Episode 6: Peery's Egyptian Theater
The year is 1922, and in the Valley of the Kings in Thebes, Egypt, a man named Howard Carter searched in earnest for at least one unmolested Egyptian tomb. You see, Carter was convinced that somewhere in the mass deserts of Egypt, the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun laid, preserved and unraided. Now at this time Tut was pretty much an unknown, he lived around 1400 BC and ascended to his throne at the ripe old age of nine. Unfortunately, he didn’t have long to rule as by the time he turned 19, he was dead. Many people believed that this was due to murder, but recent scans have led scientist to believe that he may have, in fact, sustained a thigh fracture that got infected leading to his untimely death.
Not much more than a footnote there, which is why Carter had to convince his backers that he was in the right place, he just needed to keep searching. And It was a gamble that paid off in November when, while searching through some debris around a different tomb, they discovered a separate set of stairs leading to the tomb he had been so long searching for.
Soon pictures were flying around the world of this great marvel, this fully intact tomb. The seal on the doors, the antechamber full of precious artifacts unseen or touched for nearly 3,000 years!
Understandably, the world went mad for all things Egypt. You started to see Egypt themed everything, from bowling alleys, to casinos, to movie palaces.
Welcome to Strange and Unexplained episode six: Peery’s Egyptian Theater.
It’s devastating in its ferocity and unmatched in nature by its never-ending hunger. Fire can ravage and lay waste to whole civilizations and keep right on coming. There is no town, not state, or province or country that hasn’t felt the burn from this natural annihilator. Fire doesn’t care about boundaries, about language or history. It doesn’t care about the rich or poor. It cares only about consuming everything in its path.
Once, in the small mountain town where I worked, we were devastated by a fire. It raged through sections of forest that had been untouched for over a hundred years. It burned and destroyed swaths of forests, homes, and nearly took our school as well. It was only through the hard work and dedication of local firefighters and volunteers that the school was saved. But the damage to the forest was some of the worst I have ever seen, before now. Huge patches of burnt and black land laid between thick green forest, creating a contrast that is hard to believe.
The next spring, after the snows had melted, there was green again. The old forest had been burned away in many places, but from those ashes something new was springing up. The forest was reborn through fire.
When buildings in the middle of cities and towns burn there is a very similar transformation that happens from those ashes. It usually takes a little longer than the change of a season, but you can see when fire destroys a part of any small town, they rebuild and put something else, something better, in its place.
On March 15th, 1924 in the wee hours of the morning, a fire erupted in downtown Ogden on Washington Blvd between 24th and 25th street. By the time the fire department arrived on scene the the fire was “shooting out of the widows of the Last and Thomas store,” described Former Ogden Fire Chief George Graves. Because of the intensity of the burn they said that finding the cause would be next to impossible. By the time the firemen were done battling the smoke, fire, and the ice the damage to the was estimated to be around $366,000. Or, by today's standards, more than $5.5 million dollars. An astronomical sum.
Once the fire was out the question was raised about what to put on this large stretch of prime city real estate. Something that would be a benefit to the city, something that would bring joy after such a disaster. Enter Harmon and Lewis Perry. Their family estate had been one of several buildings destroyed in the fire and for them, the thing that would bring the most benefit to Ogden was a huge movie palace “The Showplace of the West,” they said. The contracted architectural firm Hodgson and Mcclenahan, a firm responsible for the several very notable buildings all along the Wasatch front.
Given the worlds obsession with the recent opening of King Tut's tomb, the firm decided that this grand show house of movies, should be Egyptian in theme. Construction began in 1924 with the help of the two Perry brothers, (one of whom would go on to be the mayor of Ogden). Using the photos and newsreels of the time, the attempted to copy all of the beauty and hieroglyphs onto the walls of the theater. They did take some liberties with the art, including four custom glyphs that are hidden throughout the main lobby.
Both the outside of the theater and the main lobby are covered in replicas of Egyptian statuary, paintings, glyphs and gold leaf, it is the theater itself, however, that is the true marvel. Through the second set of double doors, past the Ladies Lounge, you come into the theater and its breathtaking.
