Saving the stages: Music halls, theaters join effort for federal aid | A&E

Laveta Brigham

After five months of hosting live outdoor drive-in concerts, Tupelo Music Hall will return to indoor shows at the end of the month. But other venues, like the iconic Casino Ballroom at Hampton Beach, remain closed. The lineup at Tupelo in Derry so far includes a dueling piano show on […]

After five months of hosting live outdoor drive-in concerts, Tupelo Music Hall will return to indoor shows at the end of the month.

But other venues, like the iconic Casino Ballroom at Hampton Beach, remain closed.

The lineup at Tupelo in Derry so far includes a dueling piano show on Nov. 21 and Gary Hoey’s Christmas show on Dec. 4, 5 and 6. More shows are scheduled in the new year.

Tables for groups of four will be spaced 13 feet apart on the floor, and the ticket system includes a new algorithm to space out concert goers in the mezzanine depending on the group size. Capacity will be around 130 out of 700 seats — which is less than what the state allows as part of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

“I want to make sure everyone is comfortable,” said owner Scott Hayward. “Our plan is to seat less people and have more shows. If we can fill the shows then we can get through the winter.”

The announcement about the return of Tupelo’s indoor return comes as the newly-formed National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) pushes Congress to pass the latest coronavirus relief package — which includes $10 billion for independent live entertainment venues — in a campaign called “Save our Stages.” The revised bill that included the Save our Stages Act passed the House on Thursday.

U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-NH, co-sponsored the bill, which would provide six months of financial support.

“In addition to providing general enjoyment to the public, these venues also play a meaningful role in the economic wellbeing of communities in New Hampshire and across the country,” she said in a statement.

Independent venues are seen as critical to local entertainment scenes and artists who are trying to make a name for themselves.

The Casino Ballroom, which opened in 1899, and can hold up to 2,200 people, hasn’t had any shows this year. Nothing is scheduled in the near future, said Andrew Herrick, director of marketing. The venue has hosted everyone from Louis Armstrong, The Beach Boys to U2.

“The typical national touring acts still cannot tour state to state so it has much more to do with that and, obviously, limiting capacity and still achieving economics for those touring acts,” he said.

The association estimates up to 90% of its nearly 2,000 members could shutter. Previous Paycheck Protection Program loans and other programs haven’t applied to such venues and community theaters, according to the group.

Tupelo Music Hall along with 17 other New Hampshire venues are members of the association.

On a nationwide level, venues are holding on to hope the bill will pass for a much needed lifeline, Hayward said.

“Even though we had a real successful summer, we are the exception to the rule,” he said. “Most venues are running out of money, they are not paying their rent and they are about to get kicked out of their buildings.”

Taking a hitThe Palace Theatre in Manchester reopened in July with safety measures in place, including limiting the number of seats to about 200 of the 860.

The Palace has put on about 75 shows, including the annual Children’s Summer Series and smaller scale shows, like “Nunsense,” which sold about 9,000 tickets.

“We haven’t had one negative report yet,” said Peter Ramsey, president and CEO. “People are happy to be back.”

The nonprofit theater is able to cling on with reserve funds, but Ramsey sympathizes with private venue owners.

“It is going to be a tough future ahead for everybody in the business,” he said.

Tupelo Music Hall did twice as many shows since May 16 as a typical summer, but brought in about a third of the income, Hayward said.

“I am not complaining because we are in business, paying our bills and people are working,” he said.

All 38 employees were able to return.

One of the state regulations includes sitting people 25 feet away from artists, which is impossible for many of the smallest venues across the state.

Last week, Rory Scott Thurston, who leads the Rory Scott Trio, urged the governor’s economic reopening task force to allow musicians to perform in restaurants. While the Laconia man has performed in outdoor settings, those days are numbered as winter draws near.

“Why can’t solos, duos and trios go inside and do it safely inside a venue?” he asked. Restaurants have been allowed to offer karaoke.

D.J. Bettencourt, policy director for Gov. Chris Sununu, said the topic is being discussed with health officials.

Economic and cultural impactTupelo Music Hall alone brings in 80,000 people from out of town every year, according to Hayward.

