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A Cultural Oasis

The Salt Lake Theatre Collection takes us back to a time when Utah was still a territory, but one with a thriving arts scene and a theatre that was central to pioneer life.

At the time it might have been surprising to learn that the small and remote desert territory had an established theatre, however their tradition of performance became part of their identity as a cultural oasis in the west.

Although plays were first performed in an 1849 building called the Old Bowery, performances were later moved to the Social Hall, which historians have said was the first theater that was west of the Missouri River.

Eventually, in 1861, Brigham Young, who directed the project, announced the idea for the Salt Lake Theatre. Less than a year later, the theatre opened. At the time it was the largest building in the territory, being completed even before the iconic Salt Lake Temple and becoming part of Utah’s identity before it was even a state.

The Salt Lake Theatre collection includes props, tickets, and programs, each giving an insight into what it was like to experience the performances at the well known theatre.

A doorman’s hat, from approximately 1920, tells the story of Daniel Ellis, who worked at the theatre for 28 years. Ellis recalled how patrons could pay with produce to get into the theatre to see a show. 

A human hair wig from a performance of Johann Strauss’s operetta, The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief, was most likely worn by Utah pioneer, Philip Margetts, who was one of the first to perform in the theater.

The collection also includes one of the first props of the theatre, a metal sword, transferred from the University of Utah Pioneer Memorial Theatre in 2005.

A small ticket for the theater with the date of May 5th, 1888, recounts a day when Charles Dickinson’s son came to Utah to do readings of David Copperfield (1850) and The Pickwick Papers (1837).

The last piece in the collection is a program for Ben Hur, where live horses were used on stage during the play.

Each piece in the collection has a unique story and background, showing what life was like in Salt Lake City in a different century. 

These pieces, along with many other pieces of Utah’s history, are being preserved by the Utah Division of State History in the basement of the Rio Grande, and a new facility will help the division to continue to protect these valuable artifacts.

You can pledge your support for the artifacts and art collection here.

Written by Michelle James


category: Storytelling
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