Wednesday, December 19, 2012

How It All Began

In 2013 Desert Star will be celebrating it’s 25 year anniversary.  Over that time it has been our pleasure to bring smiles and laughter to both young and old with our family-friendly entertainment.  Desert Star has grown a lot since it’s humble beginnings and while we get ready for our biggest season yet, we thought it would be fun to take a look back at how Desert Star began.  

In 1989, theater lovers Mike and Alyce Todd decided to take on the challenge of starting a live dinner theatre.  This was especially daunting because there had never been a successful dinner theatre in Salt Lake.  Several attempts had been made by others in the past to launch dinner theatres, and they were short-lived.  But Mike and Alyce had an idea for a different kind of theatre and hoped their attempt would be successful.  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. And so, 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 defunct Vista Theater. Their first reaction was that the building was "un-inhabitable." However, after looking at several other buildings, the Vista was clearly the best choice and a lease was soon signed.

“Many theaters are started by people who love to be on stage, and they start a theater because they want a place to perform. We are just the opposite,” Todd says.  “We are never onstage except to sweep the stage.” 

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 from sliding off their tables! 

“We actually started Desert Star, as much as anything, as kind of a community service,” says Todd. “The product that we have here, we didn’t create it. It’s been around forever but there was nothing like it in Utah.”

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?'"

“It was a lark, with the hope that it would become a business. And it did,” Todd says. “It started small and evolved one step at a time. We started by serving candy bars and bottled soda and eventually evolved into our large cabaret-style menu of gourmet food items.

Over the years Desert Star has enjoyed the fact that while wives may have to drag their husbands to the theater for their first visit, once they get here, the men love it and want to come back. 

“We’re the theater for people who think they don’t like live theater,” says Todd.  “One thing we said when we started was, ‘Find out what everyone else is doing, and don’t do that,’  A lot of what we do is Tim Conway, Carol Burnett-esque,” Todd says. “If you’re looking for serious drama, we’re not the place. If you’re looking to wear a suit and tie and a topcoat, we’re probably not the place. It’s casual, it’s laid back, but at the same time it’s quality; it’s professional.”

Desert Star has made a name for itself by producing original musical parodies with jokes aimed at the local culture and references to current events.  Its biggest hit—and record holder for the longest-running theatrical production in state history, “My Big Fat Utah Wedding,” is about a mixed marriage between a Mormon and a “Gentile.”  Actor ad-libs and skilled improvisation are part of Desert Star’s unique style and have made the theatre a can’t miss form of entertainment. Artistic Director Scott Holman said it best: “We always tell people that if it happened in the news today, you’ll probably see it on our stage tonight.” 

2013’s 25th anniversary season promises to bring big laughs and a year of fun for the entire family.  Don’t miss a single show!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012