“Why would anyone ever willingly come to Utah?”: Surprise Guests in the Beehive State

In November, I will be hosting a digital reader’s advisory guide and Q&A with the Salt Lake City Public Library about films shot in Utah. Even though it is more than six months away, I have been so excited that I’ve started casually researching the topic.

When I returned to Salt Lake City at age 15, after spending over 10 years of my life in Las Vegas and Southern California, I couldn’t fully understand why someone would come here that didn’t already have roots in the state. While Utah is an untapped gem to anyone who thinks the entire state is one giant polygamist compounds, we have world-class outdoor recreation sites, ski resorts in our beautiful mountains, and one of the most influential film festivals in the world of independent cinema. Tourists come in droves every year for the slopes and for Sundance, but our state was hosting some famous faces well before the inaugural festival in 1978.

During my research, I picked up the book Andy Warhol Slept Here? by Will South. Published in 1988, this book shares 25 stories about artists, authors, activists, and other icons who have passed through our state borders. Personal points of interest include:

  • In 1911, while touring the vaudeville circuit, then-unknowns Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx saw their paths intersect in Salt Lake City. After their shows at the Empress Theater and Orpheum Theater, the two met up and spent the evening at a brothel, along with the other Marx brothers. Groucho recalls that Chaplin was not interested in any of the women that were available to him and spent the evening “lying on the floor, playing with the madam’s English bulldog.”
  • During World War II, soon after relocating to the United States, Vladimir Nabokov came to visit the Alta Lodge in the Wasatch Mountains, owned by his publisher at the time. He would walk around for 12-18 miles every day during his trip to collect butterflies. Nabokov himself discovered and named several species of butterflies, with several more discovered by other lepidopterists named in his honor after him and his characters.
  • In 1947, after the short financial returns for Citizen Kane and successoral projects, Orson Welles staged a production of Macbeth at Kingsbury Hall on the University of Utah campus, in which he played the title role.  The next year, Welles would release a film adaptation of the play shot in just 21 days on a $300,000 budget.
  • I am personally 60% sure that John F. Kennedy and Emma Ray Riggs (wife of LDS prophet David O. McKay) had sex during his visit to Utah in 1964. After being greeted at the airport by several thousand people and giving a widely attended speech inside the Tabernacle, Riggs hosted JFK for breakfast. The two had met before on the campaign trail in 1960, where Kennedy vowed, “win or lose, I will be back to see Mrs. McKay.” Get it, girl.
  • Also in 1964, a 21 year old Bobby Fischer traveled to Ogden, where anyone willing to pay $4 could compete against him in one of 63 games being played simultaneously. Of those 63 competitors, two ended their game in a draw, while only one competitor (a 43-year-old former member of the Harvard chess team) was able to defeat him.

In the book’s forward, local playwright Aden Ross writes, “Unfortunaely, in the minds of some people, Utah has the same reputation culturally that the Great Plains have topographically — a place to cross as rapidly as possible, or to avoid altogether. For those of us who linger here, however short a time, the cultural landscape assumes a different shape, usually comprised of subtle, gem-like moments.” While the book appears to be out of print, if you are an SLCPL you can dig up your own little gem-like moments by checking out the book here.

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Hey there, I'm Ellen. 23-year-old film & gender studies student. Art house valley girl. A full-on Monet. I wish Sofia Coppola directed my life.

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