The Off Broadway Theatre just went waaaay off-Broadway.
For 25 years, the local theater company’s home, at 272 S. Main St., was just around the corner from 300 South — also known as Broadway — in downtown Salt Lake City.
But no more.
The OBT, co-founded by Layton residents Sandy and Eric Jensen, had been operating just off Broadway since its inception back in 1994. In that ensuing decades, the historic Clift Building has been sold three times, according to Sandy Jensen; a few months ago the latest owner asked them to vacate the premises by the end of the year.
“This third person who purchased it had no ties to our company or what we’re doing here, and they’ve asked us to leave,” she said. “They’re going to gut the whole thing; it will no longer be a theater. I think they’ll do a bank or a speakeasy in the basement.”
So now, after a quarter of a century, the Jensens are looking for a new home for the Off Broadway Theatre.
While they haven’t found a permanent home for the OBT yet, Sandy Jensen said they’ll use the Midvale Performing Arts Center, 695 W. Center St., in Midvale, for their first two shows of 2020.
Those shows will be “Star Ward,” an LDS-themed parody of the George Lucas franchise, running Jan. 31 to Feb. 21; and “Cutie and the Beast,” a parody of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” coming in May.
The theater’s improv troupe, Laughing Stock, has temporarily moved to The Box at The Gateway, 124 S. 400 West in Salt Lake City — since the Midvale Performing Arts Center already has its own resident improv troupe.
Sandy Jensen said they’ve reached out to a number of cities and are in talks for a new home. Although a Davis County location would be closer to their home, she said they’re planning on staying in Salt Lake County because of the arts grants they’ve already developed there.
“We’re hoping by 2021 we’ll have a home,” she said.
The Off Broadway Theatre was originally formed by the Jensens and two other couples. The founders liked the idea of live, scripted theater, but in an environment that also allowed for improvisation from the actors.
“We wanted it to be like ‘The Carol Burnett Show,’ where you do have a script but you can go off on tangents,” Sandy Jensen said.
Over the years, the two other founding couples fell away — the Jensens bought out one couple in 2000 and the other left to pursue options elsewhere in 2003. The Jensens continued to run the theater company by themselves for another five years but have since converted it to a nonprofit organization.
Jensen said she and her husband have seen an incredible outpouring of love and support in the process of moving out of the Clift Building. Without that support of volunteers, she says they couldn’t have survived 25 years.
“A lot of people have helped us,” she said. “Volunteers have moved things out for us, and offered to store them in their homes until we find a new place.”
And Jensen says these volunteers tell her how much they appreciate what the OBT has done for them.
“One thing everybody has told us is that our theater is their home away from home,” she said.
Jensen says the OBT is “all about comedy” and that their mission is “to spread the gift of laughter.”
That gift wasn’t just for audience members.
“We worked with a ton of actors who said, ‘Your theater saved my life,’” Sandy Jensen said. “These were people who were going through split-ups, loss of jobs, divorces — this took their minds off their personal troubles and gave them a purpose.”
Since the building on Main Street was going to be gutted anyway, owners allowed the Jensens to take whatever they wanted from the theater. The company itself kept the chairs from the balcony, but they allowed season ticket holders to take the seats they’d been sitting in.
“Some have taken the restroom signs or other things — it’s been fun,” Jensen said. “It’s sad to see, but we’re ready for a new adventure so we can start on our next 25 years.”
Sandy Jensen, who serves as the theater’s executive director, is 50 years old. Eric Jensen, the artistic director, is 54.
“I’ve given half of my life to the Off Broadway Theatre,” Sandy Jensen said.
The theater has worked with charities like HopeKids and the Make-A-Wish Foundation in the past, and Jensen said they’ll continue these partnerships. She told the story of one little boy who was dying of cancer — he passed away recently.
“He had two wishes,” Jensen recalls. “To go to Disneyland, and to see a show at Off Broadway Theatre. He just wanted to laugh.”
Jensen said the shows at OBT appeal to both adults and children.
“The style of theater we do, kids love,” she said. “Slapstick, physical humor, puns, wordplay — everyone gets it. Some people think it’s hokey, but that’s OK. Going into this we just thought, ‘How do we make it fun for everybody?’ ‘How do we use Utah culture in a good way?’”
Although Eric Jensen works full time at the theater, Sandy Jensen has spent the past seven years teaching school. She says that, for both of them, the theater troupe has been a labor of love — they’re simply trying to give back to a community that has given so much to them.
“A lot of people think it’s about making money,” Jensen said. “But for me and my husband, it’s about passion.”
Wherever the Off Broadway Theatre ends up — and no matter how far off-Broadway it is — Jensen said the spirit will remain the same.
“Our theater is going to be where our heart is,” she said. “It’s the people who make the space great, not the space itself.”