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Once nearly a memory, Peery’s Egyptian Theater ready for another 100 years

By Ryan Aston - | Jan 9, 2024
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Peery's Egyptian Theater in Ogden, circa 1956.
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The view from a private balcony looks out at the stage at Peery's Egyptian Theater on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018, in Ogden.
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Hieroglyphic artwork continues to be a prominent feature of the aesthetic at Peery's Egyptian Theater.
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An advertisement for the 1924 grand opening of Peery's Egyptian Theater in the Standard-Examiner.
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The entrance of the Peery's Egyptian Theater on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, in Ogden.
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Peery's Egyptian Theater in Ogden, circa 1977.
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Peery's Egyptian Theater in 2024.

OGDEN — One of downtown Ogden’s most recognizable landmarks is on the verge of hitting a significant milestone.

Peery’s Egyptian Theater is turning 100 this year, and downtown has changed and evolved innumerably since the theater housed its first audiences for Irvin Wallit’s silent adaptation of the Zane Grey Western novel “Wanderer of the Wasteland” in July 1924.

The building itself has changed, too — rising to prominence, falling and then rising again like Grey’s desert sun.

Built on the ashes of the old Arlington Hotel, which succumbed to fire in 1923 at what is now 2415 Washington Blvd., the theater was the cinematic destination for local residents throughout Hollywood’s Golden Age, from the advent of “talkies” in the late 1920s through the 1960s.

As shopping malls and chain theaters exploded in the 1970s, however, and business declined around downtown, the theater morphed from being a first-run movie house to second-run, dollar-movie status in the early 1980s. Moreover, the building fell into disrepair and, in 1984, it was shuttered amid health code violations.

The theater’s decline was mirrored by the emptying of surrounding buildings. As the 1990s rolled around and the threat of demolition recurred, a group of citizens aiming to preserve the building formed the Egyptian Theatre Foundation.

Kassi Bybee, general manager of the Ogden Eccles Conference Center and Peery’s Egyptian Theater, credits the Weber County Commission, Weber State University, the Weber County Heritage Foundation and the Ogden-Weber Chamber of Commerce for teaming up with the foundation to revive the space.

“People sacrificed a lot to save this theater. It was not an easy lift,” Bybee said.

Through those efforts and others within the local community, a full restoration of the theater was completed in 1997 alongside the addition of the adjoining Ogden Eccles Conference Center (which ultimately was what got the project over the hump).

“They were working on the theater but they weren’t getting the leverage that they needed,” said Bybee.

Now, the spaces help sell each other. It’s not uncommon to see an event begin in the conference center and then branch out into the theater, or vice versa.

Over the ensuing years, as America’s great “movie palaces” have dwindled in number, efforts have been made to preserve the building’s architecture and legacy while diversifying its functionality as a performance and exhibition space.

During the 1990s restoration, the stage’s back wall was pushed out to make way for live performances, which Bybee describes as a key decision for the theater’s future.

“That’s what has kept its sustainability, because we’ve been able to have such a variety of the arts now, and not just cinema,” she said.

Events range from stage plays to ballet to movies new and old, and beyond. Later this month, the Hof Germanfest will emanate from the conference center and the theater. One week after, Marie Osmond will return home to provide entertainment for a celebratory 100-year gala.

In 2021, a new LED lighting system was installed thanks to a $1 million donation from the from the Dr. Ezekiel R. and Edna Wattis Dumke Foundation. More recently, the theater’s “Mighty Wurlitzer” organ received an upgrade.

Renovations for the midway, dressing rooms and the mezzanine are in the works, and the installation of a new, state-of-the-art sound system is planned as well. Again, though, the theater has worked to maintain the physical and aesthetic links to to its rich history.

“We’ll never go away from our roots. We’ll never go away from the historical building and feel,” Bybee declared.

Hieroglyphics and Egyptian-themed murals greet patrons at the box office and are visible throughout the building, inside and out. The theater’s unique and original atmospheric lighting system — which allows patrons to experience high noon, breathtaking sunsets, or starlit nights, all from the comfort of their seat — remains intact and functional.

It doesn’t take much imagination to experience what it might have felt like for people to enter the building and leave their cares behind as they watched Lon Chaney as Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” or Bela Lugosi as Dracula.

While celebrants revel in the theater’s centurylong story so far throughout 2024, however, Bybee also has an eye focused on tomorrow. Her dream — that an endowment can be created for the theater’s operations and growth, now and in the years to come.

“Let’s move 100 years forward, wouldn’t this be wonderful for future generations to be able to have that experience?” she asked.


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