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Two theaters, two premieres, one star

Salt Lake City and Morristown, N.J. usually aren’t considered to have much in common. But in at least one instance, they do: late in the year seven decades ago, theaters opened in the respective Utah capital and Morris County seat – and both of them premiered with Carole Lombard movies.

Different ones, too; the Community Theater in Morristown began with Lombard’s only feature in three-strip Technicolor, “Nothing Sacred,” while precisely 70 years ago today, Dec. 24, the Centre Theater in Salt Lake opened its doors with what would be Carole’s final film for Paramount, “True Confession.”

We’ll start with the story of the Centre, a prime example of Art Deco architecture.



A few days before its opening, the Deseret News reported, “The streamlined new Centre Theater, the first large theater to be built in Salt Lake since the opening of the Pantages (now the Utah) in 1919, will have its grand opening on Friday, Dec. 24. Situated at Broadway and State Streets, the theater is modern in every detail from its ninety-foot tower and circular marquee to the auditorium.” (The Centre technically opened on Dec. 23 with an invitation-only screening of “Wells Fargo.”)

In addition to “True Confession,” the opening bill included a two-reel Technicolor short subject (“A Man Without a Country”), a sports “featurette” titled “Ball Tossers,” and the latest Paramount newsreel. Ticket prices were 25 cents if you arrived before 2 p.m., 35 cents between 2 and 6 p.m., and 45 cents in the evenings.

Here's how the Centre looked a little over a decade later:



When it opened, it seated 1,623, but it lost slightly more than one-fourth of its capacity in 1959 when a 56-foot-wide screen was installed. Dolby sound was installed at the Centre in 1977, specifically for the Salt Lake premier of “Star Wars.” Just like everywhere else, the George Lucas epic did smashing business at the Centre.

But times changed, and a single-screen theater such as the Centre soon became an anachronism despite its charm. On Jan. 24, 1989, the last regularly scheduled film ran -- “Cocoon: The Return” (co-produced by Richard Zanuck, whose father, Darryl Zanuck, produced a 1940 Utah favorite, “Brigham Young -- Frontiersman”). But just as the Centre’s opening really wasn’t, neither was its closing. There was one final film shown on Feb. 2, a benefit performance of “The Greatest Show On Earth,” one of two Cecil B. de Mille pictures that had a sneak premiere at the Centre (it went on to win the Academy Award for best picture in 1952, still one of the more controversial selections).

Shortly thereafter, the Centre was razed and a 13-story building erected on the spot, including a six-screen multiplex.

The Community Theater in Morristown had a happier fate. Opened as part of the Walter Reade chain of theaters, with four distinctive Corinthian pillars in front giving it a rather unusual appearance for a movie palace (to blend in with architecture in the town, whose heritage dates back to the 1700s), it was built expressly for films, although a number of big bands also performed there during the 1940s.



Generations of Morristown residents went to movies at the theater, including future “Today Show” stalwart Gene Shalit, but the Reade organization sold the facility in 1974 and it began to decline, finally going dark in 1987, just shy of its 50th anniversary. By the early 1990s, the building was in such bad shape that the lobby ceiling had collapsed and mushrooms were growing in the balcony.

The year of 1994 was pivotal for the theater. The Kirov Orchestra of St. Petersburg, Russia agreed to give a concert there in September as part of a county-based arts festival after its conductor tested and approved the acoustics in February. Over the next few months, more than 300 volunteers painted, cleaned and scraped the 1,200-seat theater to make it a viable venue.

The following year, a local group was established to run the theater as a not-for-profit arts center, and over the years, many name acts have appeared there. I have seen several performances there, including Lou Rawls, Ray Charles and Burt Bacharach; other notables who have graced the stage include B.B. King, Bob Newhart and Tito Puente. Earlier this year, Liza Minnelli opened her tour at the facility and praised its acoustics. Here's a view of the refurbished auditorium:



Movies are rarely shown at the Community these days, but a few years ago I caught a special showing of “All About Eve” there, and the building’s splendor perfectly complemented the 1950 classic.

A recent renovation includes air conditioning, enabling the Community to present shows year-round. There now are also larger dressing rooms and a separate 120-seat theater for more intimate shows.

Tags: movie theaters, nothing sacred, true confession
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