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One Year Later: Hale Center Theatre in Sandy “exceeds everybody’s expectations”

Oct 18, 2018 01:34PM ● By Jana Klopsch

Hale Center Theater’s yearly production of “A Christmas Carol” is a fan-favorite. (Courtesy of Hale Center Theater)

By Justin Adams | [email protected]

When Hale Center Theatre opened its new home in Sandy last year, it represented more than just a new theater town. It was also the first major attraction to be implemented as part of the city’s Cairns master plan, a bold idea by the city administration to create a new downtown area for the Salt Lake Valley. The stability of any cairn (a stack of rocks used to guide hikers along a path) is dependent on the base -- the first rocks that are placed. As the first “rock” to be placed, Hale Center Theatre’s success or failure would have a huge impact on the eventual success or failure of the entire Cairns project. So, the question is: has Hale Center Theatre been successful in its first year? 

The answer: a resounding yes.

“We were hoping and thinking that if everything went really well, we’d be able to seat 430,000 people this calendar year but we’re actually going to be able to seat well over half a million,” said Hale Theatre’s Chief Operations Officer Michael Fox when he reported to the Sandy City Council on October 9. 

The theater has outperformed its goals in other metrics as well. They hoped to put on 673 performances this year. They’re currently on track for 750. They hoped to have 27,000 season ticket holders. They now have 29,000, which Fox noted is more than the Utah Jazz.

Those statistics, offered to the city council as an accountability report, was enough to convince city councilors that the round-stage theater is a solid foundation for the Cairns.

“I’m glad to renew my tickets,” said councilman Steve Fairbanks, who mentioned that he was initially skeptical that the theater would be financially viable enough to pay back the $42.7 million bond that the city issued to help pay for the construction of the building.

“What a great asset this is for our community. I think it’s exceeded everybody’s expectations,” added Councilman Chris McCandless, who was instrumental in landing Hale Center Theatre in Sandy.

Mark Dietlein, the theater’s President and CEO told the Sandy Journal that they expected it to take 4-5 years before the theater started to pull in 500,000 visitors in a year.

“The response of the public to come here to attend shows and be entertained has just been phenomenal,” he said.

Dietlein, who is the grandson of Ruth and Nathan Hale after whom the theater is named, remembers when his grandparents opened their first Utah theater in 1985. He recalled that it “looked like an X-rated movie joint in an abandoned lingerie factory,” a far cry from the theater’s home now.

The Mountain America Performing Arts Center, which now houses Hale Center Theatre, is one of the most imposing landmarks along the I-15 corridor. Its spacious lobby with crystal chandeliers welcomes theater patrons and lets them know they’re in for a world-class experience. 

But the theater’s calling card is the 900-seat theater-in-the-round stage that boasts some of the best technology in the world. Motorized cranes raise and lower massive platforms on and off the center stage, allowing massive set pieces to be changed in and out quickly, such as a double-decker carousel or massive guillotine in its current production of “The Scarlet Pimpernel.”

Combine all that with the superb talents of hundreds of designers, choreographers and actors and it’s not hard to see why Hale Center Theatre has been drawing in such massive crowds in its first year.

“We don’t strive for customer satisfaction. We strive for customer astonishment. That’s what gets people wanting to come back,” said Dietlein.

The new theater is not only a world-class experience for patrons, but for its employees as well. Hale Center employs over 60 full time employees, 150 regular part time employees and about 500 actors throughout the year, almost all of whom live along the Wasatch Front.

One of those employees is Sharon Kenison, who has been with Hale Center Theatre since its earliest days as an actress and now also works for the events department. 

“Everyone’s super excited to be here. It’s heaven backstage, to have the dressing rooms, green room and kitchen that we do,” said Kenison. 

“The sky is the limit as far as what we can do here,” she said.

In addition to providing employment to hundreds of Utahns, Hale Center Theatre has a direct benefit for the residents of Sandy.

When people come in to the city to attend a performance, they will also often go to dinner somewhere nearby. Sometimes they’ll drop down to South Towne mall for a little shopping beforehand or fill up their car with gas before driving home. Many people even come from out of state to attend performances (the theater sold tickets to residents of 45 different states last year) and they stay in nearby hotels. All of this contributes tax dollars to Sandy’s tax base, which means the city can rely on residents’ property taxes a little bit less.

The theater’s economic impact on the city is estimated to be $24.60 per customer, according to Fox. That adds up to nearly $13 million that’s been brought into Sandy’s economy this year alone. And it could just be the beginning.

With everything from new apartment buildings and restaurants to office buildings and hotels on their way, the Cairns project still has several rocks to add on to the base that Hale Center Theatre has helped solidify. 

“As the Cairns further develops over the next several years, it’s going to be a hip and happening place. As a business you want to be right there in the middle of it,” said Dietlein.