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On With the Show: Performing Arts Venues Hope for Returning Crowds as Pandemic Eases

Four Day Weekend started having live shows in mid-May.EXPAND
Four Day Weekend started having live shows in mid-May.
Mike Brooks
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The Four Day Weekend comedy theater opened in 2018 in Lowest Greenville but hasn't had a traditional show on its stage in 14 months. The first time the suit-clad improvisers had anything close to a live audience since then happened only a week ago, with a half-capacity crowd of 80 people in a space that regularly sells out 160 seats.

"Aesthetically, it's great," says David Wilk, one of the theater's co-founding members and main stage performers. "Financially, we'd have to do two shows instead of one."

The COVID-19 pandemic forced live venues of all sizes and kinds to close their doors to audiences beginning in late March 2020. Like Four Day Weekend and Dallas Opera, some places served their audiences in a virtual space or outdoors. Other landmark entertainment spaces, such as the Dallas Comedy House and the long-running Lizard Lounge nightclub, recently closed their doors for good because the owners felt the cost of operating without paying crowds was just too much to bear.

The nonprofit Deep Ellum Foundation says that the Dallas neighborhood alone saw just under 40 percent of its venues closed in the last year and two months.

"For our situation, the pandemic looked like it was gonna be at least 10 months, 12 months or maybe longer, and the cost to sit on the building was pretty high," says the Lizard Lounge's former owner Don Nedler. "Westdale [the Deep Ellum real estate investment group that owned the Lounge's former space] wouldn't negotiate on the rent, and at the end of the day, we just decided to walk away."

The financial losses overall were staggering. A survey conducted by The Arts Community Alliance (TACA), the Dallas Arts District and the Dallas Area Cultural Advocacy Coalition (DACAC) between March and November last year found 91 North Texas arts and entertainment venues reported losses of approximately $95.5 million because of disappearing audiences.

“We were looking at a position where we’d be taking a $300,000 loss, and then we’d have to work a year to make it back,” Nedler says. “So for two years, we don’t really earn any money.”

Spaces are just starting to see the crowds come back after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidelines to allow fully vaccinated people to “resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing except where required” by local or federal regulations, according to the CDC’s COVID-19 guide.

David Wilk, a co-founding member of Four Day Weekend, says they are still at half capacity for audience.EXPAND
David Wilk, a co-founding member of Four Day Weekend, says they are still at half capacity for audience.
Mike Brooks

“It’s really exciting that a lot of our music venues in part are starting to get back open and operating,” says Stephanie Keller Hudiburg, executive director of the Deep Ellum Foundation. “In Deep Ellum overall, we’re seeing a lot of activity. I would even describe it as a pent-up demand in terms of COVID, and we’re seeing even more people than we were in 2019.”

Part of the resurgence is thanks to increased accessibility to the vaccine following an underwhelming rollout from the federal to the local level in the latter half of 2020. The first phase of the rollout didn’t start until December 2020 when front-line health care workers and long-term care facility residents got the first chance to be vaccinated, but even prioritized distribution seemed to favor different communities. Dallas County’s director of health and human services, Dr. Philip Huang, told the Dallas County Commissioners Court in early January that just 3% of the county’s population had received doses. Maps organized by the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) tracking the location of administered doses showed noticeable gaps in coverage for poorer neighborhoods throughout the southeastern portion of the county.

The numbers have improved significantly over the last five months. The Texas Departments of Health and Human Services reports that just over half of Dallas County’s population has been inoculated with some form of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The Disco Ball show at Reunion Tower May 21 and 22.EXPAND
The Disco Ball show at Reunion Tower May 21 and 22.
Karlo X. Ramos

“I think the industry was already kind of moving forward,” says Josh Smith, the co-founder of the Dallas-based concert event organizer Banjos to Beats, which this month resumed business with The Disco Ball show at Reunion Tower and a live performance by the jam band Big Head Todd and the Monsters at the Arlington Backyard. “I think a lot of it has to do with individuals who got vaccinated and started realizing, ‘Hey, I’ve done my part’ and it kind of dawned on us piece by piece as the bands get vaccinated and get back on the road. There’s definitely an upturn in the number of bookings, and we’re starting to talk about festivals ... in the last six weeks.

“The tone kind of switched from going through the motions and booking shows we hoped were going to play to booking shows that we’re confident are gonna play.”

Jeff Vance, a partner at the Pocket Sandwich Theatre on Mockingbird Lane, says safety measures helped bring audiences and performers back to its stage. The historic theater space is still operating at a third of its normal capacity but, Vance points out, he's noticed people are beginning to again be attracted to spaced and covered areas for live entertainment.

