Pandemic, 1 year later How the area entertainment industry is surviving

H.R. Cook is general manager of Dubuque’s Five Flags Center. PHOTO CREDIT: Jessica Reilly

Singer/songwriter Don McLean sang about the day the music died in his song, “American Pie.” March 2020 could be called the month the music died because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During 2020, area entertainment venues had to cancel many events, causing revenue losses, as well as staff and crew furloughs and layoffs. Some venues turned to virtual performances others closed down for several months.

We talked with local entertainment venues and groups about how the pandemic affected them and how they are moving forward in 2021.

Vaccines Bring Hope

With the release of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines in December 2020, vaccinations began throughout the country bringing a light to the end of the pandemic tunnel. Additional pharmaceutical companies are expected to release their COVID vaccines.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview with CNN on Feb. 17, that previous estimates had placed vaccine availability for the general public or nonessential workers younger than 65 with no health conditions closer to the end of April 2021.

Fauci revised his estimate for this group to mid-fall 2021 or early 2022. Timelines depend on vaccine availability and are subject to change as more information becomes available.

Five Flags Center

HR Cook is the general manager at the Five Flags Center in Dubuque.

The venue closed on March 10, 2020, the day after a sold-out show of “The Price is Right.”

“We were in the middle of a very successful run of concerts and family shows,” Cook said. “We were not sure if we were going to be able to get ‘The Price is Right’ in before an official closure.”

Cook estimates the Five Flags Center lost close to $800,000 in revenue because of the shutdown.

“Over 60 events were affected through December 2020. We were very fortunate as we immediately reached out to the agents and promoters of our shows and rescheduled 90% of the shows to the fall or winter of 2020. Of those, most have rescheduled again to the spring of 2021. We only lost 20 events that could not be rescheduled,” Cook said.

The venue elected not to pursue virtual events as most of the nonprofit groups and theater troupes were producing virtual performances and, according to Cook, Five Flags did not want to take away from the local groups’ thunder at the time.

“It is important to allow everyone to stay relevant to their patrons and donors. We knew that we could move our theater events into the arena to create social distancing and still have live events before other venues could open back up,” Cook said.

The venue has 11 full-time employees. Two of the staff were laid off and the rest, including Cook, were or still are on some form of furlough until shows can be resumed at full capacity.

The Five Flags Center is operating at 50% capacity to allow for social distancing.

“We have been able to attract events that were originally scheduled to play in other states that are currently closed due to limited capacity in their venues. We were very proactive in working with our events to make sure they adhere to safety guidelines set forth by the CDC along with our COVID-19 mitigation plan called Venue Shield to ensure we are utilizing best practices in cleaning and CDC guidelines to enhance the comfort level of patrons coming to our shows,” Cook said.

Venue Shield, a program by ASM Global, a venue and event management company, incorporates best practices including social distancing and hand washing reminder signage and disinfection, to provide the highest levels of cleanliness and safety.

Tickets at Five Flags are sold in “pods,” groups of two, three, four or five tickets at a time and a 6-foot social distance is kept between groups. The normal capacity in the theater is 713 seats. Five Flags is selling a maximum of 300 tickets per show.

Patrons are not required to provide proof that they have been vaccinated. Cook doesn’t foresee a requirement for proof of vaccination. He said masks and common sanitary and disinfection procedure will most likely be in place for at least another year. He added that patrons have been very good about following the guidelines.

Five Flags Center has many performances scheduled up to October.

“When we get back to full capacity, we will be announcing more shows that are excited to play in Dubuque,” Cook said.

Buzz Entertainment Group

Scott Thomas, president and owner of Buzz Entertainment Group based in La Motte, Iowa, schedules events and performances at Five Flags in addition to many other venues.

Last year, Thomas had about 125 events scheduled in the area, 100 of which were canceled from March 15 through Dec. 31. He estimated the revenue loss to be in the tens of thousands of dollars.

“It has been challenging, to say the least. And very unfortunate for any of the musicians that could not collect any unemployment,” Thomas said. “I feel starting June 1, everything should be full speed ahead.”

He’s scheduled a monthly comedy series starting with comedian Rodney Carrington on March 6 at Five Flags.

Dubuque Symphony Orchestra

A production of “Peter and the Wolf” on Feb. 22 and 23, 2020 was the last live performance for the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra. The next live performances, the DSO Classics Series season opener, took place a year later on Feb. 20 and 21, at Five Flags Theater with limited seating.

“This season’s performances have been programmed with a smaller number of musicians to accommodate for distancing on stage,” said Kathleen Hoeper, DSO director of marketing.

“The audience seating chart has also been reconfigured to allow for distancing among attendees. The theater holds 713 and we are using less than one-third of theater capacity. Since seating is limited, we’ve added a third performance on Saturday afternoon to provide for more opportunity to attend,” Hoeper said.

DSO concerts are slightly shorter and performed without intermission. Doors to the theater open one hour prior to performance, the same time lobby doors open, to avoid crowding in the lobby. All patrons, musicians including wind and brass when possible and staff are required to wear masks.

