The History of The Empress Theatre & Oquirrh Hills Performing Arts Alliance
The Empress Theatre opened in 1916 originally as a Burlesque theater for the local miners at Kennecott. In 1917 it began showing silent movies. The theater remained open as a movie theater through at least 1930. Stephen Barker, a historian-writer, purchased the Empress Theatre and Gem Theatre, and in 1978 began renovating them as part of a Magna City restoration project. Barker hoped to reopen the Empress Theatre for live performances and art films in January or February 1979, but his plans never came to fruition.
Local film and stage actor Leo W. Ware became the owner of the Empress Theatre after trading for it in a real estate deal in 1983. He invested $30,000 in the renovation and worked for hundreds of hours to rip up tile, remove paint from brick and wood, tear down and erect interior walls, replace floors and repair the ceiling. An early obstacle to his efforts came in July 1984, when the Salt Lake County commissioners decided to raze the “abandoned” Empress Theatre because it was unsafe. They later reversed their decision and gave Ware until December 1, 1984 to make a complete structural renovation of the theater, which he did. Ware worked for over a decade, almost single-handedly, to renovate the Empress Theatre for live performances, which included digging out the dressing and green room spaces underneath the theater by hand. Some improvements to the exterior of the building were funded by grants from Salt Lake County, the National Park Service, and the Utah Division of State History. In speaking of the hard labor of remodeling, Ware said, “It's only work if you'd rather be doing something else. I'd rather be doing this.”
An auto accident in 2002 and its subsequent physical limitations later prevented Ware from continuing the work on the theater. In 2006 a group of Magna residents became interested in Ware's project and began discussing the possibility of reopening the theater. By June 2006 they formed the non-profit Oquirrh Hills Performing Arts Alliance and in August got the keys to the theater so they could complete the renovation. The four-month renovation involved hundreds of volunteers and thousands of hours. Although Ware made progress in his 20 years of working on the theater, there was still a lot to be done. The theater had no heating or air conditioning and needed electrical work. OHPAA had to do drywall work and painting, put in seating, carpet, a sound booth, railings and had to change out all the doors in the building to meet fire code. Primary Children's Medical Center donated the concessions counter, plumbers and electricians donated their time and skills and others gave money. Much of this work was lead by the tireless efforts of Rod and Joline Walgamott who were dedicated to bringing culture and education to the Magna community and surrounding areas.
On November 4, 2006 Ware's dream finally came to fruition, and the Empress Theater opened its doors for the first time in 50 years with "Forever Plaid". Leo Ware and his family were able to attend one of the first few performances of "Forever Plaid" in the now reopened theater. We are grateful he was able to see his dream come true. Leo W. Ware passed away shortly after seeing his dream completed on January 3, 2007.
Since reopening in 2006, the Empress Theatre has produced nearly 119 shows. We wouldn't be here today without the passion and dedication of Leo Ware and the Walgamotts, for that we are eternally grateful.
The Empress Theatre runs completely on volunteer hours from its actors, resident staff and front house team. We wouldn’t be able to bring the arts to Magna and the surrounding communities without the countless hours from our volunteers.
In 2021 a group of investors, know as The Knights of the Empress, LLC. purchased the building from Aileen Ware. OHPAA still operates the Empress under the new ownership.