The Eccles Theater - Lighting Up the Downtown Landscape

February 26, 2018 Written by

Something new has taken center stage downtown. In its first months of existence, the state-of-the-art Eccles Theater has already sold 320,000 tickets for shows ranging from The Lion King, Jay Leno and The Book of Mormon to David Sedaris, Bill Maher and Kenny Rogers. drawing people and business into the entire downtown district, attracting its audiences to explore the area, get to know it and stick around a while.

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A hardworking catalyst.

“In our initial discussions, we expected a certain number of shows at the theater,” explains Steve Boulay, COO of MagicSpace Entertainment, the company that has partnered with the Eccles to present and produce the theater’s shows. “But in the first nine months of operations, the Eccles Theater has exceeded our hopes for programming, attendance and economic impact.” Performing arts often require an ongoing stream of donations and funding to get by—even in Utah, the state with the highest percentage of its population attending performing arts shows. “But the Eccles theater funds itself, full boat,” confirms Boulay.

Beyond funding itself, the theater is a “shot of caffeine that woke up our downtown,” says Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams. “When people saw the investment that was being made in that theater, others were willing to follow suit and make a similar investment with housing, restaurants and other businesses. It’s more than a cultural offering. It’s a catalyst, an economic driver.”  Ticket sales themselves have brought an off-the-charts $21.5 million in revenue, plus $1.3 million in sales tax revenue, plus millions more in local advertising dollars, and pay for stagehands, wardrobe staff and theater employees. The exact infusion of extra revenue into surrounding downtown businesses is tough to track, but local business owners confirm the difference is night and day. “You can just draw a straight line in our case, connecting show nights with the kind of business we do. It’s a direct correlation—we’re abnormally busy till curtain time, and then we resume regular business after that. We definitely feel the effects, in a positive way,” says Rich Parrent, owner and manager of Martine Café. “I actually put a calendar in the kitchen with every Eccles show on it, so we can staff accordingly.”

A fresh crowd comes for the shows—and strolls the streets.  

There aren’t just more people in dining booths and barstools downtown—there are new people. Fresh faces queuing up at the ticket office and strolling around with friends and family before and after each show. “An average of 50 percent of the audience in any given Eccles show is attending their first show there. That’s an incredible number of new patrons,” says Boulay.  The theater’s colorful mix of show types draw those who already self-identified as Broadway fans—as well as the fans of the musicians who perform there, the science enthusiasts who flock to see Neil deGrasse Tyson, the kids who come for Cinderella, the comedy lovers who come for an evening of standup.

To come to the Eccles, people don’t need to self-identify as “arts patrons.” They are families, people from the suburbs and people who drove half a day to come for a show. Mayor McAdams calls the Eccles a “gateway to the other arts offerings here in Utah. People who may not attend performances frequently might go to the Eccles and then try other venues. They might try the symphony, or go to Pioneer Theatre or Capitol Theatre.” When theatergoers come to a show, it sparks new ideas and an interest in coming back to downtown. They figure out parking, learn which TRAX line to take, try out a new restaurant, and notice businesses they may not have seen if they haven’t strolled the area in a while.

“It’s fun,” says Parrent. “A lot of new people are coming in to Martine, and with the theater, we’re getting people who may not have tried a downtown dining experience before. It’s a great thing to get new customers, and it’s even better to show newcomers what it’s like to enjoy an independent downtown restaurant.”

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The Eccles takes a seat among its new community.

School-aged kids line up for matinee shows. Friends pose for photos in the theater lobby. Bartenders ask guests about the evening’s performance. Restaurant servers keep showtimes in mind when they bring a check to a table. Couples stroll to the City Creek Center fountain after a performance. The Eccles has found its place as a day-to-day figure amid downtown comings and goings. “Martine’s doing what we’ve always done before, but now that the Eccles is here, it’s become part of who we are,” says Parrent. “Being next door during the theater construction was really hard. But this is the payoff. This is what we waited for.”

The theater has just announced its Broadway shows for the upcoming year—with hotly anticipated heavyweights like Hamilton and Phantom of the Opera on the calendar. There’s already a waiting list for season tickets, which is something both theatergoers and businesses should smile about. It means Salt Lake has fully embraced its new performing-arts player. And the rising tide will lift every (show) boat with it.