Lights go down on Delaware stages during pandemic

The only activity on the Milton Theatre stage is a ghost light shining down on a stage that has been vacant during the current coronavirus crisis. Due to the state shutdown, the theater is closed indefinitely and a fundraising drive has been started in the hopes of receiving $400 per day to keep the venue afloat until conditions pass. (Submitted photo)

Whoever first said “the show must go on” never lived in these times.

The current coronavirus crisis and the accompanying shelter-in-place until May 15 order sent down by Delaware Gov. John Carney earlier this week has had far-reaching effects across the state.

On the entertainment front, it means the closure of local theaters, both performing arts venues and community groups, dimming the stage lights and the enjoyment of patronwws.

Perhaps hardest hit by the downturn is the Milton Theatre. Its normally packed schedule of comedy shows, concerts and movie screenings are all on hold and that has caused great hardship for the Sussex County venue.

Staff sent out an email to supporters on Tuesday explaining their situation and putting out a call for financial assistance.

The email said in part “The closure of our venue means the loss of one of the things we love the most about downtown Milton. The theatre is a safe and happy place not just to us, but to all our patrons … and it’s not available right now.”

Milton Theatre director Fred Munzert said the situation is “devastating.”

“Our ticket sales went to a complete halt overnight. We probably lost 98% of our income overnight. And we’ve really been proud of the fact that our operations is 100% supported by ticket sales,” he said, adding that the theater accepts no grant funding for its programming.

“It’s unusual for an organization to do that. Usually there’s a certain percentage of grant funding and all of that. So to have that stop, it literally cuts off absolutely all our income. We’ve laid off nine of our (12) employees, we’ve terminated 20 contractors, not to mention the dozens and dozens of artists and bands that we’ve had to postpone or cancel. Most of them are postponed. We’re trying to push them out until later in the year.”

Mr. Munzert said grants they do receive strictly go to the upkeep of the building, which sits on Union Street in downtown Milton.

“As an arts organization, our philosophy from the beginning has been to have the community support the product and support the work. And that’s through the ticket sales,”

“Now, we do get grants, and we do get foundation funding, all of that is for the capital campaign. So all of that is for brick and mortar, purchasing the building, doing all the upgrades and all of those kinds of things. It’s a very prudent and great business angle to approach the product with. But in this scenario, it’s caught us in a difficult situation.”

When proposals to fight the virus first came down, Mr. Munzert said they were hopeful they could still do shows on a limited basis. But when strict rules were put in place, he knew there was no way they could continue.

“A week and a half ago, the order to go to 50 people or less really changed everything for us. We had an artist here on the way from L.A. and while he was in the air, that order came and he got to the airport and we had to turn him right around and send him back home. We were (also) really hopeful to be able to keep our educational program going and things like that. But we had to just shut down completely. We have no way of paying staff. We have no way of really keeping people even employed at this point,” he said.

“So we’re down to just absolute bare bones and all we’re really doing from day to day is managing the fallout from the switches, canceling and postponing shows, honoring refund requests, all of those kinds of things. It’s very frustrating.”

Tuesday’s email outlined the need for $400 a day to keep things going.

“Like I said, we dropped 98% of our budget overnight in income. And we’ve cut since then about 90% of our budget. We really went into emergency mode primarily, so that at the end of this week we can still be viable. So $400 a day will literally get us through paying the bills, the electric bill, the things that need to get paid, and what little bit of payroll that we have at this point,” Mr. Munzert said.

Those who wish to donate may do so at miltontheatre.square.site.

Last weekend, the theater sold off their remaining stock of food and liquor. That accomplished two things — more revenue and to keep people employed a little longer.

With no end in sight to the pandemic, Mr. Munzert is frustrated.

“We sit and redo everything and spend days and days and days revamping everything and then before we get through that revamp, it’s changed again. And it’s it’s exhausting for everybody,” he said.

“And we’ve been dwindling in numbers the further we get into it, which is tough on everyone’s morale and it’s made me very sad. We had an amazing team of people working there and to even have to tell them we can’t continue keeping them on was hard enough. It’s really like being in triage, but we’re just trying to get through each week and take care of the things that we need to take care of at this point.”

Smyrna Opera House

At the Smyrna Opera House, where the schedule isn’t as full weekly as the Milton Theatre, staff there has had to postpone shows as well.

Eight shows, which included everything from a Dessert Theater production to the First State Symphonic Band to the Ardensingers presenting Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Princess Ida,” have been postponed until later in the year. A St. Patrick’s Day concert by local band Celtic Harvest has been canceled.

“It’s going to be tight. It’s going to put a strain on us at the Opera House because our summer/fall schedule is going to be really seriously booked over now,” said Smyrna Opera House managing director Brian Hill.

“And I’ve had some other events that we had for rentals. The Holly’s Club Spring Fling was set for May 9, and now we’ve rescheduled it toward the end of June. Just different things like that — we do a lot more than just the shows.”

Hall rentals and Zumba and dance classes also go on at the Opera House.

