Theaters and nightclubs are closed, but performers and impresarios look for ways to soldier on

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This spring and summer should have brought new plays and music, the Redwood City Fourth of July Parade, concerts and movie nights in Courthouse Square, the San Carlos Chickens’ Ball and Hometown Days, and a wealth of other cultural activities on the mid-Peninsula.

Instead, theaters and clubs went dark, and people got reacquainted with Netflix.

In mid-April, as this is being written, the usual nighttime bustle of Broadway in Redwood City and Laurel Street in San Carlos has disappeared. Music haunts like Angelicas Bistro and Savanna Jazz are shuttered. Likewise the Fox Theatre, the Dragon Theatre and Broadway by the Bay. The Fourth of July Parade and the Chickens’ Ball have been cancelled. Hometown Days has been switched to August.

If it’s not quite the day the music died, then it’s close.

Ernie Schmidt, general manager of the Fox Theatre on Broadway in downtown Redwood City, says the organization has already lost around $100,000 in bookings since the coronavirus shutdown order came in March. Up the street at the Dragon, co-directors Max Koknar and Alika Spencer-Koknar put the worst-case estimate at $300,000, assuming the theater doesn’t reopen until possibly September.

Among the hardest-hit are performing artists whose income has largely evaporated. Local folk singer Jim Stevens earns the bulk of his living playing for residents of elder-care facilities. In an average month, he books 25 performances. Except for one monthly session over Facetime, that has all gone away. For the foreseeable future, he’s relying on his position as a part-time musician at St. Charles Church in San Carlos, along with his wife’s salary from her job as a nurse scientist at Stanford Healthcare.

Palo Alto-based Wiley Rankin operates Jump for Joy Music, which provides musical education and entertainment, mainly to preschools. He has seen his income dip by two-thirds, with the remaining one-third coming from gigs via “Zoomcasts” and other online forums.

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Through that, however, Rankin senses opportunity. His performances over Zoom have reached more than 90 families each, leading him to a greater exploration of Internet-based production. That, in turn, has opened him to the potential for expanding his business beyond the Bay Area, and he hopes to re-establish his full income by mid-summer.

“Adversity,” he says, “is a good teacher.”

The combination of tough times and technology has brought together performers from throughout the Bay Area on a Facebook site called, “Quarantined Cabaret.” Founded by Saratoga actor Becky Owens, the members-only site has attracted more than 600 thespians, musicians and other creative people. It offers open-mic-style, livestreamed performances on Friday nights, as well as numerous songs, dramatic scenes and readings recorded by members. An especially poignant performance features South Bay actor Geoffrey Silk singing “MacArthur Park,” the oft-recorded 1968 song by Jimmy Webb that fuses feelings of love, loss and hope.

Tough Times

Owens says the Friday-night shows give participants and audience members “something to look forward to” during a time when every day seems to fade into the next. She notes that the performers, many of whom have played leading roles in local theater productions, “are really taking the time to practice. They’re still staying in touch with their craft. I think that’s really important, when it’s easy to just fall into being depressed or unmotivated when the thing that you love comes to a sudden stop, like it has.”

Many of the performances on the site, she says, have been family acts, including one from a friend and her children in Owens’s native New Hampshire. Of that, Owens says, “I think even beyond being able to give us a chance to practice, it gives us a chance to connect, even with the people in our own home, in a new way.”

In San Carlos, the 100-plus volunteers in the Chickens’ Ball had completed their dress rehearsal and were preparing for a March 13 opening night when the show was cancelled. Modeled after the event of the same name on 19th-century San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, the lavishly costumed, biennial program raises money for cultural education in the San Carlos public schools.

Even with the seven-night show called off – for the first time in its 80-year history, according to General Chair Mona Klein – the event still performed in the black. Sponsorships and advance ticket sales netted $16,000 for the school district, with many sponsors and ticket holders converting their investments into donations. The amount raised compares with $40,000 from the previous show, in 2018.

Klein says no decisions have been made about a possible future performance, noting that the ball’s steering committee currently “does not have a pathway. With shelter-in-place, we don’t know what the next few months will bring.”

