Performing arts venues, suffering under pandemic shutdown, struggle to move forward

There is a joke among concert promoters that since they have nothing to do, the government should put them in charge of distributing the COVID-19 vaccine. “Everyone would get a wristband and head into a post-vaccination VIP meet-and-greet for a picture with Dr. Fauci,” said John Sanders of DSP Shows.

It’s a bit of dark humor. Sanders said he knows that vaccines, Dr. Anthony Fauci and the end of the COVID pandemic are the only thing that’s going to allow state and local governments to reopen venues across New York state and New England where he does business — places like The Academy of Music and Pines Theater in Northampton or Springfield Symphony Hall. Otherwise, he’s left organizing a few online performances from Daryl’s House — a club owned by Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates — in Pawling, New York.

“There is some hope, and some light at the end of the tunnel,” Sanders said.

Not every theater or performance space sees a path back to normal.

Last weekend, the nonprofit Bing Arts Center in Springfield announced that it wouldn’t reopen and that it had put the 71-year-old former movie theater up for sale at an asking price of $175,000.

In November, Flywheel in Easthampton announced it could no longer afford to rent space in Easthampton’s old town hall building.

And in a high profile move, the owners of Gateway City Arts in Holyoke, Vitek Kruta and Lori Divine, announced in December that they cannot foresee reopening due to the financial pressures . They said Gateway —- home to a concert hall, theater, art gallery, co-working offices, artists workshops — is for sale, hopefully, to an operator or operators who will continue to run it like it was.

‘I don’t know that we’ve lost Gateway City Arts yet,” Sanders said “We are still having conversations.”

Divine acknowledged the conversations and expressed hopes that new ownership would be in place by spring.

“I’d love to keep it in the family, as-it-were,” she said, referencing the creative arts community.

There is an expectation that by November the industry might be kind-of, sort-of back to normal. But Sanders and others don’t know how many venues, performers and and how many industry professionals like themselves will survive long enough to rebuild the entertainment scene.

Asking industry professionals when they expect to reopen generates answers from months to a year to a shrug acknowledging their uncertainty.

Jim Neill, marketing director for Iron Horse Entertainment Group, owned by Eric Suher, said that when the Iron Horse in Northampton shut down in March, the initial feeling was the business would be closed for only a month or two.

“The wide window we are working with now could be anywhere from this summer to early 2022 depending on how efficiently the vaccine rollout goes,” Neill said. “We mothballed the venues and we will reopen when the world is back on its axis. I suspect it will be with safeguards in place for a while.”

Neill said concert goers shouldn’t expect their favorite performers or venues to come back quickly, either.

“We can’t just throw the switch,” Neill said. “Most of our concert schedule is the result of an elaborate national booking and touring ecosystem. Northampton is just one date on an artist’s tour. Add in each state and city’s unique COVID regulations, which we’ve seen can change very quickly, and it becomes clear that this will be a complicated and gradual endeavor regardless of when there’s any kind of green light. While the live business hit a wall all at once, it will resume gradually.”

Other theater operators are trying.

“I’ve got performers calling me now,” said Danny Eaton, founder and producing director of The Majestic Theater in West Springfield.

Right now, the Majestic’s plan is to reopen in June. And Eaton said it will do so right where the theater left off in March 2020, with performances of “The Pitch” a play by Stan Freeman, a former reporter at The Republican.

The Majestic’s been holding on by keeping its expenses very low, said Eaton, adding that he even furloughed himself.

” Luckily, we were in a fairly good financial situation when we had to close,” he said.

The Majestic is waiting for a new federal Small Business Administration Shuttered Venues Operators Grant program to roll out.

It already received a $150,000 SBA loan and $116,000 in PPP, or paycheck protection plan, money reporting to the government that the theater represented 40 jobs.

Statewide, 67 smaller theater organizations received loans of less than $150,000 each, for a total of about $2.5 million, according to records kept by the SBA.

Some Massachusetts venues received PPP loans of $150,000 or more including Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company and the Wang Center for the Performing Arts, which each received loans of $1million to $2 million.

Berkshire County theater companies — the Barrington Stage Company, the Berkshire Theatre Group and the Williamstown Theatre Foundation — each received loans between $150,000 to $350,000.

Suhr’s Iron Horse made use of PPP, according to the SBA filings:

  • Iron Horse Ventures: $150,000 to $350,000; jobs retained listed as 23.
  • 26-28 CENTER STREET, LLC: $26,300 (this address is associated w/ his bar “The Green Room,” few doors over from the Iron Horse); jobs reported as 6.
  • Calvin Theater Corp: $7,925.00; jobs reported as 13.
  • Pearl Street Nightclub Inc.: $4,852.00; jobs reported as 19.
  • 21-23 Center Street LLC : $7,066 for a space contains a small bar “The Basement,” which has dance nights and sometimes bands; jobs reported as 4.
  • Besides finances, Eaton said his focus is on keeping in touch with the Majestic’s base of subscribers and frequent ticket buyers.
  • “There is just going to be a stampede,” Eaton said. “My sense is that with talking to people, that they are just so ready to get back to normal.”
  • In Greenfield, Hawks and Reed notified patrons on Sunday night that it intends to reopen when the pandemic ends. It announced plans for several livestream events and set up a Paypal link for donations.
  • The pandemic has also slowed efforts to revive Springfield’s CityStage, a performance space that’s been unused since 2018.
  • Focus Springfield rents some of the CityStage space for its community television operations, but not the 479-seat main theater, said Thomas D. Moore, the interim executive director of the Springfield Parking Authority which owns the CityStage space and attached parking garage.
  • “The Focus proposal was for leasing and upgrading/improving the Black Box theater, the first level of office space, and large room adjacent to the Black Box Theater,” Moore said.
  • Following a request for proposal process last year, the authority also received a proposal for leasing and upgrading and improving the main theater and lobby space from the owners of the Le Souk restaurant.
  • “At this stage, the SPA has procured a designer for the planned capital improvement work, and is currently working with both groups and their respective design teams towards executing leases and moving forward with the anticipated system upgrades,” Moore said. “Unfortunately, the impact of COVID-19 has slowed the pace of the two projects, however, we continue to make progress and fully expect to have the work completed in 2021.”
  • MGM Springfield, which has agreed as part of its license to manage and bring shows to Symphony Hall and nearby MassMutual Center, said it is not yet focused on shows.
  • “MGM is an entertainment company and we will always be exploring new opportunities to bring our guests exceptional experiences,” executives stated in an email. “But in these uncertain times, our focus remains on maintaining our stringent health and safety protocols to help slow the rise of COVID-19 cases in the city and state so that state mandated restrictions can be eased.”
  • What worries Sanders is what will become of the next cohort of up-and-coming music professionals. Tour promoters and other workers who are still establishing their careers are leaving the industry.
  • “If you are in a position to ride it out, you will,” Sanders said. “But for someone just getting a career going, you have to take other opportunities. It’s hard to come back after a year away.”