“Those people are buying gas in Derry. They are eating in Derry. They are shopping and doing stuff in town while they are here,” he said. “For every $1 that people spend for a ticket another $12 goes into the community.”

He worries about more than just venues closing.

“We are talking about downtown areas suffering greatly because you are not going to have those people coming into town,” Hayward said.

The Palace Theatre is able to open with support of 150 business partners, including 20 restaurants, Ramsey said.

“We want people to go back out and shop and experience local businesses, and if we can do that we are proud to do it,” he said.

The theater teamed up with the city to reopen the Rex Theatre last year. The theater has flexible seating on the floor to adjust to social distancing.

“It is pretty slow,” Ramsey said.

The theater will host comedians on Friday nights starting next week, in which the organization will split ticket sales with the performers. Some bands are also booked.

Booking actsEven with venues open across the state, many are struggling to book acts, especially with national tour routing halted. Many bands end up in New Hampshire before or after playing in New York or Boston.

“If you can get a band to perform and can advertise it and run it, then you still have to convince people to come,” Ramsey said. “We are only selling 20% of our capacity, so I can’t afford to pay a band $30,000 and make $5,000.”

Jim Roach, owner of JJR Entertainment, represents bands and comedians, including Recycled Percussion.

“There are some artists who don’t want to come out just yet. They don’t feel safe going into theaters or even drive-in or outdoor shows,” he said.

Bob Marley, a comedian from Maine, has been doing shows since July — including at the Palace Theatre.

“Opening at reduced capacity is not going to pay the bills for anybody,” Roach said. “(Marley) says we are working three times as hard for one-third of the money.”

Bands like the Beatles, The Who and Rolling Stones all started out playing little clubs, Hayward said.

“We might be promoting new artists that might play at Meadowbrook (now Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion),” he said. The pavilion is a 9,000-seat amphitheater in Gilford.

“Independent venues are important because we are not just interested in booking the artists who are guaranteed to sell tickets,” Hayward said. “Independent venues are the ones taking the real risk of booking unknown artists so they can gain an audience.”

Venues work for months, if not years, in advance on bookings, Joe Clifford, executive director of Lebanon Opera House, said in a statement. The Save our Stages money is needed to get through the pandemic, he said.

“We simply cannot afford to cease the planning, booking, selling, and marketing of arts events — the very events that determine our livelihoods and allow us to deliver on our mission,” he said.

Uncertainty aheadRamsey, of the Palace Theatre, is worried about the state’s nine landmark theaters, which have been mainstays for decades, if not a century.

“We are simply not going to make any money until this is over, which I hate to say is going to be at least until next fall — a year from now,” he said. However, “We’re going to survive,” he added.

The Palace is offering free tickets for people to see The British Rock Experience from Oct. 23 to Nov. 14 in an effort to reassure patrons the venue is making safety a priority. Tickets can be reserved online and by calling the box office.

NIVA predicts it will take months — if not years — for venues to recover.

“Even if we get a vaccine, it is still going to take a while,” Ramsey said.

Some venues, like The Press Room in Portsmouth remain closed. The Press Room, which can hold between 85 and 150 people, has been a mainstay for live music for 40 years.

“While we’re looking for the first possible sign to jump right back into live shows here at The Press Room, we want to make sure we proceed responsibly,” a note on its website reads. “In absence of any solid answers to the schedule at this point, we will be in a holding pattern on all upcoming shows until further notice.”

The costs for venues to operate continue to pile up while many remain closed or not attracting enough people to break even, said Hayward, of Tupelo Music Hall.

“It is a very real possibility that we don’t sell tickets or as many as we need,” he said of the venue’s indoor shows.

Many venues are losing $40,000 to $50,000 a month, he said.

“Even the best venues that have saved for a rainy day and have done everything right aren’t sitting on $2 million in cash that they’ll need to make it to next fall,” he said.

Throughout the winter, Tupelo hopes to book three or four shows a week with a focus on safety.

“We want people to be comfortable, so they will come back,” Hayward said. “That is going to be the key to this.”

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