Mr. Hill said as long as all of the previous shows can be rescheduled, the Opera House shouldn’t suffer too much financially with a full-time staff of three people and some other part-timers and volunteers.

“I know where we are financially, and we’ve always done very well with our money. And we have always stayed debt free. We have never had a debt from day one at the Opera House,” he said.

Brian Hill, managing director of the Smyrna Opera House, has postponed seven shows through the middle of May.

“Hopefully this is just a little bump in the road and hopefully we’ll come through. I have been assured by our treasurer that we are stable right now.”

Unlike the Milton Theatre, the Smyrna Opera House does take grants.

“We get money through the (Delaware Division of the Arts) for grants, for operating expenses on an annual basis. But, in the big picture, it’s not a lot of money — not that we are not grateful for what we do get. But that’s not going to keep us from closing our doors. But it does definitely help us meet some needs that we have to do every year,” Mr. Hill said.

“We have been going in three times a week, maybe for four hours a day. And just basically checking the building, checking emails and that type of thing, trying to get shows rescheduled and talking to our entertainers that we have booked for the year and reassuring them that the show is going to go on. It just might not be on the original date. But we are working and of course, we only have a staff of three.”

Mr. Hill said 2020 has been a successful one at the Opera House so far.

“We’re bringing 250 to 285 people into a show up until the time where we started having to cancel shows. Every show this year was a sellout. So we were doing really, really well. And I just hope that this doesn’t break our momentum. Because it took a lot to build this back, and get it going in the right direction,” he said.

“And I think people were very pleased with the quality of the shows that we’ve been having and I think that has a lot to do with it.”

Freeman Stage

Down at the Freeman Stage near Bethany Beach, they have had to postpone the announcement of their perennially star-studded summer lineup twice.

They were originally slated to announce March 18, postponed one week to Wednesday and then postponed again to a date in the near future.

Although they are not yet offering shows, Freeman Stage Executive Director Patti Grimes said they are monitoring the situation closely.

“The COVID-19 health crisis has affected our organization a little differently than many of our fellow arts organizations as we are not yet in-season and have not announced our season nor released tickets for sale,” she said in an email.

“We are currently exploring a possible later start to our summer schedule at The Freeman Stage and adjusting accordingly. We are in frequent communication with state and local officials as well as our partners in the music industry as we navigate these unprecedented times. We are mindful that our community — especially the beach resorts — are facing uncertainty and while we believe announcing our season would give our patrons something to look forward to, we also want it to be the appropriate time so everyone can enjoy.

“We’ve worked very hard to make this one of our best seasons ever and I’m positive we will be creating opportunities that elevate the human spirit at The Freeman Stage this summer.”

Casino shows

At Dover Downs and Harrington Casino, which are now closed, concerts have been canceled or postponed.

A comedy show by Jay Mohr earlier this month and a country music concert by Tyler Farr set for April 10 have been canceled.

According to Dover Downs spokeswoman Geralyn Hashway the Strictly Sinatra band concert on May 8 “will potentially be postponed so the date is subject to change.” Jeffrey Osborne’s May 29 concert is on schedule but also subject to change “in this ever-evolving situation,” she said.

At Harrington two shows — by country singer Phil Vassar earlier this month and R&B singer Brian McKnight slated for April 18 — have been postponed.

Harrington Raceway and Casino Entertainment Director Glenn Subers says he hopes to reschedule both concerts.

Community theaters

The stages at local theater companies have also gone dark due to the pandemic.

At Clear Space Theatre Company in Rehoboth Beach, they were forced to cancel all remaining performances of “Kiss Me Kate”; postponed Broadway Bound classes until May 5, 12 and 19; canceled the adult acting workshops for this month; and closed the box office to new ticket sales for “High School Musical” (April 17-19) and “Urinetown” (May 1-17).

The Possum Point Players in Georgetown have rescheduled their production of “Godspell” to July; a fund-raising event “All the Fixins” has been rescheduled to start July 11; the PPP production of Noel Coward’s comedy “Hay Fever” will now be staged starting June 19; and the Possum Juniors performances of “Back to the ‘80s” will now be Aug. 14-16.

At the Kent County Theatre Guild in Dover, they have postponed their upcoming show “Cliffhanger,” which was set to start April 24.

A Delaware Ballet event, which was to take place Saturday night, has also been postponed. Their monthly Patchwork Whoopee and improv classes have also been put on hold.

Mike Polo, board president at KCTG, said rehearsals had already started for the mystery “Cliffhanger.”

The Kent County Theatre Guild’s last performance was a successful run of “Steel Magnolias.” (Delaware State News file photo)

“The biggest effect it’s going to have really is the fact that it’s interfering with rehearsals for ‘Cliffhanger’. Of course, we’ve bumped the schedule back a little bit. But still, sometime in the next couple of weeks, we’re going to have to take a look at that and go, is it going to be practical (to stage the play)?” he said.

