The Orpheum took its first “baby step” toward reopening by holding an outdoor comedy show in their side parking lot on Friday.
The owners and staff began to consider looking for other venues for shows as COVID-19 transmission rates dropped, and they eventually realized their parking lot would do just fine, said Susan Walters, general manager for The Orpheum.
Walters said staff have made the experience “as touch-less as possible” to protect people from COVID-19 transmission while still creating a safe space for their business. People are used to sitting at tables for comedy, and won’t be compelled to dance or walk around.
“We thought comedy would be the safest way to introduce the concept to the staff, community and talent as well,” Walters said. “And we could all use a lot of laughter right now.”
The Orpheum created “pods” of 8-by-10-foot spaces for groups of two or four people to enjoy the comedy show in the outdoor air. The line to get in started in the alley near Aspen Deli and had space for social distancing. Staff required every customer to be masked and go through verbal health checks before being escorted to their table.
People were asked to stay at their table, except when using the restroom, and have food and drinks delivered to them.
Once the show is over and people leave, Walters said staff “sanitize, sanitize, sanitize” before the second show for the night starts up.
J.C. Anderson, a comedy promoter and performer at Friday's show, said he was unsure of how to do his first live show in months. He described how many comedians who were able to build a career in comedy have had to fall back on unemployment checks and finding new jobs during the pandemic.
He was excited to get back in front of a crowd, but was clearly wondering: With so much going on in the country and in the news, do people want to hear jokes about the pandemic or jokes about everything else?
"We all have at least 20 years experience for each of us, the hardest part of it is we haven't been doing anything for five months. Now it's like, what's relevant other than COVID?" Anderson said. "Of course we'll make jokes about it, but do people really want to hear about the pandemic or do they want to hear comedy?"
As he performed and the pink light lit up his face, people walking on the street stopped and listened as the crowd of less than 50 people laughed.
Charles Smith, owner of the Orpheum, said the venue realizes there is a long road ahead of them.
The venue considered reopening before Arizona had its large spike in June, but quickly realized that cases needed to be much lower before any sort of attempt to resume business. The venue has published a reopening guide online and hopes to use their current lineup to gauge how ready people are for shows.
“We’ve done a lot to prepare the soft reopening to make our staff, customers and performers feel safe,” Smith said. “We hope people feel safe and have a great time.”
Since the pandemic, the music venue has been struggling as its main stage continues to go unused. While these small 50-person shows are a start, revenue streams are hurting when their pre-COVID-19 crowds could have as many as 1,000 people.
The business has furloughed 95% of their staff, and was only able to bring back two bartenders and two security staff members for the show.
With the indoor seating, if they are able to reopen indoors, The Orpheum will likely still social distance and cut seating down to 200 sellable seats from 600.
“We’re very much struggling,” Smith said. “We still have bills to pay, some salaries to pay, and no real regular significant amount of income.”
As they wait for a sign of the pandemic relenting, they appreciate every dollar from sponsors, merchandise and ticket sales.
They also began to ask for locals to sign a petition for the “Save Our Stages Act” that provides direct grant money to independent music venues around the country. Walters said the grant aspect was important to them, as opposed to a loan.
"It's scary for independent venues to take on loans not knowing the future and whether we'll be able to pay it back when we won't know whether we're going to be open in 12 months," Walters said. "We're not bringing in revenue. Many independent venues like The Orpheum have tens of thousands in monthly bills. It's too much debt."
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