebirth of a theatre company. With no commitment to being able to stay, I spent the next 5 years with our Board of Directors searching for a permanent place to settle.

 

In June of 2011 we purchased the historic Avalon Theatre and began an extensive remodel (actually a complete overhaul). The new and permanent location opened in April of 2012 and is a beautiful and engaging place for families to enjoy safe and friendly entertainment.

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