WEST VALLEY CITY — Chitty Chitty Bang Bang took flight. More than 600 people auditioned for “Les Miserables.” A piano and its player slowly descended from the ceiling in “Ghost.” These are a few of the majestic moments that are part of Hale Centre Theatre’s 18-year history at its West Valley City location.
So, too, are many mishaps. Among them, a borrowed BMW motorcycle became lodged in the drywall in “Footloose,” an actress’ skirt tore off part of a wall during “Little Women,” and a misplaced gun prop drove an actor to instead confront his character’s nemesis with a knife in “West Side Story.”
“How do you make that work?” said Sally Dietlein, HCT executive producer. "They figured it out."
Dietlein and music director Kelly DeHaan, whose history with HCT spans 56 shows, recently shared these memories and more ahead of the opening of HCT’s final production in West Valley City before the theater company moves to its new Sandy location in November.
“A Bundle of Trouble,” which runs Oct. 21-Dec. 1, is the carefully chosen closing bookend to what Dietlein described as “Act Two” of a legacy launched in the Salt Lake Valley by playwrights and HCT founders “Grandma and Grandpa” Ruth and Nathan Hale, who were the grandparents of Dietlein’s husband, HCT president and CEO Mark Dietlein.
Act One began when the Hales were about 75, Dietlein said, and decided to open a theater in South Salt Lake. A converted lingerie factory was outfitted “on a shoestring,” she said, with black and red velvet curtains and “strange lace” in the windows. They trucked in seats from an old movie theater near the Mexican border and, after scraping away the gum, painted them green to match the only upholstery fabric they could afford.
The theater opened in 1985 and, despite its outward appearance, soon became insufficient to hold the crowds that filled its house, even after two expansions raised its capacity from 250 to more than 380. Further renovations weren’t practical, and the operators accepted an invitation to establish a new home in West Valley City, which offered city bonding to help fund the theater. In 1997, HCT became a nonprofit and raised half of the funds for its new theater, Dietlein said.
Mark Dietlein had big ideas for the new state-of-the-art theater-in-the-round, including innovations that were largely unheard of at the time and would enable it to move, spin and lift.
“I remember when Sally Dietlein pulled me into the greenroom and she showed me the plans for the theater and told me how the stage would work,” DeHaan said. "I couldn’t even wrap my mind around it."
Many “salt of-the-earth folks worked their tails off to see a miracle happen,” Dietlein said, and in so doing ensured the theater was set to open on Ruth’s 90th birthday on Oct. 14, 1998. The first show performed was “Thank You Papa,” which Ruth wrote about her own life and finding out she was adopted, Dietlein said.
As HCT prepares to complete its move to the Mountain America Performing Arts Centre in Sandy — Act Three — it seemed fitting to Dietlein to end its time in West Valley City with another Hale original, this one dating back to 1980 but updated by director Eric Jensen for both its 2001 iteration and its upcoming staging.
“I reread ‘Bundle of Trouble’ after all these years, and I laughed and I was touched,” Dietlein said. “(Ruth and Nathan Hale) would bat about a premise based on the grandchild who could play the role. The remarkable thing about it is that there are about 250 lines for a 5-year-old child.”
An interactive comedy, “A Bundle of Trouble” looks in on absentminded inventor Jeff Baker — in addition to directing, Jensen is single-cast in the role — who is put on his toes when his precocious 5-year-old daughter, LeeLee, comes to visit for three weeks. In a nod to tradition, one of the young actresses playing the role of LeeLee this time around, Olivia Dietlein, is a great-great-granddaughter of the Hales.
While HCT has much to look forward to in its new venue, DeHaan and Dietlein reminisce fondly over their time in the 42,000-square-foot theater on Decker Lake Drive, where about seven shows were staged each year.
“I remember walking into it for the first time and just being so humbled that I would get to work there and that I would get to be a part of such a magical, amazing space,” DeHaan said. “We didn’t have to worry about scene changes anymore. With their miracle stage, they could just kind of seamlessly transition from one thing to the next, and I remember the audience gasping in awe as they first saw the stage moving and things lowering and flying in.”
More improvements and expansions came about during HCT’s tenancy, including a retrofitting of the stage to accommodate a 12-foot diving space that made way for water-use capabilities that garnered HCT an international award.
The space enabled HCT to stage many acclaimed productions, including two national and several regional premieres, and served as a training ground for “some very remarkable folks” who are still part of the HCT family today, Dietlein said.
But beginning in 2004, the theater’s popularity caught up with it once more.
“We started to sell out,” Dietlein said.
Adding seats raised the audience capacity from 530 to 613, and performances were put on as frequently as 16 times a week, with as many as five in a single day. Even that grueling schedule couldn’t meet the demand, and with its financial obligation to the city for the building nearing fulfillment — the final payment was submitted in 2016, Dietlein said — HCT’s board of trustees arrived at a crossroads.
“The logical thing was to be able to try to build a bigger theater but still have the intimacy and there wasn’t space for that here,” Dietlein said. “We love West Valley City, and we love the people here, and we are so grateful, but to be able to be viable, business decisions needed to be made.”
Though the two stages of the Sandy theater will enable HCT to boost attendance from the estimated 280,000 patrons of 2016 to upwards of half a million in the next two to three years, Dietlein said, there are some whom the move will leave behind.
“There are a certain number of actors that over the course of many years have come and gone — literally gone, passed — and I will miss those theater ghosts,” Dietlein said. “I will miss that Grandma acted on this stage. We can’t get that back. This is a hallowed place.”
If you go
What: “A Bundle of Trouble”
When: Oct. 21-Dec. 1, times vary, matinees available
Where: Hale Centre Theatre, 3333 S. Decker Lake Drive, West Valley City
How much: $34 for adults, $18 for children in kindergarten through 12th grade