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Sun City West performing venue to be demolished

PHOENIX -- When it opened 33 years ago, the Sundome in Sun City West was the largest single-story performing-arts center in the country.

It cost $8.6 million to build and was designed primarily as a concert hall with 7,169 seats.

By 2005, the Sundome Center for the Performing Arts was a white elephant and was sold by Arizona State University to Maricopa County for just $10.

The county gave the Sundome back to ASU in 2007 and last year, a developer bought the 16-acre site for $2 million.

Now it's scheduled to be demolished by the end of this summer after workers salvage the seats and other memorabilia, according to The Arizona Republic (http://bit.ly/19V5aT0).

Fry's Food Stores, which will anchor a new shopping center on the site, plans to keep some parts of the theater the iron gates around the facade, the Sundome mosaic. The grocery store will replicate the arched architecture.

The store may display some of the Sundome's pictures of its most lustrous performers, which include comedians Bob Hope and Tim Conway and a range of singers from Rosemary Clooney to Bob Dylan.

"We're trying to make sure we incorporate as much as we can from the existing building so there is a remembrance," said Jon Flora, president of Fry's Food.

The venue opened in September 1980 and was designed by architects for the Del E. Webb Development Co. as a marketing tool to sell homes in Sun City West.

It's being demolished after decades of financial losses and repeated attempts to make it a viable performance space.

The combination of an inconvenient location, increasing competition and its struggle to reach younger consumers constantly kept the Sundome in the red.

Its sheer size was too large for a performing-arts center, said David Baile, president of the New York-based International Society for the Performing Arts, a group that represents theater managers, producers and artists around the world.

"That's a lot of seats to fill," Baile said. "In general, a lot of people build facilities with the idea that if you build it, they will come. But you have to look at your market."

In Sun City West, there were not enough retirees to keep the Sundome full on a regular basis. When managers tried to lure younger crowds who lived outside the age-restricted community, they turned off the local audiences, former managers said.

"They put on shows for younger people, but the younger people didn't seem to want to come in to a retirement community," said Don Tuffs, the Sundome's first manager.

The venue could handle individual performers such as Tony Bennett or Henry Mancini, but lacked a backstage area big enough for the sets of a major production, such as "Phantom of the Opera" or "Miss Saigon."

ASU officials grappled with those same problems in 1984, when the Webb company deeded the Sundome to the university.

The center immediately started draining ASU's public-events budget. Between the cost of booking acts, property taxes and electricity bills, the university had a Sundome-related deficit of $273,000 within two years. This piled up, despite a $200,000 annual payment that Del E. Webb made through 1988, just to cover losses.

In 1995, ASU asked the Sundome's affiliated association to try to raise $5 million for renovations, only to discover that anywhere from $14 million to $20 million would be needed to make the venue profitable.

The university tried to put it on the market over the years but could not find any suitable buyers. One bidder in 2004 offered $50,000. A recent appraisal had put the value of the land alone at more than $7 million.

Tuffs recently slipped into the abandoned shell of the theater and his heart ached.

Stripped long ago of its lights, sound system and portraits of former stars, the theater was dusty and clammy.

"It was disheartening to know it's coming down," Tuffs said.

Katy O'Grady, Sun City West's general-services officer, said many residents are glad to see the Sundome finally go.

"It's become an eyesore," she said. "People are eager to see something new, something that will be kept up."

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