In April, the DSO began a new Live from our Living Room concert series featuring DSO musicians performing individually from their homes. The 10-week spring/summer series live-streamed on Facebook every Friday through June. The fall series offered live streams every other Friday from September through December, culminating with a holiday special with pre-recorded holiday tunes submitted from several musicians.

Due to an increase of COVID cases in the community post-Thanksgiving, the symphony switched from a concert with an audience to a virtual performance for its December Holiday Brass at Five Flags. The concert was prerecorded by TH Media and released for viewing from Dec. 15-31 on the symphony’s YouTube channel.

Hoeper said two Classics performances scheduled for April and May 2020, the Ultimate Country Hits in May 2020 at the Diamond Jo’s Mississippi Moon Bar and June’s Summer Melodies at the Dubuque Arboretum had to be canceled. Continued closure of the Mississippi Moon Bar meant that the January 2021 Ultimate Rock Hits had to be canceled.

Because the season opening was pushed to after the new year, DSO is performing one less Classics concert this season.

“We also were unable to hold our autumn third- and fifth-grade Arts Trek program, which reaches thousands of Dubuque-area students,” Hoeper said. “We will be releasing a video version for schools to access this spring.”

Some of the music and guest artists from the 2019/2020 season have been moved to current and future seasons. DSO music director and conductor William Intriligator had to reimagine and adapt to the orchestra size the DSO is allowing on-stage.

“It’s too early to tell what the full effect of COVID will be on our finances, but it’s been a very challenging year, and we’re doing everything we can to make sure we come out of the pandemic with the ability to thrive despite these drastic economic pressures,” Hoeper said.

Galena Festival of Performing Arts

Vice President Jess Farlow said the Galena Festival of Performing Arts closed in mid-March 2020. The festival holds performances in the City of Galena-owned Turner Hall and canceled six events, losing around $20,000 in revenue.

Most of the events take place in July, and Farlow said a virtual board meeting was held in mid-February to discuss 2021 plans.

“Most likely, we will not have any July performances due to the uncertainty of COVID-19,” Farlow said. “We do schedule one December performance, which remains uncertain at this time.”

The group opted not to do virtual events during the lockdown. Once live performances are scheduled, the group will adhere to social distancing guidelines in effect at Turner Hall. Farlow added that a discussion took place during the board meeting as to whether patrons will have to provide proof that they have been vaccinated.

“Our event venue, Turner Hall, may also have guidelines regarding vaccinations,” Farlow said.

University of Dubuque Heritage Center

Thirty events of the Live at Heritage Center Performing Arts Series had to be canceled from March 2020 to May 2021. The venue closed for the pandemic on March 3, 2020.

“All events were part of either a public Live at Heritage Center Performing Arts Series or a SchoolBus Performance Series performance featuring regional, national and international guest performers,” Thomas Robbins said. “Some events had two to three performances scheduled.”

Robbins is the executive director at the University of Dubuque Heritage Center. He added that two events from spring 2020 have been postponed to this spring and many 2020-2021 series events have been rescheduled to the 2021-2022 season.

The Heritage Center is part of the University of Dubuque and not a standalone entity, Because the university is a nonprofit organization, Robbins said that lost revenue can’t be determined.

The center has been presenting virtual events since June. Many of the events were free live-streams and some were paid. Eleven virtual events were offered from June to December and five virtual events are planned during the first quarter of this year.

One of the performers scheduled to appear at the Heritage Center in 2020 was Clifton Truman Daniel, the oldest grandson of President Harry S. Truman. Daniel was scheduled to perform “Give ‘Em Hell Harry,” a one-man show written by Samuel Gallu, in April.

Daniel will do a virtual performance of “President Harry Truman: A Grandson’s Portrait,” on March 25.

“Friends encouraged me to write a show about my grandpa,” Daniel said. “I perform dressed as my grandpa. The show covers Truman’s presidency in the first act and the Korean War and presidential campaign, including the famous Dewey beats Truman election call, in the second act.”

The shows are family affair as Daniel’s wife, Polly Bennett Daniel, does the make-up, hair and costumes to transform her husband into Harry Truman.

“This month, we are rolling out a series of a dozen virtual events exclusively for our school/student audiences to supplement area educator grades K-8 curriculum,” Robbins said.

Following the university’s spring break, beginning in early March, the Heritage Center will resume live, onstage events in the John and Alice Butler Hall, the larger performance venue at the center.

“The offerings will be restricted to campus audiences including UD students, faculty and staff with no guests admitted,” Robbins said. “Each event will offer a live-stream option for public audiences. This will mark a first in our history of offering paid streaming opportunities with broadcasts originating from our stage.”

Campus audiences will be required to follow social distancing guidelines and wear face coverings as well as adhere to additional COVID-19 safety protocols. Available seating will be staggered appropriately with at least six feet of space between various pods of seats. The seating will be marked with signage indicating where people are permitted to sit.

The capacity of the John and Alice Butler Hall is just less than 1,000; capacity for socially distancing is at about one-third of capacity or approximately 325 seats. Decisions regarding if patrons will have to show proof of vaccination have not been made. “The safety of our campus community remains of the utmost importance,” Robbins said.

The new season usually opens in September.

“It remains to be seen what the fall will bring, but we are planning smaller scale events featuring mostly regional acts which can be supported by the socially distant seating capacity,” Robbins said.