As we all celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, RDT’s Executive/Artistic Director, Linda C. Smith, looks back on what it took to come together.
Founded in 1966 as Artists-in-Residence at the University of Utah, RDT was housed in a World War II barracks building near the University medical center for nearly 26 years. During that time, RDT enjoyed a unique relationship with the academic community. The University supported RDT by providing rehearsal, production, and office space and a variety of in-kind services.
Kingsbury Hall was the site for our home season performances until 1978 when the newly renovated Capitol Theatre offered local arts groups a downtown performance venue. It was soon realized that this space could not accommodate all the needs of those groups. RDT decided to continue rehearsing at the university, but the writing was on the wall. Repertory Dance Theatre was going to need a new home.
Home Sweet Home
When I assumed the position of Artistic Director in 1983 and learned that our barracks building was slated for demolition, I realized that RDT was experiencing both a funding and a space deficit. Friends, board members, and community leaders advised us to establish a greater presence downtown. The Restaurant Equipment Supply Building, which occupied the area where this theater now sits was identified as a prime site. The next 17 years proved challenging.
The first step in the process of designing a new home for ourselves was to dream. What would the ideal space look like? What activities could we develop in a larger facility? RDT needed to grow. We wanted to increase the number of home season performances, develop a school, sponsor other performing groups, present lectures, demonstrations, activities for children and seniors, and become more integrated into the life of the community.
We envisioned large rehearsal studios, efficient office space, a black-box theater, and a state-of-the-art 500-seat theater, perfect for modern dance. While setting our own priorities, we realized that other arts groups were also in need of space. It became clear that our ambitious goals could only be realized by forming partnerships and coalitions. Many options for the relocation of the company were analyzed including:
- Seeking another space within the University or finding another institution to host us.
- Purchasing or leasing and remodeling a space somewhere in the valley.
- Moving to another city or state.
- Obtaining donated space from private, city, country, or state organizations.
- Building a new facility either alone or in partnership with another group.
RDT’s Space Patrol 1983- 1997
In 1983, RDT formed a Facilities Planning Committee (FPC) to help develop a new facility. My husband, Ivan Weber, volunteered to chair the committee. Ivan was determined to find RDT a permanent home and spent the next 10 years dedicating his time and expertise to helping the company and other community arts groups secure space. He surveyed and analyzed over 100 potential buildings and researched performing arts centers throughout the United States. He gave RDT hope.
When Alice Steiner accepted an invitation to direct RDT’s Facilities Planning Committee, the project took on an added dimension. She began to educate the community and developed the necessary steps for us to realize our goals. In 1989, Alice formed a nonprofit organization, the Performing Arts Coalition (PAC), dedicated to developing a performing arts center. She invited the community arts groups to organize and cooperate. Her commitment and professional experience were invaluable.
In 1990, local arts organizations met to share ideas. This group included Repertory Dance Theatre, Ririe Woodbury Dance Company, Ballet West, Children’s Dance Theatre, Zivio Ethnic Arts Ensemble, Utah Symphony Utah Opera, Nova Chamber Music, Salt Lake Festival, and the Utah Media Center.
The Performing Arts Coalition engaged Theatre Projects Consultants, Inc. to survey arts groups to analyze potential sites and to complete a feasibility study that determined:
There are a great number of performing companies in the Salt Lake Metropolitan Area, and at the same time, practically no suitable performance spaces are regularly available to them… the presence of a new facility would make the Salt Lake Metropolitan Area equal to cities such as Portland, Nashville, Tampa, Tulsa, Denver and Charlotte in its physical provision of publicly-owned buildings for the performing arts.
The supporting evidence was clear and we all became more determined. When Alice Steiner accepted a position as Executive Director of Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency, Susan Boskoff became Executive Director of the PAC.
On The Move
In May of 1992, RDT vacated its barracks building home which was then demolished to clear the way for a new research facility. Salt Lake County was anxious to ensure RDT, as a tenant group, had adequate space and helped the company relocate temporarily to the Salt Palace. A year later, RDT was notified that the Salt Palace would be demolished and that we would find ourselves homeless again.
The search for a facility took a toll on RDT. During a two-year period, the company moved its office space five times. RDT began to have financial problems as staff time was spent packing, moving, unpacking, searching, and planning. Of necessity, RDT had two agendas, one that would solve its singular space problems, and one that would lead to establishing a center to be used by many other groups. RDT gave up a number of opportunities for developing its own space in favor of waiting and helping to create a larger facility that could be shared by the community.
The PAC analyzed many potential building sites including Block 49, 57, and the Brooks Arcade, but feasibility studies determined that the funding for these large projects could not be realized. The dream project began to look unachievable. RDT decided that the Restaurant Equipment Supply Building would be the best solution to its immediate space problems. We decided to try and raise the funds to lease and renovate the RESCO building for RDT use until the PAC could secure a larger facility. However, the appeal of the warehouse location on West Broadway became more and more seductive. Recognizing the potential, RDT and PAC jointly approached Salt Lake County. Commissioner Jim Bradley saw the value of adding a complementary venue to the Salt Lake County Fine Arts facilities. He endorsed the purchase of RESCO. A public/private partnership was formed and Redevelopment Agency (RDA) granted seed money for renovation. The PAC accepted the responsibility for raising funds for the project.
Linda Smith meets I.J. “Izzi” Wagner
In January 1994, RDT moved into the RESCO building at 138 West Broadway. We put a portable dance floor in the middle of the large warehouse bay and rehearsed daily. The entrance to the building was glass. This allowed people on the street a view of our rehearsals. The transients would seek shelter or a place to drink in the entryway. We noticed that a certain gentleman kept coming into the building to watch a few minutes of rehearsal. One day, I approached him to investigate his motives and started a conversation. I asked him if he liked dance. He said that his wife used to be a dancer in vaudeville. He added, “I was born here.” I replied that I was also a native of Utah. “No” said the man. “I mean that I was born right here.” “I am also from Salt Lake,” I said. “Listen to me,” said the man. “I was born right here on this spot. My family home was on this site. My family business was right here, right where this building stands.” “What is your name?” I asked. The man replied, “Izzi Wagner.”
I suggested the PAC take MR. Wagner to lunch and they introduce him to the vision of the arts project.
To make a long story short, in September 1995, the old RESCO was demolished and construction began on a new building. RDT moved into the Fetzer warehouse, one building West until the new facility could be built.
Home Sweet Home
In January 1997, RDT moved into its new home, phase one of The Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. We held the first performance in the Leona Wagner Black Box Theatre, named after Izzi’s sister. RDT’s PREMIER featured choreography honoring Rose Wagner, Izzi’s mother. Essence of Rose by Lynne Wimmer was a tribute to the energy, generosity, and ingenuity of the Wagner family.
Cooperation, perseverance, and determination have given the community a vital center dedicated to the arts. I can say with certainty that RDT is celebrating the 25th anniversary of this beautiful facility because of some incredible individuals who can never be thanked or recognized enough for what they did for RDT and the entire arts community. While I couldn’t begin to mention everyone associated with this project. I must recognize some of the champions who caught the vision and helped Repertory Dance Theatre realize its dreamland we can celebrate the 25th anniversary of our magnificent ROSE.
Ivan Weber, RDT staff and Board of Trustees, Performing Arts Coalition Director:) Alice Steiner, Susan Boskoff, Shari Quinney, the PAC Board members, Jim Bradley, Rich Romano, Brent Cameron, Salt Lake County Center for Arts and Culture, Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency, local arts groups who formed a coalition of advisors, Prescott Muir Architects, BGW Architects, patrons, foundations and financial contributors, and of course, I.J. “Izzi” Wagner.