Mormon History

Mormon Dance Halls - 1870

Saltair: Salt water and song mix for entertaining history

By Tom Wharton
The Salt Lake Tribune


Fires and floods have wreaked much change over the years on the Moorish-inspired landmark along the Great Salt Lake known as Saltair. But one thing has remained constant.

    From the huge dance halls of the original Saltair in the late 1800s to the mosh pits inside the converted airplane hangar that now operates as The Great Saltair, music has played an important part in the history of this enduring destination.

    Wasatch Front residents began looking west to the Great Salt Lake for recreation and respite three days after the Mormon pioneers came to Utah in July 1847. It was then, according to an account by authors Nancy and John McCormick, that Brigham Young himself tested the salt water for buoyancy.

    Ever since Mormon pioneer Heber C. Kimball in 1860 built a ranch house near Black Rock, off what is now Interstate 80, the fickle nature of the salty lake has been a boon and a hindrance to dance halls.

    According to the McCormicks, there once were many such halls along the lake, including Lake Side built by Brigham Young's son John in 1870, with its three-decked, stern-wheeling steamboat offering moonlight excursions, dinner and dancing.

    The railroad served Garfield Beach in 1881. Lake Park Resort opened in 1886, eventually relocating east to Farmington and becoming what is now Lagoon.

    Saltair, built by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1893 over water on a platform supported by massive native pine pilings, became legendary.

    The church, according to the McCormicks, built Saltair to provide a wholesome place of recreation, especially for families and young people. Saltair's huge dance hall, thrilling Giant Racer roller coaster and bathhouses drew thousands.

    Today, rock concerts are the draw. But, as The Great Saltair house manager Ernie Sanchez noted, the venue still caters to all ages, a rarity among smaller clubs.

    "On the main floor, kids of all ages have access," he said. "On the second floor, it's 21 years of age and up. There are not many venues in Salt Lake like that. . . . I've seen families come with moms, dads, daughters and sons. Kids as young as 5 or 6 come with their parents. I like that. Or parents will drop off their kids and say we have a safe environment. We have paramedics, sheriffs and a staff of our own security that maintains everything."

    That Saltair remains a venue is nothing short of amazing considering the original resort, which played host to big bands led by the likes of Xavier Cugat, Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller and later stars including Bill Haley and the Comets, experienced several fires, most notably a blaze in 1970 that destroyed it.

    Saltair's newest incarnation opened in 1981 with shops, a giant water slide, space coaster and bumper cars as well as dancing. It was constructed from an old Hill Air Force Base hangar, which was taken apart in Ogden and reassembled with the Moorish spires that gave the original building, about a mile to the north, its unusual look.

    It didn't stay open long, however, as the lake rose in 1984 and covered the building's dance floor with 5 inches of water. New owners tried again in 1993, and it became a popular site for concerts.

    "The opening year of the Warped Tour played there in 1993," said Jimmy Smith, who worked to promote concerts at Saltair from 1993 to 1998.

    Spiders and the occasional bad summer lake smell, as well as a stabbing incident among fans at a Slayer concert, gave the place a mixed reputation, said Smith.

    The challenges kept coming, and by the end of 2004, Saltair was all but abandoned.

    Now, Phoenix property developer and concert promoter Tom LaPenna of Lucky Man Productions is part of a group that owns Saltair. And the venue has been re-established as a popular concert hall.

    Smith said he likes the current venue because the upstairs balcony gives everyone a chance to see.

   Kevin Kirk, owner of The Heavy Metal Shop in Salt Lake City, has seen performers including Alice Cooper, the Ramones, Anthrax, Rob Zombie, Slayer and Pantera perform at Saltair. Like most heavy-metal fans, he views the lack of seats at Saltair as a plus.

    "I usually get as close as I can," he said. "You can do that there."

    Sanchez agreed.

    "We don't have seating," said the house manager. "It's a general admission kind of thing. People can get closer to the stage than they can at the E Center or EnergySolutions Arena. You are right there, experiencing the group a lot better."

    Those who venture outside between acts to view a summer sunset over the lake or get a breath of air (fresh or otherwise) might be inspired by the words of author Gordon Nelson, who once wrote of Saltair:

    "On moonless nights a few bright stars would melt their way through the back skydome followed by a crescendo of smaller ones until the whole sky became luminous with stars that seemed to grow steadily brighter. A soft light descended like an iridescent mist and transformed the Moorish domes of the pavilion into magic creations of Arabian Nights stories. Perhaps the magic was imagined, but the enchantment was real."