Stage Fright

For the rest of 2020, it’s curtains for certain at Tucson's concert halls

Bonnie Schock, executive director of The Fox Tucson Theatre, probably has the worst ever new-job story.

After moving to Tucson from Minnesota, where she'd worked in the performing arts for almost 30 years, Schock walked into the venerable Fox on Monday, March 9, excited to get to work in the historic theatre.

That same day, in a sign of things to come, the Tucson Festival of Books was canceled for fear of COVID-19. The popular literary event at the University of Arizona had been planned for the weekend of March 14 -15.

Then, four days into Schock's job, on Thursday, March 12, the Fox itself shut down.

An Irish music concert by the renowned band Altan, planned for that Saturday, March 14, was canceled. The band hurried back to Ireland, calling off the rest of their U.S. tour.

"The Fox was the first performing arts institution in Tucson to announce that we were closing," Schock says by phone from Minnesota, where she's been holed up with her family and working from home since the end of March.

But the Fox's shutdown was only the first of many.

By Friday, March 13, nearly every arts organization in town had shut down. Musicians packed up their instruments. Dancers with Hawkinsdance gave up on a planned outdoor show. Actors hung up their costumes.

Arizona Theatre Company gave a single performance of The Legend of Georgia McBride, opening and closing the musical play on that Friday night. And on that same bad-luck day, the Rialto Theatre, a historic music venue up the street from the Fox, had to cancel concerts by legendary blues guitarist Buddy Guy and Shoreline Mafia, a hip-hop band out of Los Angeles.

The UA campus closed, taking down with it not only the UA Presents shows at Centennial Hall, but also the music concerts at Crowder Hall and student productions in dance and theater. Multiple campus museums, including the Center for Creative Photography and the University of Arizona Museum of Art, were shuttered as well, and so were major museums throughout the city, from the Tucson Museum of Art to MOCA. (TMA just reopened last week). Art galleries held on a little longer but openings were scuttled.

On that rough week when the arts went dark in Tucson, almost no one predicted how long the shutdown would last. In a sign of the optimism of those early days, the Rialto quickly rescheduled Shoreline Mafia for a performance on Sept. 22, and the Fox rebooked Altan for a show this November.

"We intended to be closed only a few weeks," Schock says. Instead the theatre has remained closed for months. And any hopes of a fall revival were dashed in early July, when the Fox canceled all programing through December.

"After the initial closure (in March) we announced an extended closure to end in August," Schock explains, "with the promise we would make another decision about the fall as conditions became clearer."

Those conditions became crystal clear by late June. The virus resurged in much of the country, and Arizona turned into a coronavirus hot spot, making the national news for high numbers of cases spiking and deaths mounting.

As of Monday, Aug. 3, the total Arizona COVID-19 death toll was 3,779, including 462 fatalities in Pima County; the state had counted nearly 180,000 confirmed cases. Nationwide, 155,000 lives and counting had been lost as of this week, according to tracking by Johns Hopkins University.

Somber statistics notwithstanding, the Fox has put together a tentative list of rescheduled shows to run in the new year. The comedian Paula Poundstone is first on the list, on February 4, 2021. Altan was switched once again, this time to March 12, a full year after the Irish band was set to perform on the Fox stage.

But the new schedule is by no means written in stone.

"We're not able to predict factors that are completely out of our control," Schock says.

The shows will go on only if three protocols are in place, she says. First, health conditions must improve enough that large gatherings are permitted, and ticket sales must be high enough to make a show financially viable. That doesn't mean that every one of the Fox's 1168 seats would have to be filled—social distancing would almost require that some seats remain empty.

Second, lovers of the performing arts who've been stuck at home avoiding the virus must feel safe enough to go out to shows again. Complicating that scenario, the Fox's fans tend toward middle age and older, a demographic particularly vulnerable to the disease.

Third, touring artists like Poundstone and Altan must be willing to travel again.

Unlike Tucson's small local theaters and musical groups, who generally can recruit local actors and musicians, big performing arts organizations like the Fox, the Rialto and UA Presents—and to a certain extent the Arizona Theatre Company—rely almost entirely on touring artists. And right now, Schock says, with COVID-19 raging across the country, "the whole national touring industry is essentially shut down. Those artists are not on the road."