Falling Back

Also in San Carlos, the directors of the city’s annual Hometown Days celebration are betting that life will be back to some version of normal by the end of August. Originally set for May 15 to 17, the three-day event, including its colorful parade along Laurel Street, has been rescheduled for August 28 to 30.

Board Chair Adrienne Werner notes that, early in its 40-year history, Hometown Days was held in the fall, so this year’s new dates represent at least a brief return to the past.

“We hope that moving the date will not impact our participation and the feel of our event,” Werner says. “With it being a week and a half after school starts and right before Labor Day, it will kind of be hopefully something fresh, something new, something for people to look forward to, and fill the start of the school year with a little bit of hope and community pride.”

In Redwood City, fans of floats, marching bands and silver-laden horses won’t be so lucky. Soon after the shelter-in-place order in March, the Peninsula Celebration Association cancelled its annual Fourth of July Parade. Chris Beth, Redwood City’s director of parks, recreation and community services, says that will also be the case for city-sponsored events during the two or three months.

“We want to be very conservative and cautious, and as we are following the (San Mateo County) health order, see what makes sense,” Beth says. “We can make assumptions, too, that we won’t have regular programming through the first part of the summer, and I would say that would be June and July. But nothing’s been formalized or announced yet. This is in discussion (among city officials throughout San Mateo County and the county health department), this is what we are thinking, and we’re really going to get our cues from the county health official.”

Even when entertainment venues reopen, the question remains: Will audiences return? What will an audience look like? Will social distancing still be required? Savanna Jazz in San Carlos holds just 50 patrons, squeezed into a tight space. The Dragon Theatre seats only a few dozen more. Alika Spencer-Koknar of the Dragon and Pascal Bokar Thiam, proprietor of Savanna Jazz, both worry that people will be reluctant to come back.

Afraid to Gather

“There’s a kind of a feeling that, until there’s a vaccine, people are going to be afraid to congregate and go back into a small theater,” Spencer-Koknar says. “And also, coming back, when we are allowed to congregate again, there will most likely be a lot of regulations, so we’re trying to keep all of those permutations in mind.”

Thiam observes that jazz audiences tend to be older, and thus more at risk to the virus than younger listeners. He’s concerned they might be wary about jamming into a small venue, even after some sort of all-clear is given.

For the present, like many small-business owners, Thiam is just hunkering down.

“Right now, it’s very difficult to make any kinds of plans,” he says, predicting Savanna might feel the effects of the virus for up to two years. In the meantime, he has income from music-teaching positions at the University of San Francisco and City College of San Francisco, and his wife, Vicki Lawlor, also a teacher, has her salary from the Redwood City public schools.

Even so, the club is closed, and bills are stacking up. It’s the same at the Dragon, where Max Koknar says the theater’s patrons and friends donated $12,000 in the last two weeks of March to cover rent. Koknar says the theater’s landlord, Premier Properties, has been both understanding and committed to helping keep the organization in business.

To stay afloat, he says he and Spencer-Koknar have been “throwing things at the wall to see what sticks.” That includes, among other offerings, online theater and playwriting classes, and readings of public-domain works (Edgar Allan Poe has been an audience favorite).

For Koknar, the issue is not just the Dragon’s continued existence, but also a mandate that he feels to help people through a troubled period.

“I think now is a time more than ever where people are stuck in their homes and are feeling isolated and lonely and looking for ways to make sense of what is happening in the world around them,” Koknar says. “And that’s what the arts are supposed to do. And we are a nonprofit organization. Dragon is a service organization. If we don’t have a way to serve, why do we get to survive this when – let’s be honest – there are so many organizations in the small, nonprofit arts sphere that are going to get hit by this and are likely not going to survive this?”

Audiences aren’t the only ones who need the arts. Actors and musicians don’t just perform to live; they live to perform. Lacking venues with viewers, that has become a problem. For the most part, performers – and promoters – have taken a stunning financial hit. And what the future brings, nobody knows. But with a bit of ingenuity and a liberal dash of technology, it appears that in a few corners, at least for now, the show may go on.

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