The walls running down either side were made to look like the sides of two Egyptian temples, complete with five smaller windows on each side, and a sixth larger one that boasts and awning that was used to cleverly disguise several of the pipes for Wurlitzer organ. The stage in its earliest form had two statues flanking each side of the screen set next to two beautiful pillars. But the most amazing feature they put into the theater was the atmospheric ceiling.
The first thing they did was to paint the ceiling a dark color. Then they could project onto the ceiling the beautiful colors of a desert sunset that would slowly fade out and be replaced by twinkling stars. For a time, there was even a projector that would project clouds slowly making their way across the sky. Several theaters boasted technological wonders like this at the time, the one here in the Egyptian theater is one of the only functioning ones still in existence.
Above the stage, in the center is a beautiful winged goddess adorned in gold with peacock wings. She is often mistaken for Isis, but with wings of peacock feathers, she is the goddess Maat. She is the goddess of truth, justice and the cosmic order, she is the daughter of Ra, the mighty Sun god. A fun note here. While on a recent tour of the Theater Ross Reeder, director of sales and marketing for the Egyptian, told me that if you ever get the chance to see the Stature of Maat with the house lights up, you will find her to be anatomically correct. So correct in fact, that several groups who have rented the theater have asked if there was a way to cover the womanly shape of the goddess.
With the stature being so high above the ground, it simply isn’t feasible to do so. Instead they just keep the lights off in that area.
The very first movie ever show there was “Wander of the Wasteland.” A colored silent western film According to sources it was the third ever movie to be filmed entirely in technicolor. Silent movies like this were accompanied by the mighty wurlitzer organ which was everything from an piano, to a xylophone to a drum set.
Then in 1929 the theater showed its first ever talkie, “In Old Arizona.” A move about the Cisco Kid and his girlfriend Tonya robbing their way across the west. As more and more talking movies came out, that famous pipe organ became less and less used. Soon resulting in its being moved into storage sometime around 1960.
In 1935 the theater was leased to 20th Century Fox as part of the Fox Intermountain-Theaters chain. (Both the Egyptian and the Ogden theater were part of this family of theaters, both were also owned by the Perry family.) Fox put the theater threw the first of its remodels in 1951. They expanded the marquee size to about four times what it had been, added a box office and redid the ceiling in the lobby as well as several other little improvements that helped to revitalize the theater. While reconfiguring the stage for it’s new layout, the two statues of the Egyptians sitting cross legged that flanked both sides of the stage disappeared. And we still don’t know where they went or how.
But, when updating the fire curtain, (a requirement for all theaters at the time.) They painted the statues onto the scene that was there, so they could still be a part of the theater, in spirit anyway. The fire curtain, should you ever have the chance to see it, is painted to look as though the path between the two temples leads you straight down to the Nile. It is a marvel and richly detailed and holds a whopping 300lbs of paint.
Around 1953, the movie industry saw its next huge change. The first ever 3D movie. A film called It Came from Outer Space. Which is a movie about an alien spaceship that crash lands near Sand Rock, Arizona. Around that same time we got the first ever CinemaScope movie. CinemaScope transitioned movies over to a 2:1 width vs height lay out. Think about it as the first widescreen movie.
With two beautiful columns flanking either side of the screen, they had to come down. A four-channel sound system was also installed since this was around the time that stereo was becoming a feature in films.
Then one of the greatest atrocities to ever befall the theater took place.
They remodeled, with a very singular theme in mind.
Think Pepto-Bismol circa 1961.
They painted over the majority of the original details with pink paint, then they added pink walls and pink curtains. One of the only intelligent things they did was to install a larger screen and reconfigure the seating arrangements to provide moviegoers with more leg room. Dropping the seat count from 1,200 seats to just over 800. Thankfully, when they were carrying out this atrocity, I mean remodel, they decided that to paint over the incredibly detailed and multi-level ceiling would simply be too much work. Instead they installed a dropped ceiling, covering all the beauty that used to be there, with, you guessed it, pink.
It was a poor attempt to move away from the Egyptian vibe that wasn’t really trendy anymore but outdated, and dare I say it, Old.
