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Theatre 138: Salt Lake’s first ‘alternative’ theater

Leaders have always known that art and literature have more power to change hearts and minds than political activism, and therefore they must be very, very dangerous.

By Fran Pruyn

There is a fair share of us doing alternative theater in Salt Lake City these days – and a lot of us are queer; but in the ’60s and the ’70s, and for most of the ’80s, there was only Ariel Baliff, Stu Falconer, and Tom Carlin fighting the good fight.

Ariel, Stu, and Tom were three gay men who started Theatre 138 in a historic church building at 138 S. 200 East. Theatre 138 was the first intimate, “alternative” theater company in the Salt Lake Valley. From 1966 to 1989, they produced more than 300 shows – 60 of which were premieres of new scripts.

Stories of how the three met and formed an alliance are apocryphal. What is certain is that Tom served in World War II, that there was a family connection between Stu and Tom, and that Ariel most certainly was Stu’s partner of four decades.

Ariel had Utah roots but a national reputation. After graduating from BYU and Yale, he taught design from 1957-62 at the Yale School of Drama. He designed for Yale Resident Theatre, national stock companies, and early television productions. 

In the ’50s, Ariel, Stu, and Tom opened a small dinner theater in Richmond, Va., called The Renaissance.

In 1962, Ballet West founder William Christensen talked Ariel into returning to Utah and holding a teaching position at the University of Utah. The three moved to Salt Lake City. While Ariel taught at the U of U, Stu landed acting gigs, and Tom became a radio personality on AM radio.

In 1967, they opened Theatre 138 with an original play, This is the Place? Ariel was the artistic director and resident set and costume designer. Stu was the technical and production manager. He acted in many of the shows, as well as being the master carpenter and general handy-guy. The running joke was that Stu had to fix the wiring between act breaks. Tom was the administrative arm of the company, handling everything from ticket sales to PR.

Theatre 138 did the classics like Hay Fever and Long Day’s Journey into Night. They did musicals like The Fantasticks and “feel-good shows” like A Thousand Clowns, On Golden Pond, and 84 Charing Cross Road.

More importantly, they took risks on plays that mainstream theaters couldn’t or wouldn’t touch. Theatre 138 produced works by Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee that were edgy and esoteric. They also produced new plays by Utah authors, including scripts about unusual topics, like art therapy.

They staged very bawdy productions of Chicago and Sweeney Todd. They produced Carnival with an interracial cast and did Sticks and Bones – a dark comedy about a blind Vietnam War veteran. They produced Equus, complete with nudity, and, according to Jim Dabakis, “they were sure they would be shut down.”

Theatre 138 mounted The Boys in the Band to sold-out crowds. In 1987, Ariel, Tom, and Stu joined forces with Walk-Ons Theatre Company, a nomadic company produced by a young David Spencer and Jayne Luke. At Theatre 138, Walk-Ons staged As Is at the height of the AIDS epidemic. As Is, by William Hoffman, is a surprisingly funny and graphic play that is sympathetic to people living with AIDS. Cast members were seriously worried about bomb threats.

As Is was the last show at Theatre 138. Mountain Fuel Supply bought the building, tore it down, and put up a parking lot. After that, Theatre 138 and Walk-Ons produced theater together at the Center Stage on Highland Drive for two years until that building, too, was sold, and both companies dissolved.

At the time, Ariel Ballif said, “We’re past the age of the full-time, 12-shows-a-year routine. But, we’re certainly not going to retire from the business because it’s too much a part of our lives.”

Stu continued to act sporadically. It was rumored that Ariel had been asked to leave the University of Utah because of his sexuality, but he continued to design for Pioneer Theatre Company. His last works were designs for PTC’s ’93 production of O Pioneers and a “new Nutcracker” for Ballet West.

Stu Falconer died of cancer in 1993, a few days after being diagnosed. Ariel’s health deteriorated after Stu’s death, and he died in 1994 of a heart attack four days before receiving the Madeleine Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts and Humanities. Tom Carlin passed away in the Veteran’s Hospital in April 2000 after an extended illness.

Actors at Theatre 138 received $7.50 a week for hosiery and gas. The company’s alums include veterans Gene Pack, Margaret Crowell, Anne Cullimore Decker, Joan Erbin, Tony Larimer, and young upstarts Anne Stuart Mark and James Morrison.

“I was so pleased to work at Theatre 138,” said Vicki Pugmire. “I thought I had made it to Broadway.”

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One Comment

  1. Before founding the Renaissance Theatre in Richmond, Tom Carlin and Stu Falconer were among six New York City theatre artists who moved to Hanover, Virginia (about 15 miles north of Richmond) in 1953 to found Barksdale Theatre at historic Hanover Tavern. Tom and Stu left the six founders in 1958 and joined with Ariel to found the Renaissance Theatre in Richmond. In 2012, Barksdale Theatre merged with Theatre IV, another prominent Richmond theatre, to form Virginia Repertory Theatre, the leading professional theatre in Central Virginia. On another interesting note, when Stu left New York, he left his job as stage manager of the landmark Circle in the Square production of "Summer and Smoke" that began what is today known as Off Broadway. Virginia Repertory Theatre continues to honor the legacy of Tom and Stu. –Bruce Miller, Artistic Director, Virginia Repertory Theatre.

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