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Mar 11, 2013

Posted on: March 11th, 2013 by David Robert Weible

From small towns on the plains, to inner-city neighborhoods on the coasts, theaters used to be at the center of nearly every American community, right along with the local hardware store and maybe a deli or family-owned grocery. But as indoor shopping malls and multiplexes grew in popularity from the 1970s on, traditional central business districts lost their luster and their patrons.

The script is the same nearly everywhere, and for a while, it looked like Peery's Egyptian Theater in Ogden, Utah was going to play its part.

The 1924 theater was built in the wake of the discovery of King Tut's tomb and designed by Leslie S. Hodgson and Myrl A. McClenahan -- two of the better-known local architects of the time -- to be more elaborate than the Grauman's Egyptian in Hollywood. The first movie it ever ran was Zane Grey's Wanderers of the Wasteland.

Exterior of the renovated Peery's Egyptian Theater. Credit: Gary Griffeth
Renovated exterior

The theater benefited from the direction of the legendary Ted Kirkmeyer, who was known to provide bus fares to children who had spent all their cash on refreshments. By the time Van Summerill, emeritus member and historian for the Egyptian Theatre Foundation, got his first job there as assistant manager in 1962, the theater had undergone a number of renovations, including one in 1961 that wasn't so kind to the hieroglyphics and paint scheme that had made it such a marvel.

"I remember [in my youth] going to the kid's show in the morning after it had just reopened [from a previous renovation]," Summerill says, "and I can still smell the fresh paint -- at least in my mind -- walking through the front doors and stepping on carpet that seemed like it was two or three inches thick."

But by the early '80s, a mall built a few blocks away had stripped most of traditional downtown Ogden of much of its foot traffic, and among the vacated storefronts, the local cinema company had trouble filling and maintaining the 800-seat theater. At one point Summerill had heard they were trying to heat the building with space heaters. Eventually, the theater was shut down by the county because it didn't have hot water. It closed in the last week of '84.

The following March, Summerill launched the Friends of the Egyptian Theater, aimed at bringing the theater back to life. It took a while, but one by one, the city of Ogden, the local chamber of commerce, Weber County government, Weber County Heritage Foundation, and Weber State University all came on board to save the theater. The project also received local grants and donations, including $1 million from the son of one of the original Peery brothers who had commissioned and owned the theater. It reopened in 1997.

Now the theater is a venue for the Sundance Film Festival every January, showing off its restored hieroglyphics, atmospheric ceiling, Wurlitzer pipe organ, and dramatic Venetian curtain for thousands of visitors from around the world.

"It's always exciting to stand in the lobby and see [festival patrons] look at that place and just all of a sudden, they're as interested in the building as they are the movie they've come to see," says Summerill. "I'm so proud that a lot of times when that Venetian curtain starts rising, that it gets applause."

Interior of the renovated Peery's Egyptian Theater. Notice the clever painting of the original inner proscenium arch on the fire curtain, which, when down, gives a realistic view of how the stage area appeared in 1924. Credit: Fentress Bradburn Architects - Denver
The renovated interior. The original inner proscenium arch is painted on the fire curtain, which, when down, gives a realistic view of how the stage area appeared in 1924.

But more importantly, the theater has again become the center of the community, hosting everything from film to ballet. Many of the events that it hosts are community-based, like the upcoming fly fishing film festival that will benefit the local river project.

"I remember sitting in the theater in my tuxedo the night that it first opened to the public thinking 'Well, it took 12 years, but now we'll all live happily ever after,'" Summerill says. "Well, it doesn't work that way. There have been problems ever since." Then he laughs. "I guess I saw too many Disney movies at the Egyptian."

But I'm not so sure. It seems like a pretty happy ending to me.

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