Old though she may have been on December 12th 1978 the theater was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Despite being added to the registry things only got worse for our dear theater. As the theater began to change hands, they were no longer able to show premier movies. They were downgraded to second run showings and eventually down to a dollar theater.
In the 1980’s it seemed the final blow was dealt. The health department came in and after reviewing the building that had been steadily falling apart for almost twenty years, they declared the building unsafe, officially due to the lack of hot water, and condemned the theater.
The doors closed, the windows were boarded up, all of the beauty and love that had been poured into the theater at its creation faded away into the past. Then the worst kind of people took advantage of this empty space and once illustrious theater became and eye sore and a blight on downtown Ogden.
Several attempts were made to tear the building down. Each time there was some last saving grace. Someone would stop them, and the theater would get a reprieve. Finally, in the early 90’s the town had enough. The space the empty theater was occupying was prime real estate in downtown ogden. Not only did they not want to leave it empty, but the sight of a boarded-up theater, collecting trash and graffiti was bringing down the rest of the area.
Demolition was scheduled and it looked like that was going to be the end of our dear theater.
Then, literally in the 11th hour, a group came together, calling themselves the Egyptian Theater Foundation, (a foundation the consisted of members of the Perry family), and saved the building. The made a deal with the city and bought the Egyptian theater for the original build price that had been paid for it in 1924, $250,000.
A major restoration project was undertaken at this point. The pink was peeled back and removed, the walls, ceilings and even the carpets underwent a major cleaning. Crew worked for weeks with paint brushes and a gold leaf to bring back the shine and illustrious nature of the theater that had draw so many people in. Weber county, the Perry family, the Chamber of commerce, Weber State University, the Eccles foundation, and Utah state legislator all made major donations to help see the project through.
At the same time, Weber county began building a government office, and conference center in the same area. The foundation turned to the skilled people working on these buildings and they were able to get help with the restoration from them, having several parts of their restoration folded into the budget of the other building. Making the theater better than ever.
On January 17th 1997 the fully remodeled theater opened its doors. Now boasting a fully modernized theater, a rehearsal stage made to the exact specifications of the stage itself, a proper fly space, orchestra pit. And they had even managed to find a put to back together another mighty wurlitzer, fully functional and beautifully restored. An interesting side note here about the wurlitzer. The average age of the person able to play the organ with all of the literal bells and whistles, is climbing by the day,
Making it a rarer skill.
The theater is interested in hosting an outreach program to get the youth of today interested in learning how to play a unique and one of a kind machine. For more information about that, or about any part of the theater we’ve talked about today head on over to www.peerysegyptiantheater.com to find out more.
Now that we’ve taken a moment to talk about the rich history of the theater, let's talk about what make its strange.
During my recent visit and tour of the theater, (I highly recommend the tour, by the way, it’s truly a magnificent building.) as it was winding down, Mr. Reeder and I were standing in the house in front of stage right when he turned to me and described the lone blue light that set on the stage.
“That’s called a ghost light,” he explained. “All theaters use a ghost light when the stage isn’t being used and the lights are off. Primarily to let people know where the edge of the stage is.”
He then turned to me and said, “We actually have two ghosts.”
At this point he started to tell me the story of the ghosts of the Egyptian theater.
The first is a little girl named Allison. According to the legend Allison was a little girl, somewhere between the ages of 8 and 12 whose father was a brick layer during the original construction of the building. One day, while her father was working in the scaffolding, she came to bring him lunch like she did almost every day. On this day however, as Alison was skipping back she slipped and fell from the scaffolding and died instantly as she impacted the ground. Several attempts to find out more information about her, but given the records of the time, and our inability to track down exactly when the accident happened, we’ve been unsuccessful in finding any information about Alison.
We do know that several security guards have heard the laughter of a little girl late at night when the theater should be empty. Causing the guards to do additional sweeps of the area to make sure they weren’t locking a child inside. This happened several times.
On one of these sweeps they found footprints in the dust up on the catwalks. Little child footprints. No one was ever in the theater.