Imagine an international ballet company is performing in Ogden. You’ve paid nearly $100 for your ticket, but by intermission your bottom is so sore from the worn-out seat you can’t sit down.
Believe it or not, a lot of the seats in the Austad Auditorium and Allred Theater are in nearly this condition. Original to the now-50-year-old venues, the seats along with the paint and plaster need to be replaced in both of the Val A. Browning Center’s main theaters.
“The seats that are in the theaters are original to the building so they’re 50 years old and so parts for them are very, very scarce,” Austin Hull, technical operations manager, said. “I could maybe replace or fix 20 chairs in the Austad and there are over 1,700, so if something bad were to happen for whatever reason, we couldn’t get the parts for these chairs.”
In addition to replacement parts being in short supply, the way the seats are arranged is no longer up to building code as outlined by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
To meet building codes, theater aisles can be no longer than 20 chairs, Hull said. Currently, the rows in the Austad Auditorium run about 70 seats a row making the auditorium in gross violation of that code. In an emergency, the current long rows would make it difficult for patrons to evacuate the auditorium.
The proposed facelift would create aisles in the Austad, splitting the main level into nine sections and the balcony into five sections. That would decrease the number of seats by several hundred but add wheelchair-accessible seating. Peeling plaster and paint in both theater spaces would also be fixed in the $1.5 million project.
Browning Center officials are looking for funding from three main sources: a “Give a Seat” campaign where individuals can donate $1,000 and have their name engraved on an armrest plaque, the Weber County Recreation, Arts, Museums and Parks (RAMP) tax advisory board and the Utah State Legislature, which is currently in session.
While the project will leave the theater with about 300 fewer seats, Director Frank Bradshaw said he doesn’t think it will have a significant impact on the Browning Center’s bottom line.
“Research has shown that with more comfortable seats, promoters can get a little more money for each seat,” Bradshaw said. “A lot of the events we have, only the downstairs is filled. We don’t open the upstairs, so we don’t think it will have a dramatic effect on us.”
Hull agreed, noting that many groups that sell out shows at the Austad Auditorium have been willing to work with staff by adding performances.
“We’ll still be the largest performing arts venue in Northern Utah with our three spaces and our recital halls, so that won’t change, but we’ll just be able to fit a few less people,” Hull said.
Sharon Macfarlane, executive director for the Ogden Symphony Ballet Association, said her group has been coming to the Browning Center since it opened 50 years ago. Without the Browning Center, the symphony and ballet couldn’t produce shows in Ogden, she said.
“We’re always selling the fact that these are things that you can’t see everywhere and a city our size doesn’t always have these amenities,” Macfarlane said. “If we didn’t have the auditorium such as it is with the light and the sound and all that, these big groups like the Utah Symphony wouldn’t come.”
Macfarlane said she isn’t worried about having fewer seats in the Browning Center. She thinks the added comfort and ease of access will make up for any other inconvenience.
“I think it’s going to be a perception more than a real problem, because the people are still going to get a good seat,” Macfarlane said. “You can see from everywhere in that auditorium, and that’s not going to change.”
Hull said he thinks it’s important to support the arts, specifically the Browning Center, because the arts provide an opportunity to make memories in a way nothing else does.
“One of the amazing things that I noticed from the 50th anniversary is how many people we had who attended the event and said ‘I haven’t been up here in years to see a show. This brought back so many memories,’” Hull said. “The performing arts are so crucial to human development and functioning as a human being. They’re what create emotions and make us think.”