Recently, on Facebook, Teri Orr discussed the history of the Eccles Black Box Theater at Park City High School. More importantly, she discusses the challenges introduced because the Park City School District appears to be rewriting decades of rules governing the theater. A December 30th interview with School Board Member Andrew Caplan, outlines the school district’s argument. The district seems to think they should run the theater instead of Park City Institute. My personal opinion is that our school district should stick to their core competency — which I would hope isn’t being Ticketmaster.
I miss Teri’s wit and wisdom in the Park Record. With her permission, I am reposting her words here because I love her take on our history and what it means for our future.
The Art of Making Art…Sondheim
From being an avid and rabid audience member to working backstage, performing onstage, and even occasionally driving talent from the airport to the theater, I know a bit about the evolution of arts over the last 40-plus years in Park City. This week, it is critical to pull the curtain back on exactly how the joint-use facility known as The George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, aka “The Eccles,” came to be. And it is even more important to ensure The Eccles is resecured to honor past public elections and promises and gifts made.
The arts are an integral part of Park City, dating back to miners who created the Dewey Opera House in 1898; the refurbished Egyptian Theater now stands in its place. When I came to town in 1979, that building was the Silver Wheel Theater, and it was falling down. In 1980, Don Gomes and I approached the new owners of the building, Randy and Debbi Fields of cookie fame, who had just moved to town and bought the faded jewel. They had also purchased land across the street, the former office building that once housed the Park Record, a vacant parking lot, and approximately a block of other old buildings. Their intent to was to develop and redevelop. Don asked the Fields to reconsider the theater’s future and save it instead. We proposed finding a group of donors to help with the renovation of the theater, and Randy Fields challenged us to raise $50,000 in six weeks. We raised $48,000. Randy called it close enough. In 1981, we restored the Egyptian to her former 1926 glory. Blanche Fletcher (who played piano in the theater when it originally opened) played the donated upright Steinway piano in October of that year. Glade Peterson, director of the Utah Opera Company, showed up to perform on stage on his horse.
Soon, folks from the state film office, which created the Utah Film & Video Festival in 1978, wanted to use the space to show films in the fall. On Golden Pond premiered there. Chariots of Fire had a special screening and, later, Out of Africa, starring Robert Redford. Redford was no stranger to Park City in those days and had a favorite table on the patio at Cafe Terigo.
A few years later, I became Editor of the Park Record and divorced myself from the arts for a bit. Actors Robert and Heather Urich bought a second home in Deer Valley, and they performed the play Love Letters at the Egyptian. They quietly told community leaders that for Park City to attract real talent, it needed a better performance space with complete dressing rooms, impressive sound, more seats, and ample parking.
At about this same point, Redford stepped in to save the once small, state-produced Utah Film & Video Festival from bankruptcy. Under a new non-profit he formed, he named it after his place in Provo Canyon. It was rebranded as the Sundance Film Festival.
Growth in the late 80s/early 90s turned a once sleepy mining town into something else. We became home to the Sundance Film Festival. The Egyptian regularly presented quality community theater. The arts were growing and even defining us. And yet our high school students excelling in performing arts were doing so against the odds and without a dedicated performance space. My daughter was an award-winning drama student, competing all over the state in rural communities that somehow had beautifully equipped theaters. The high school band won awards under the direction of Bill Huhnke and Jim Santy. While Park City High School had a multi-use space affectionally referred to as “The Cafetorium,” students deserved a dedicated venue to match their talents. And so the idea to create a joint-use facility to serve both students of the school district and the growing demand of a growing community that wanted to attract national entertainment to Park City took root with community leaders JoAnna Charnes, Gary Cole, Joanne Krajeski, and Ann MacQuoid.
Meanwhile, the make-shift, pop-up movie theaters were no longer working for the exploding Sundance Film Festival, which had moved to winter. Without a real anchor theater, Redford threatened to move the festival entirely out of Utah.
I had left the Park Record to work on a book project. I agreed to help the new group create a non-profit performing arts organization. We became partners to help lobby for a $31M school bond campaign to, among other new campus facilities, build a joint-use facility for the students, the community, and Sundance. We worked hand-in-glove with Park City School District. David Chaplin, Vice President of the School Board, and I spoke at lunches, community meetings, and every get-together we could invite ourselves to in town to convince folks to support a space that would showcase the very best of our community arts and attract the very best nationally. Other items on the ballot that year included an ice rink and a convention center. The school bond was the only one to pass. It was, at the time, the largest bond election ever floated in Summit County. The money it apportioned for the joint-use theater facility to be shared was approximately $3.1 million.
Park City Performing Arts Foundation drummed up fundraisers everywhere we could. Deer Valley held celebrity ski races to support the theater. A student musical performance was held at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake. But it was a daunting task for a fledgling nonprofit to match the dedicated school district bond money.
Redford grew impatient, and we grew anxious about losing the film festival for the whole of Utah. Enter: the Eccles family that cares equally about the arts and education. We applied for a $1M grant through their foundation. And were awarded $700,000 outright. Additionally, the Eccles offered another conditional $300,000 that would only be granted towards the theater if PCSD agreed to build a balcony for its future student body and our broader community. The Eccles gift fully paid for that addition. Later, we learned Redford had made a personal plea to the Eccles family for the facility. He also contributed his own money to our building fund. We were thrilled to work with the district to meet the conditions and achieve a double win.
