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Rise, Fall and Rise Again

St. George Musical Theater’s Spectacular Encore

Article by Kami Egan Savage

Photography by Shane Stewart; Flitch Creative

Originally published in St George City Lifestyle

Like the proverbial fire bird, St. George Musical Theater has risen from the ashes of near-annihilation to become the community mainstay that it is today.

“And not only were we resurrected,” says, SGMT President and Artistic Director Bruce R. Bennett, “but our comeback has been spectacular.”

With sold-out shows as a matter of course in its current location at the 125-seat St. George Opera House, the community theater is thriving. And its future looks even brighter after the St. George City Council’s unanimous vote in December to approve a land lease agreement with the nonprofit for two acres on Main Street, land slated for the construction of a 375-seat theater. And because the land is leased—at one dollar per year for 40 years—the city will retain the building as well as the land upon which it sits.

There’s nothing to lose here,” Bruce says. “I think it’s a win-win for the community.”

Adding former Nationwide Insurance CEO, Dimon McFerson, as board chairman has also been a boon to the theater’s planned growth. “He knows how to raise money and he’s well respected in this community,” Bruce says. “He is the real reason that we’re going to get a new theater. He’s pushed, and our board has pushed and pushed.”

“I respect him so much,” Bruce adds. “Sometimes people come into your life for a reason, and Dimon is somebody whom SGMT—and I, personally—needed. He has been an amazing gift. Everybody needs somebody like Dimon and his wife, Darlene, in their community. They change communities for generations.”

Bruce says he hopes the future theater’s location and larger capacity will serve more patrons—60,000 to 75,000 patrons versus its current 20,000—and also serve as an anchor for economic growth. The area south of the shuttered Kmart has been underdeveloped for years, and the vision is that this new venue will attract restaurants and hotels, effectively reviving the neighborhood.

“SGMT is excited to be a part of that,” he says. “It’s a new beginning…and a great chapter in a story of rise, fall and rise again.”

The story of SGMT’s rise is straightforward enough—a fledgling group of passionate individuals sacrificed time and money to pursue their vision of a thriving community theater in St. George. This original group included playwright and founder, Mark Ogden, and directors, Don and Dawna Kenworthy, and others.

The “fall,” on the other hand, is more complicated. When the members of SGMT’s board of directors made an agreement with the city to rent and renovate an old gymnasium south of the Woodward school, they were excited for the new space.

“We put $350,000 of public funds and our own money into it. We sat 264 people in that theater. And it was pretty nice; it did everything we needed it to do,” Bruce recounts.

But when the city announced plans to build St. George Town Square on a site that included the renovated theater, the board and city officials at that time could not reach an agreement, and as result, the building was torn down. The loss of its venue, including the improvements and funds that went into renovating it, proved a devastating blow for the theater’s constituents, and the theater went on hiatus for almost six years.

“It was really hard,” Bruce says. “People’s feelings were hurt—there was a lot of emotion tied to it. The thing is, it was amazingly successful … and you don’t see that every day—a building that was used for something successful getting torn down.”

Although SGMT was at the mercy of the city, Bruce explains there were mistakes on both sides.

Nearly six years later, former board chairman, Dan Olsen, contacted Bruce about getting SGMT up and running again.

 “I wanted it so bad, but I knew we had to do it right,” Bruce says. “I told him we couldn’t ask the public for funds because we raised a lot of money previously and everybody saw it disappear into thin air. And I knew we had to repair some relationships with the city…It took about two years of going to city meetings, establishing new relationships and proving to them that we had learned a lesson. It took a lot of humility to go back.”

The hard work paid off when Gary Esplin, former St. George City manager, suggested a return to the Opera House. Bruce’s response was ecstatic. “All the planets aligned. That was in 2014—that was 57 shows ago.” Rise again, indeed.  

  • Bruce Bennett with Dimon McFerson
  • 39 Steps
  • Fiddler on the Roof
  • High School Musical
  • Little Women
  • Oliver
  • Oliver
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel
  • The Secret Garden
  • South Pacific
  • South Pacific
  • Bruce Bennett, president and artistic director of St. George Musical Theater