Story by Anna Burleson • Photos by Briana Scroggins • Standard-Examiner staff
OGDEN — The Egyptians might not have set foot in Northern Utah, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t leave their mark.
“The movie palace was to make people feel like even commoners could come to something ornate and luxurious, something Rockefeller would come to himself,” General Manager Kassi Bybee said.
After decades of various owners and building remodeling projects, the grand theater was eventually restored to its former Egyptian glory in 1997, making this year it’s 20th anniversary.
“Doesn’t this just take your breath away? It’s absolutely beautiful,” Bybee said, looking up at the theater’s ornate ceiling.
In order to understand what, at first glance, appears out of place next to the metropolitan buildings throughout Ogden’s downtown, one must understand the culture of entertainment in the 1920s.
The golden age
According to information from the Egyptian Theatre Foundation, the theater was built by brothers Harman and Louis Peery.
At the time, the tomb of an Egyptian monarch named Tutankhamun had been unearthed. The BBC reported this had a huge impact on American culture at the time, with fashion and architecture suddenly beginning to reflect what people were seeing on newsreels from the desert.
That’s why the Peery brothers went with an Egyptian theme for the 1,200-seat, one-screen theater that stands where the Peery family home had once stood years before.
To see more historic photos of Peery’s Egyptian Theater, click the image below.
Van Summerill, a founding member of the Egyptian Theatre Foundation, grew to the film buff he is today largely because of the theater. He attended shows there as a child and held jobs as assistant manager and projectionist as he got older.
Summerill said he remembers signs proudly proclaiming the theater was the “a safe place for the kiddies” because, in an era where film was still very flammable and known to explode on occasion, the theater was built using reinforced concrete instead of wood.
Thanks to the 1997 remodeling and restoration of the theater, the Peery’s Egyptian Theater of today closely resembles its appearance when it opened 93 years ago.
The entryway and lobby are ornately decorated with brightly-colored Egyptian idols and hieroglyphics cover the walls.
Theater Director of Sales Ross Reeder, who often dons costumes and entertains the audience at current-day movie showings, said some of the hieroglyphics are jokes. For example, one depicts a stick figure kicking another because the Peery brothers were known to bicker.
“Some of these they copied from the originals, some they took some license,” Reeder said, smiling.
The real magic is in the opulent theater with its deep blue sky and twinkling stars.
Reeder said it was built to look as though the audience is sitting in an outdoor Egyptian courtyard with high stone walls of neighboring buildings on either side.
“As the lights would dim for a movie it was as if the sun was going down,” Reeder said.
Bybee said the now-empty square caverns in the walls held large ice blocks in the 1920s, creating low-tech air conditioning with fans that fan behind them and blew cool air on the audience.
Rooms at the back of the theater that are now used for box seats were at one time a cry room and a smoking room — separately, of course.
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Several Standard-Examiner readers shared fond memories from the theater on Facebook.
Karen Johnson lives in California now but said as a young person in the 1950s, she and her cousin would walk from their house on 30th and Jefferson to go to the movies at Peery’s.
She said it cost a dime to get in and candy and popcorn were also 10 cents.
Great times then,” Johnson said. “The inside of the theater was always impressive to me.”
Marsha Ann Martin said her husband enjoyed the Saturday shows for kids when he was young, much like Summerill did.
Kristen Kris Stuart said he used his allowance as a child to ride the UTA and go see movies at Peery’s, and Debbie Carpenter remembered the old smoking section with fondness.
“It was always a smoke filled room but ih, (sic) the memories!” she said.
Still remaining today in the winding halls beneath the stage are dressing rooms and storage areas.
According to Standard-Examiner archives, Peery’s has been included on Ogden haunted building tours and several websites about the paranormal including HauntedHouses.com. In 2011, Salt Lake Magazine published a haunted Ogden guide wherein it says the ghost of a girl named Allison fell off the theater’s scaffolding, died and continues to haunt the halls.
A Time of Change
As tastes changed and Americans sought a more modern entertainment experience, Peery’s Egyptian Theater fell out of popularity.
Summerill said it was refurbished beautifully, and the Egyptian theme was kept in 1951. But the era of the road show picture in the 1960s took its toll as epics like ‘Ben-Hur,’ ‘Spartacus’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ became popular.
To that end, decorative pillars were removed so the theater’s screen could be widened, and the look of the theater was totally revamped.
“They tried to obliterate anything that looked Egyptian, and the walls in the auditorium ended up being painted Pepto Bismol pink,” Summerill said.
Reeder said it was during this time when two large Egyptian idols shows in early photos on either side of the stage disappeared.
While Egyptian culture saw a resurgence in the 1970s, the now-modernized building went through a series of owners including National-General Corporation and Mann Theaters. As the theater’s popularity continued to dwindle, it was eventually closed in 1984 due to health code violations.
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As the community and city leaned toward tearing Peery’s down, Summerill stood firm. He fought to rescue the theater he grew up loving, with help from the Egyptian Theatre Foundation.
Robert King, the grandson of theater founder Harman Peery, called Summerill “Mr. Egyptian.”
“Thank God for Van or it would have never been saved,” King said.
Summerill said he encountered resistance from the community because no one wanted to put tax dollars toward renovating the theater. But after several prominent community figures got involved in the early 1990s, the project gained traction.
Summerill said this happened thanks to the coordinated efforts of the city, Weber County, Weber State University and the Ogden-Weber Chamber of Commerce and the concept of connecting it to what would be the David Eccles Conference Center.
“We struggled for several years, and I’ll tell you it was hard,” he said.
After a $17 million renovation funded by donations, Peery’s reopened in 1997.
The renovated theater’s stage was expanded to allow for theater productions. A large rehearsal space is available, and Summerill said the foundation bought and installed a $70,000 1950s-style waterfall curtain to add to the theater’s grandeur.
A musician’s pit at the front of the stage also raises and lowers when needed, and athough Reeder said the theater was technically built on a river bed and water continually flows beneath it, they don’t have problems with flooding thanks to numerous pumps.
Continued improvements also brought back the famed “Mighty Wurlitzer,” an organ that now sits at center stage with its long, mostly hidden pipes feeding music throughout the theater.
To take a tour of Peery’s Egyptian Theater as it looks today, click the image below.
The original 1924 Wurlitzer created music and sound effects for silent movies and was removed in 1960, according to foundation data. A new Wurlitzer was installed in the 2000s, and its 1,400 pipes are now used to entertain audiences before shows.
Reeder once pretended to play it prior to the showing of “Phantom of the Opera” while he was, of course, in costume as the phantom himself. He said it proved difficult to mimic playing the contraption with his hands hovering inches above the keys for 45 minutes as it played on the “automatic” setting.
“He says it wasn’t fun, but he loved it,” Bybee said, laughing. “Any time we can put him in costume on stage, it’s fun.”
Although King wishes the theater that bears his family name was used by the public more, he’s excited about the direction it’s currently going in.
Bybee said the theater had 168 event days in 2016, which comes out to 46 percent of the year.
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Granted, some of those events were private. Reeder described a conference the gun company Browning held to promote new tactical gear where men repelled from the ceiling and the company’s executives were raised on the orchestra pit stage dressed as members of the band Kiss.
The theater also hosts weekly movie nights, musicians, an interactive ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show,’ and several Christmastime performances of ‘The Nutcracker,’ just to name a few.
The theater is in the process of getting new carpet, and Bybee is making an effort to bring in more theater productions in the future.
“It’s frustrating for us to hear someone in the community say ‘It’s a beautiful theater; it’s a shame it’s not used more,’” Reeder said. “There’s stuff going on.”