Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Legend Of Desert Star


Desert Star Theater has a long, rich history, not only as a company, but as a physical building as well. Join us for a quick journey through what we like to call The Legend of Desert Star.
In 1923 a small movie theater, The Gem, appeared on State Street in Murray. It featured a small, rounded ticket booth in the center of the entrance. Behind it, a small lobby led to the theater which featured rows of seats facing east. Near the front by the stage, there was a piano to provide the musical background for the silent movies gracing the screen. 
The most popular pictures playing at The Gem were action-packed western adventures. These serial-type cowboy movies played every Friday and Saturday night with a cliffhanger ending designed to bring audiences back the following week.
The owner, Tony Duvall, decided in 1930 that it was time to expand his business so he closed The Gem, demolished the building and replaced it with a new structure.
No longer just a movie theater, Duvall added apartments and retail shop fronts as well. The new theater was named The Iris Theater and the apartments bore the same name.
The seating was moved to the rear of the building and now faced south (just like they do today). A long lobby connected the State Street entrance to the actual theater.
The Iris Theater continued to operate until 1954 when Duvall retired. After changing hands a couple of times, the theater got yet another new name, The Vista.
During this time, several different businesses and specialty stores occupied the retail spaces along the State Street portion of the building. Among those companies was J.C. Penney.
So how does Desert Star Playhouse fit into the picture? In 1989, theater lovers Mike and Alyce Todd decided to take on the challenge starting a live dinner theatre.  Their first show was produced at Pioneer Trail State Park (near This Is The Place Monument) as part of a wagon ride and chuck wagon dinner. 
They chose to produce a traditional melodrama, "The Sally Kathleen Claim." The evening also featured a short musical olio with the show. Desert Star was born...under the stars.
Mike recalls the summer was not without mishaps. During one performance, a forest fire raged on the hillside near the show. A helicopter repeatedly filled its water tank from the pond just behind the stage. During another performance, the horses from the wagon ride were spooked and stampeded. But the show went on, and the adventure had begun.
When the summer ended, the Todds were not ready to let the curtain close. They began searching for an indoor venue to continue producing shows.
They looked at several locations in the Salt Lake area. One of these was the now-closed Vista Theater (this is where the stories merge). However, they felt the building was "un-inhabitable." However, after looking at several other buildings, the Vista was clearly the most habitable and a lease was soon signed.

In the fall of 1989, "Flower of the South" opened and the Vista was re-christened Desert Star Playhouse.
The old movie theater seats were replaced with tables and chairs. The old sloped floor however remained, making it a challenge for audience members to keep their drinks and popcorn on their tables. 
The first show ran through the end of the year with the addition of a Christmas Olio in December. It was during this show that Desert Star favorite Mary Parker Williams made her first appearance.
The first full season opened in 1990 with "Calamity Jane." A year later, another favorite, Scott Holman, would join the ranks. Scott recalls in those days they frequently played to nearly empty houses. "People would call and ask, 'What time does your show start?' and we'd say, 'When can you get here?'"
In 2000, Desert Star was nearly homeless again. Murray City said the historic edifice needed to be brought up to current building codes or demolished. The building owner told the Todds--who were leasing the theater--he planned to tear the building down. Not wanting to lose their location, and with hopes of saving this historic icon, the Todds chose to buy the theater themselves and renovate it.
The theater lobby was remodeled, giving it the distinctive look it has today with the Old West street and Delicate Arch mural. To the delight of female patrons, new rest rooms we also added. During the renovations, Desert Star returned to it's roots and once again headed for an outdoor venue, performing two shows at the Murray ampitheater. 
Since that time the company has continued to grow. A restaurant was created as part of the renovation. Desert Star Pizza was later added. Prior to this, pizza was delivered each night from a local pizza chain. In the fall of 2004, the Desert Star Dinner Theater replaced the restaurant, and has since been home to plays, concerts and other events, including "My Big Fat Utah Wedding," Utah's longest running show.

After 23 years, the legend continues...like all true legends do.

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