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Can the Show Go on for Westchester’s Entertainment Venues?

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The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester was averaging 150 shows annually before closing in March 2020 due to COVID. It is finally scheduled to reopen in late summer.
Photo by Scott Harris

The county’s entertainment venues are finally flipping the switch and turning on the lights after COVID brought down the curtain on them.

Numerous Westchester theaters, galleries, and other entertainment venues were dark for months — some for more than a year — as they followed state guidelines during the harshest months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Joining the ranks of nearly decimated industries, such as hospitality, the arts-and-entertainment sector has taken catastrophic financial hits that have yet to be fully determined.

With the onset of spring, capacity limits rose along with vaccine percentages, giving reason for optimism. In early May, Governor Andrew Cuomo surprised the arts-and-entertainment community when he lifted all of the state’s capacity restrictions for theaters, concert halls, museums, bars, and restaurants. As venues continue to add performances and events to their calendars, there is finally light — maybe a spotlight — at the end of the pandemic tunnel.

Many local performance spaces lost nearly 100% of their ticket-generated revenue in 2020 as their shows and events were canceled across the board. Some arts-based nonprofit institutions maintained at least some income from charitable donations from devoted members.

Tarrytown Music Hall had been completely closed for more than a year before it scheduled some socially distanced performances in early spring. “Our earned income from shows just stopped, essentially,” says Bjorn Olsson, executive director. “Luckily, there is so much love for this theater in our community, and our members and donors have remained incredibly supportive, even though they knew we would not be able to deliver any programming to them for some time.”

Charitable donations only add up to a small percentage of the expense of staff and the cost of maintaining large, often very old, buildings. The Music Hall enjoys some rental income from adjoining stores, and fundraising was “pretty solid,” Olsson says. Overall, the venue’s total revenue is down about 80% since the shutdown.

Social distancing was the new norm for theater seating at the JBFC. Photo courtesy of JBFC

Social distancing was the new norm for theater seating at the JBFC. Photo courtesy of JBFC

“Many of our larger expenses decrease when we don’t have shows, but we still have payroll, insurance, utilities, and taxes,” Olsson adds. “We have had to essentially put all nonemergency maintenance and equipment upgrades on ice.”

The Music Hall was able to keep its full-time staff on payroll, and with the help of the first round of PPP, it was able to send some checks to part-time crew members last summer, as well. By not reverting to a skeleton crew, the historic venue retained staff to maintain fundraising, continued to provide arts and theater education with the Music Hall Academy, and presented virtual performances.

Olsson says the speed of the vaccine rollout has set the industry on a “very solid-looking path toward reopening.” The Music Hall’s business plan has been to do a few shows in the spring, with a very small audience, then go to “half” in the summer and be back at a “new normal” in the fall.

“This seems to be holding up, and we are ready to roll out fall shows now,” Olsson says. “Obviously, things could still go sideways, but this is what our map looks like right now.”

At press time, The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester had not hosted a live show with fans since March 2020. Pre-COVID, the venue was averaging almost 150 shows annually.

“It was like flicking a light switch on the wall,” says Bruce Wheeler, The Capitol’s general manager. “There was no wind down or grace period. It all came to a screeching halt.”

In response, the theater shifted more energy toward online sales of merchandise and livestreams of concerts. Still, “as far as revenue from our core business, ticketed concerts, it has fallen to zero,” Wheeler says.

The Capitol Theatre furloughed staff and limited any unneeded services and expenses during the downtime, “which is not the easiest task in a 94-year-old building,” Wheeler says.

That said, The Cap is planning for a late-summer reopening. “We are eager to reopen but need to balance that with efforts to ensure the safety of our patrons, performers, and staff,” Wheeler notes.

Without the possibility of a live audience, many venues looked to online programming to maintain community relationships and create a small revenue stream. Pleasantville’s Jacob Burns Film Center began offering a robust selection of new and repertory films, film series and festivals, Q&As, and an original curated series, “What We’re Watching,” all virtually.

“While we still firmly believe in the value of an unparalleled theatrical experience in person, we recognize that the ability to stream from home makes the JBFC experience more accessible,” says Margo Amgott, interim executive director. “It also opens up our programs to new audiences further afield and has a much larger capacity.”

In February, JBFC launched the Virtual Marquee hub for easier access to the streamlined content curated by its staff. The center reopened in May. It has made various safety improvements, including the installation of Bipolar Ionization air purification throughout the site.

