“I was awestruck,” wrote Orval Hafen, upon first seeing the area that is now home to the Tuacahn Center for the Arts. He and his wife, Ruth, bought an eighty-acre parcel in the box canyon and built a cabin below the pristine red rocks. Describing the scene at the turn of the 20th century, he stated:
Orval Hafen’s vision came one step closer to reality in 1993 when Doug Stewart, noted playwright and St. George resident, stumbled upon the spot as he was searching for a location for an outdoor amphitheatre in the St. George area. “The stunning beauty and perfect surroundings stopped me in my tracks,” Stewart recalled. “I was brought to tears when I first stood there, and after taking it in for some time – envisioning an amphitheatre and a stage with an awesome backdrop of 1,500 foot red rock cliffs, and hearing the sounds of music echoing from the canyon walls – I literally flew back to town and straight to the county recorder’s office to see who the land belonged to.”
Through Stewart’s efforts, a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization was established to raise funds for construction of the Tuacahn Amphitheatre and Center for the Arts on the 80 acre parcel at the base of Padre Canyon. The plan was more than ambitious–a 42,000 square foot facility featuring a 330 seat indoor theater, a dance studio, a black-box theater, a recital hall, a costume shop and scene shop, studios and classrooms, and a gift shop, all of which were built to complement the jewel of Tuacahn – a 1920-seat outdoor amphitheatre, which was designed as the home of the original musical UTAH!. The grounds were landscaped to compliment the magnificence of the surrounding canyon. In the spring of 1995 the 23 million dollar facility was finally completed.
From the outset, Tuacahn pursued a dual mission of providing quality arts education coupled with inspiring entertainment. The Center of the Arts provided instruction in music, dance, and drama, while the musical UTAH! debuted in the summer of 1995, rightly labeled as “America’s Most Spectacular Outdoor Musical,” complete with pyrotechnics, live animals, a massive cast, and a live re-creation of a flash flood, with over 60,000 gallons of water pouring across the stage
UTAH! recounts the story of Jacob Hamblin, who was sent by renowned colonizer and Mormon leader Brigham Young to supervise the early settlements in Southern Utah. Jacob Hamblin made peace with the native Indian population, and to this day, his treaty with the local tribes stands as the single compact between white settlers and Native Americans that has never been broken. His story was reenacted for over 250,000 patrons over the course of three years.
In the summer of 1998 Tuacahn presented a new version of UTAH! with a completely new script and in the fall of that same year Tuacahn produced an entirely new show entitled How the West Was Won featuring the acclaimed American Folk Ballet Company.
In 1999, the Tuacahn Board felt that it needed to shift its strategy and pursue a new direction. “We’re proud of what we accomplished with UTAH!,” said Kevin Smith, Tuacahn’s Chief Operating Officer, “but after several years of one show, it was clear that people wanted to see something new.”.
Ironically, “something new” came in the form of two musicals that have been performed throughout the state for years. Instead of offering just one production for summer patrons, Tuacahn created their first “Summer Festival of Theatre,” which featured a double bill of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The shows were well received and the amphitheatre found itself in the enviable position of dealing with huge crowds and sold-out houses. Over 100,000 people from every state in the Union and twenty-five countries attended the festival’s 70 performances. “I know there were some concerns about doing familiar Broadway shows, because they’ve been performed so often, ” said Kevin Warnick, Tuacahn’s Managing Director. “However, we discovered that the Tuacahn Amphitheatre provides a unique setting for these Broadway favorites that cannot be duplicated anywhere else.”