“The prohibitive factor is how many people are coming and even if we could open up more, I don’t know if we could sell them,” Vance says. “We’ve read on Yelp and other online comments that people are coming out because of the precautions we’re taking. If we expanded seats too rapidly, people wouldn’t want to come.”

Movie theaters took huge hits to their bottom lines over the last year and not just because of audiences’ fears of huddling together in an indoor space. Bill DiGaetano, the owner of the Alamo Drafthouse Dallas-Fort Worth chain, says the movie industry’s move to a dual video-on-demand and theatrical release while people were stuck at home severely limited the theaters' options for screenings, forcing them to close locations after a short reopening last October.

Now, Drafthouse is planning for a grand reopening of all six of its theaters across Dallas-Fort Worth sometime in mid-July.

“We get notifications, and we kind of see the schedules as it stands and it looks pretty good,” DiGaetano says. “We’re not seeing movies move like we did three months ago. We’d get dates and three weeks prior, studios would move them. It feels like we’re going to have a pretty robust release schedule pretty much from July through the end of the year.”

An even more encouraging sign for entertainment venues is the post-pandemic comebacks of several local places. The Dallas Comedy House’s Elm Street location, the third in its 11-year history, is being revitalized with the Dallas Comedy Club, a new sketch and improv comedy venue fronted by the space’s new owners Ian and Rosie Caruth.

Ian says plans to replace the club have been in the works since just after former owner Amanda Austin announced DCH’s sudden closure last August, but they held off on announcing until they were sure that safety factors allowed some regular steps toward improvement.

“Up until a month ago, we were looking at the disease numbers in other countries and the vaccination numbers in the U.S. and thinking ‘Is this crazy?’” he says. “Then we got to a place where we’re vaccinated and people we know are super excited about it. It gives us a feeling of freedom to me.”

Don Nedler owns It'll Do nightclub and had to close down Lizard Lounge during the pandemic.EXPAND
Don Nedler owns It'll Do nightclub and had to close down Lizard Lounge during the pandemic.
Mike Brooks

Nedler’s Lizard Lounge may be gone, but he’s moved on to his nightclub venture It’ll Do, which has been able to weather the pandemic better and find a landlord willing to work with him through tough times. Even if the Lizard Lounge had survived the pandemic, Nedler says the city’s subway project made their venue a prime target for a station and could’ve been closed anyway.

“We felt like we were on borrowed time after 28 years,” Nedler says. “That’s part of why we acquired It’ll Do.”

Much like those at other music venues, Nedler says It’ll Do survived in part because of its redesignation with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission as a restaurant, allowing it to open in October with limited capacity. The food service will stay even after things get back to normal.

“Inevitably, if you put 500 people through the door, they’re gonna get hungry,” Nedler says. “If you put a couple of beers in them, they’re gonna need food.”

Ian Derrer, the Kern Wildenthal general director and chief executive officer of the Dallas Opera, says the pandemic forced the group to rethink how to deliver its multifaceted, complex performances to the public. The institution pivoted to outdoor performances, which are starting to move indoors, like their recent Operapops! showcase that was relocated to the Winspear Opera House and even led to the innovative concept of the Opera Truck, a moving stage hauled by an 18-wheeler to areas of North Texas that traditionally don’t have access to high-quality opera.

The crowds are back and dancing at It'll Do in East Dallas.EXPAND
The crowds are back and dancing at It'll Do in East Dallas.
Mike Brooks

The Dallas Opera even found new audiences on its digital network at DallasOpera.TV, which will continue to operate even after audiences return to the theater.

“It’s given us as a company a digital stage,” Derrer says. “This was the result of the whole world being forced to communicate in different ways very, very quickly. A lot of opera companies had their toe in the digital realm. The pandemic and that universal sea shift of getting everybody 10 steps forward in the land of technology pushed us into that digital realm, and I think we’re excited to take advantage of that.”

Even a show like Four Day that thrives on a live, interactive audience carved out a digital space for itself, mostly for its corporate partners but also its improv and sketch training classes and core comedy audience.

“We took the Dallas theater and converted it into a three-camera studio,” Wilk says. “We were doing virtual events every week, and we got really good at it. It paid the bills, but it didn’t soothe the soul as a performer. But if improv teaches you anything, it’s how to be adaptable.”

The only thing a digital space can’t replicate is the feeling of a live audience, and Wilk says he and other Dallas arts and entertainment venues are ready to experience them again, even if a wall of plexiglass and masks still has to be between them.

“It’s nice to have that wall of laughter hit you,” Wilk says. “It’s so great. I’ve missed this.”

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