But relations between the Foundation and the District quickly cooled. The District started cutting corners and excluding us from discussions. The theater seats agreed to now deemed too expensive, and PCSD wanted to substitute with hard plastic ones. One of our nonprofit board members was furious but also philanthropic, and so he anonymously donated those comfortable, wide seats still in the theater. Foundation board member Joanne Krajeski arranged for a grand concert Steinway piano to be delivered before opening night. We soon realized we needed a podium for speakers at Sundance screenings (the first public use in the theater), so we commissioned a local artist, John “Jack” Helton. A graduate of the Parsons School of Design -he had worked as a cartoonist with me at the Park Record previously. At this point, he was accepting commissions mostly in wood. The stylized cello he carved into a sturdy platform has supported the elbows of everyone from Redford to Fran Lebowitz to Van Jones to Monica Lewinsky and still stands on stage at the Eccles today. And Helton’s work, now cast in bronze, has evolved and sells for six figures in art galleries around the globe.
The first RAP tax grant the Foundation received was for projection equipment so we could support our partners at Sundance. Decades later, and together with Sundance, we worked with Dolby to install and fully donate a state-of-the-art sound system that still benefits all who use the facility.
After about three years in the building, the makeup of the PCSD school board changed. New members suddenly wanted payment of the remaining balance the Foundation owed the District to help fund the construction. They wanted to ignore tenets of an agreement stipulating 180 days a year would be dedicated for student use and 180 days a year would be for community use which was all to be managed by the Foundation. The school board threatened that if we didn’t pay our balance right away, we could be evicted. And so began the reduction of days that have brought community use of The Eccles to well below the originally allotted 180 days. The school board president, Colleen Bailey, was the only school board member fully committed to making the agreement work. And she and Foundation chair Ann MacQuoid did. (Former school board member Val Chin, after serving her school term, then became a longtime member of the institute board.)
A couple who came to all our shows and loved what the Foundation produced for the community learned of the rift with the District, and they wrote the Foundation a check for $300,000 to immediately satisfy the remaining obligation. Then they asked about the possibility of adding a statue to The Eccles to provide more definition of its use as an arts space. The Foundation was torn between two bronze pieces — Dance of Life and Rock Star. The generous couple purchased them both, one for the lobby and one for the entrance outside. These also served as gifts to the District and totaled nearly $200,000. Their value has also greatly appreciated.
American Express donated $150,000 for the small performance space traditionally called a “black box” in the theatre world. The American Express Blue Box would forever be the name of the space inside The Eccles. The balcony was named for Adam Bronfman’s mother, Ann, when he made a generous six-figure contribution.
Inside the theatre doors, we installed an etched glass wall listing those donors who supported The Eccles’ creation. Brass plaques on theater seats acknowledged the donations and memory of many locals and even Princess Aga Khan. From the start, the Foundation committed to providing discounted tickets for students to attend all regular performances. Longtime Park City senior citizens received complimentary tickets. And we established a student outreach program through which all visiting artists could, at the expense of the Foundation, teach their craft for free to students and share their stories. We asked the same of the Sundance Institute, and together, that very first year, we created the Filmmaker in the Classroom program.
For years now, the Foundation has been operating under a more concise name — Park City Institute. And by any name, it has consistently delivered on its promises to its founders, supporters, and patrons by presenting world-class entertainment, supporting youth enrichment and development, and honoring commitments to its partners, including Park City School District and Sundance Film Festival. Students have had a world-class facility from which to launch plays, listen to speakers, try, test, fail, grow, and learn. And Sundance relies on the use of a state-of-the-art, dedicated facility at which it can anchor the screen portion of its ever-evolving and industry-critical event.
And the Institute has worked well in the name of community benefit and enrichment, all the while responsibly managing The Eccles to ensure its continued use for our partners and the integrity of the equipment. During the 2002 Olympic Games, Park City’s Eccles was the only facility outside Salt Lake to be part of the Cultural Olympiad; we presented both Alvin Ailey Dance Company and Pilobolus Dance. Over the years, the facility has hosted memorials for civic leaders and St. Mary’s annual Christmas Eve service. Overseeing these rentals is part of the expressed role of the Institute.
In the beginning, it was clear to school board members involved that the business of the District was to educate students, and the business of the Institute was to manage the facility for the community. Mission creep, and changes in PCSD leadership have confused the intent and muddled decades of successful public/private partnership. And now, some of the current school board are attempting to rewrite the rules of governance, limit Park City Institute to less than ten days of programming annually, bring in new partners, and violate all of the intentions with which George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation and countless other major and minor donors generously gave to support construction and ongoing management of the theater named in honor of their investment in community and youth.
The Eccles is an extraordinary gift for a community of any size. We built it when Park City had roughly 6,000 full-time residents. It was ambitious beyond imagination, and it has served community members with life-changing performances for 25 years this month. And for 25 years, students have had a platform to present their performances along with enjoying workshops from world-class performers. And a landmark event, the Sundance Film Festival for 25 years has remained one of the most significant drivers of our economy and continues to have a home.
As PCSD and the Institute engage now to negotiate operations of an expressly joint-use facility built through a voter-backed bond, a conditional gift, cash, and in-kind donations, it is imperative that a fair and equitable working agreement not forget the backstage history that created this community asset. For Park City Institute to continue presenting world-class, cutting-edge performances, it requires ample time and breadth of dates to program national acts that will entertain, educate, and illuminate the students, residents, and guests of Our Town. Art matters. So does history. And so do commitments.
Every day, including Sunday in Our Park