“We’re gonna have to juggle, there’s no two ways about that. We have a very limited space. So consequently, it’s difficult to rehearse two full-sized shows at the same time. And so, if we get pushed too far, there is a chance that we’re going to have to cancel.”

Although it wouldn’t be a backbreaker financially, Mr. Polo said he would prefer not to think about removing a show from the schedule.

“Obviously, it’s not something that we want to do. Every arts organization in the state is going to hurt from this. We’re not going to be alone. Yes, if we had to cancel a show any show, it would hurt our bottom line. It certainly would be a problem for any organization. None of us are sitting on fat profits,” he said.

“Ticket sales are our income. So it’s going to hurt if a show is canceled by anybody. But the organization will survive.”

While they are down, members of the Guild have gotten together and volunteered to run small errands for folks who may not be able to get out during the pandemic.

Anyone in need is asked to reach out to their team of volunteers to discuss how they can be of assistance. An email can be sent to kctginfo@kctg.org.

At Second Street Players in Milford, they have had to undertake a host of changes.

•Performance dates for “Caught in the Net,” set for April have been changed to June 19, 20, 21 and 26, 27, 28.

•SSP’s Children’s Theater production of “The Big Bad Musical” will be moved to July 24, 25 and 26.

•Performance dates for “Oliver”! will be moved to Nov. 27, 28, 29, Dec. 4, 5, 6 and 11, 12, 13. Auditions will be rescheduled, with dates to be announced.

• “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which was supposed to be the Christmas show this year will not be performed in 2020. It is hoped the show will be staged next year.

• The SSP Children’s Theater production of “Bedtime Stories” will be postponed until the 2021 season.

Guy Crawford, president of the Second Street Players’ board of directors, said the cancellation of two shows this year, “It’s Wonderful Life” and “Bedtime Stories” will cost the theater company potentially $10,000.

“And that’s if nothing else happens. The longer this prolongs, the worse it can get. If we had to cancel the whole season, we usually pull in about $36,000 to $40,000,” he said.

“One of the shows that we had to cancel was our Christmas show that people have already bought tickets for that we either have to move over to next year. or if they don’t want the tickets for next year, we’re hoping they will give it us as a donation. But they could demand their money back. If they demand their money back, then of course we have to give them their money back.

“We’re hoping that doesn’t happen. Usually in this type of community theater, they would go ahead and give it to us.”

Mr. Crawford said the Second Street Players own The Riverfront Theater, where they perform, so the financial burden will not be as big as it otherwise could have been.

“We have all the other bills that go with it. We don’t own a mortgage. So we’re OK. We spend wisely and we put away for rainy days, just in case,” he said.

The “unknown” factor puts the theater’s next play “Caught in the Net” in limbo.

Now set to go in June, the show was to premiere next month and cast members had already begun the rehearsal process.

“We’re not supposed to reopen until May 15. Four weeks is not a lot of time to stage a show. So they have to memorize their lines and prepare to get back into the theater. And then I could call them on May 15 and say it’s off altogether now. So the unknowing of it all is frustrating”

The effect on arts community

Aside from the financial aspect, all agree that the community suffers when the arts aren’t available.

“The theater brings in people to a community, not just to the theater. When we have shows, people will go out ahead of time to the restaurants and that’s 700 to 800 people during the course of a show’s run.,” said Mr. Crawford.

“Of course, they’re taking a hit anyway with being closed or takeout only. But they do take a little bit of a hit with us closed. Most of the bigger companies can recover from this. Nonprofits are a little bit different. It takes a little bit of planning and fundraising and grants and things like that, too. It’s also a blessing that 99% of the community theaters in Delaware are all run by volunteers.”

Mr. Polo said theater people are by nature social animals so this is a particularly sad time for them.

“Not being able to socialize, not being able to rehearse on the show. Not being able to get out and be around other people is really rough on everybody,” he said.

Mr. Hill, at the Smyrna Opera House, hopes the community will come together again when the time is right.

“I think people are going to want to get out once this thing is over. So I think that they’ll want to come to the Opera House to see the shows, once they can be sure that they’re not in any kind of danger,” he said.

“We had a lot of activity for the upcoming shows. We had sold lots of tickets, which we will honor on the rescheduled dates, obviously. And hopefully it’s sooner rather than later.”

At the Milton Theatre, the front windows are open. The posters are gone and the curtains have been drawn so passersby know that theater is still there and will be waiting for them.

“The Milton Theatre has been a very big part of the revitalization of Milton, and bringing people to downtown. Sixty thousand people last year came through the doors of the Milton Theatre and into downtown. And I know that it’s an important piece and people don’t want to see it closed, and people have said to us ‘we’ve got to make sure that this remains’ and I would agree. I think it’s important that it does remain for multiple reasons,” Mr. Munzert said.

“The arts are something people want. People look to the arts to kind of escape. And there’s a whole section of our population that’s completely unaffected by this financially. You just hope that those people are going to be ready to spend and to do what they want to do. And those are the people we’re looking to say, “Hey, we need your now to make sure that when this is over, we’re still going to be here for you to enjoy.”


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage

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