Kimi and I were motoring from Salt Lake City towards the Nevada line a year ago when just after catching our first glimpse of the Great Salt Lake I yelled, “Quick, get the camera!”
What prompted the sudden outburst was a Moorish-styled building on the lakefront. What I was experiencing was cinematic déjà vu, because I had only seen the building previously through the magic of film.
Herk Harvey, a man who made industrial films in Lawrence, Kansas, once saw the same building while on a vacation he took to Utah and returned there in 1962 to make the no-budget, nearly-great horror film, Carnival of Souls.
Carnival of Souls tells the story of Mary, a talented organist (“capable of stirring the soul”) who rides in a car that plunges into a river. The car isn’t found, but somehow Mary emerges from the water a few hours later unhurt with no memory of the accident.
She later moves to Utah to work as an organist for a church, but is pursued by a strange pasty-faced man from the moment she first glimpses the same Moorish building off on the horizon. While Carnival of Souls is no Citizen Kane, it gets great mileage out of its $30,000 budget.
The building in question was once a resort named Saltair Pavilion, which was built by wealthy Latter Day Saints as a resort and amusement park for vacationing Mormons.
Saltair was built in 1893 over the Great Salt Lake atop of two-thousand pylons and was for a time America’s most popular family destination west of New York.
The first Saltair Pavilion was destroyed by fire in 1925, which some Mormons believed to be divine retribution against the owners for committing the sin of selling coffee and tea.
The resort was rebuilt, but the lake receded, leaving the resort far from the shore. By the time Harvey arrived, he found the building abandoned and used the empty dance pavilion to shoot the climax of the film. It was here where Carnival’s star, Candace Hilligoss, is attacked by waltzing ghouls.
We were saddened to learn that the building we drove by that day was not the same one seen in the film. That’s because the Saltair Pavilion that Harvey used was destroyed by arson in the 1970s and was rebuilt in the early 80s in the same style about a mile from the original pavilion. Today, it’s used as a venue for concerts.
The pavilion has appeared in other places. There was a ho-hum remake of the film in 1998, and around the same time KISS made a largely-forgotten album called Carnival of Souls. There is also a bootleg Beach Boys album that features the pavilion on the cover.