How Ellen Eccles Theatre went from dead to thriving with a little community support
The Show must go on
Published: Tuesday, January 8, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, January 8, 2013 13:01
Whether it’s for a creative arts class or for personal enjoyment, many students will take a trip to downtown Logan to see performances like “Stomp,” Brian Regan and other visiting productions at the Ellen Eccles Theatre during some point of their college careers.
Built in 1923 after the Thatcher Opera House burned down, the theater was the vision of George W. Thatcher Jr. and his cousin Brigham Guy Thatcher. The men designed the theater to be the crown jewel of downtown Logan and decorated the interior of the theater like other great theaters. They named it the Capitol Theater and the Thatchers had murals painted in the colors of a phoenix to symbolize the rising of this new theater out of the ashes of the Thatcher Opera House.
There were a number of productions that came to Logan and the Capitol Theatre on the Vaudeville circuit, but by 1958 they stopped and the theater was repurposed to be used as a movie theater. The interior was painted a battleship-green, murals were covered in burlap and a large wall was built to seal off the stage from the audience so movies could be projected.
It was the distinctive decorative details that caught the eye of then-5-year-old Michael Ballam when he would attend productions and films with his family. Ballam, who is now a professor of music at USU, said he watched the theater fall into disrepair throughout his childhood.
“I could see at age five how run-down and neglected the stage and the dressing rooms were,” Ballam said.
After a career of performing on stages around the world, Ballam returned to Logan in 1987 to find the theater was going to be demolished. He went to Eugene Needham, who owned the theater at the time, and convinced him the building was worth saving.
“I could envision exactly what needed to be done with the theater and convinced Eugene in very short order what we needed to do,” Ballam said. “He needed to give it to the people and then we could restore it.”
Ballam said it was no easy task to get the support he needed from the community, but when it came, it came in droves, and more and more people came to see the vision of the theatre the way that he did.
“We began in great earnest to begin a fundraising campaign that would allow us to bring the grand old lady back to life even more glorious than before,” Ballam said.
Support came from the community as a whole, as well as from the George and Delores Doree Eccles Foundation, the Bullen family and many others. The theater was renamed the Ellen Eccles Theatre after Thatcher’s mother, an honored resident of Cache Valley.
“It was saved by the community,” said Wally Bloss, who is the executive director of the Cache Valley Center of the Arts. The CVCA is now the primary caretaker of the Ellen Eccles Theatre.
“A while back, there were some issues with the city not wanting to continue to pay for things that they used to pay for,” Bloss said. “Some would say, ‘Aren’t you worried?’ I said ‘No, something will happen. I don’t quite know what, but I know the community supports the Theatre.’”
In the spirit of the Ellen Eccles Theatre being a community theater, the CVCA made it possible for more and more community theater groups to use the space.
“We have cut back bringing in productions to help our resident companies grow,” said Amanda Castillo, programming director for the CVCA.
Castillo said there used to only be two community theater groups that would rent the space, but the number has increased to four groups.
The challenge now for Castillo and her team is to figure out how to best find the balance of community-based productions with the billing of outside performers, but with annual billings made by groups like the Bar J Wranglers and performers like Brian Regan, she said the theatre’s horizon is expanding.
“I knew we had a jewel in the Eccles,” Ballam said. “She was just a sleeping beauty. She needed a handsome prince to awaken her. I was not that prince. The people of Cache Valley were.”