When the Hudson River Museum (HRM) shuttered in March 2020, it launched a new digital initiative, called Museum From Home, to stay connected with its audiences and allow them to experience the site. HRM’s staff quickly pivoted to serve people working and educating their children from home, developing new virtual tours of its galleries and historic Gilded Age home, Glenview.

HRM hosted timely virtual panels on immigration and African American history with artists, authors, and community activists. It also live-streamed planetarium shows, hands-on art and science activities, and lesson plans for parents and teachers. An unexpected surprise occurred when the Museum From Home content attracted thousands of new visitors from around the globe.

“Out-of-home entertainment was not a vertical you wanted to be in during a global viral pandemic.”
—Bill Diamond, President, Diamond Properties

“We developed a significant following in India, Australia, and United Arab Emirates for our virtual planetarium shows,” says Masha Turchinsky, HRM’s director and CEO. “We also formed partnerships with schools in Oaxaca, Mexico, to collaborate with our junior docents on teen programs.”

The museum will continue to offer virtual programs as it expands its in-person offerings.

“We learned that some people who have not been able to visit us recently were eager to connect with us virtually,” Turchinsky explains. “For example, we reconnected with people who once lived in Westchester or are no longer as mobile as they once were, using our digital offerings as a way to reconnect with us.”

As the reopenings continue, fans will experience new features at some of Westchester’s arts and entertainment spaces. For many venues, the lack of attendees during the pandemic provided them with a time for expansions and renovations.

HRM has been busy with upgrades to Westchester’s only public planetarium. Meanwhile, construction has begun on the museum’s West Wing project, which will include special exhibition galleries with views, a sculpture court, and a tiered 100-seat auditorium.

Spins Hudson, the 40,000 sq. ft. entertainment venue at Peekskill’s Factoria at Charles Point Marina, has opened under a staggered schedule after its initial closing last spring. The site first reopened its laser tag for private events and its arcade in September. Its giant rope course reopened in mid-March.

“We were hit pretty hard,” says Bill Diamond, president of Diamond Properties, which operates the entertainment component of Factoria. The company runs 16 entertainment venues across multiple states, including Spins Bowl locations in Carmel, Wappingers Falls, and Poughkeepsie, with Spins Hudson at Factoria the last in its portfolio to open. “Out-of-home entertainment was not a vertical you wanted to be in during a global viral pandemic,” he says.

Diamond says that revenue was down 40–70% at his entertainment complexes in 2020. “Luckily, all of our venues have reopened, and in some parts of the country, our revenue is quickly approaching prepandemic levels,” he says.

The addition of axe-throwing lanes should help generate new revenue at Spins Hudson in Peekskill. Photo courtesy of Spins Hudson

The addition of axe-throwing lanes should help generate new revenue at Spins Hudson in Peekskill. Photo courtesy of Spins Hudson

Spins Hudson also expanded, recently adding trendy axe throwing as an activity. “We installed the lanes during the shutdown,” Diamond says. “This is an insanely fun activity, and I think it will be very popular at this location.”

Diamond predicts that “by midsummer, things will be mostly back to normal” for his entertainment venues.

What “normal” will look like after the pandemic has been much discussed. Will patrons be wary of crowds, or will they be wild with enthusiasm to leave their pandemic bubbles?

For Janet Langsam of ArtsWestchester, the initial response to the organization’s first in-person exhibit at the group’s White Plains gallery confirmed what she already knew: Art is essential to the human experience. When the organization requested art for its show Together apART: Creating During Covid, it received a nearly overwhelming number of submissions.

“We never expected 500 pieces of art,” Langsam says. “We’ve done a lot of shows where we’ve sought artists’ work, and this is the most that we’ve ever gotten. I think people long for creativity in their lives, and I think they’ve been deprived of that.”

Earlier this year, Langsam launched her Restart the Arts Program, which resulted in a robust $1 million in fresh funding for the area’s arts organizations.

Like Langsam, Amgott of the JBFC is optimistic and excited about recovery. “The JBFC was founded on the idea that magic happens when people come together and have a communal experience rooted in the power of film,” she says. “If anything, this past year has taught us all the undeniable value of being able to watch, discuss, laugh, cry, and celebrate with loved ones and strangers alike.”

Looking for a positive impact of the shutdown, Tarrytown Music Hall’s Olsson says the pandemic showed how important the performing arts are. “Nothing wrong with a great livestream, but humans have an incredible need to get together, to experience the arts in real time with other people,” he says. “To dance, sing along, and laugh with hundreds or thousands of other people is so deeply satisfying. It’s hard to see anything that exists now that can truly replace what we offer.”