Schock is hoping that by September or early October, things will calm down and "we'll see those conditions in place." If that happens, the Fox will crank up marketing and preparations to re-open in the new year. And maybe, just maybe, Schock and her family will be able to come to Arizona and settle into their new city.

The Fox is not alone

in these calculations. Arts organizations all over Tucson (and elsewhere) are struggling with how to re-open and nearly all are dealing with debilitating financial losses. The Fox, just for instance, normally gets 75 percent of its budget from earned revenue—especially from ticket sales. But sales have nearly vanished and the theatre is still paying patrons back for tickets they bought for now canceled shows.

One iconic venue, the Chicago Bar, has already closed for good. Renowned for its live music, particularly the rich blues out of Chicago, the eastside bar closed in June after 42 years in the business.

The popular spot had shut down in March as the pandemic roared across the country.

"Although the bar was closed, the expenses remained," owner Jennifer Lorraine explained in a Facebook post in June. "... the loss of revenue due to the mandated closure was too great a financial burden to bear."

At the far east end of Congress Street, two more cherished live music venues lie idle, their historic buildings shuttered. Club Congress is inside the Hotel Congress, a landmark building dating to 1919. Across the street, the Rialto Theatre, constructed in 1920, turns 100 this year.

But there's not a whole lot of anniversary celebrating going on at either place.

The funky Rialto, run by executive director Curtis McCrary, is known for comedy shows as well as gigs by rock bands both famous and up-and-coming. But it's been closed since March.

The Rialto has a colorful history, and no shortage of ups and downs. During its seemingly nine lives, it's been a theatre for vaudeville and movies, a furniture warehouse, a porn house and an empty property. An explosion in the 1980s brought the plucky old place close to demolition but it reemerged in the 1990s as a get-down and dirty rock-and-roll concert hall. It was refurbished after Rio Nuevo bought the place in 2004; it's now owned by the Rialto Theatre Foundation, which has managed the theater since it reopened after Rio Nuevo purchased it.

Characteristically, the feisty venue began the shutdown with a defiant sign on its marquee: Events Temporarily Suspended. We Will Be Back. Count on It. F U Coronavirus. As the months drag on, and as the virus keeps on trucking, and the shows listed on the schedule keep getting marked "postponed," fans are praying that the Rialto can use another of its nine lives to get music back on the stage, but for now, the prognosis is grim, says McCrary.

"The speed with which this went from distant inchoate threat that very few of us took with the warranted seriousness, to radically changing everyone's lives for the worse, is something we are all still coming to grips with, half a year down the road to who knows where," McCrary said. "But as it unfolded and I began to grasp the severity of it, and the likelihood that it would be mishandled at nearly every level of government in most places, but especially from the top, it was pretty clearly going to be catastrophic for our particular endeavor/sector—bringing large numbers of people together in an indoor setting to let loose to live music (or theatre or dance or film). It's so painfully obvious that it didn't have to unfold this way, that leadership does make a difference, that certain electeds keep taking the keys and driving us off cliff after cliff, and that's the most painful part of it, how needlessly extensive all this death and calamity are, and how much more is on the way as a result. At this point, our best hope is for some federal deus ex machina relief action, like RESTART or the Save Our Stages act sponsored by Sens. Klobuchar and Cornyn, but as they say about wishes and horses and beggars... well, you know. Absent that, it's hard to see a path forward."

The Hotel Congress, on the National Historic Registry since 2003, is famed for the 1934 fire that helped the cops capture the desperado John Dillinger. In 1985, new owners Shana and Richard Oseran gave it an Aztec art deco do-over, added Club Congress, and transformed the old railroad hotel into a hip watering place.

The Congress has had a rollercoaster ride through the pandemic months. The hotel, its restaurant Cup Café, and Club Congress all shut down in mid-March. Gov. Ducey lifted restrictions on May 15, but the Congress managers, with an eye on the science of COVID, waited until May 28 to reopen the Cup. The hotel opened June 4, but the indoor Club Congress, beloved for a wide range of music genres, stayed shut. Still, music came back to the Congress with performances outside on the Cup's spacious patio.

That brave effort lasted only a month.

When the virus spiked dramatically in Arizona in late June, Hotel Congress once again closed the whole operation down, even though it was not legally required to do so. "This pandemic has reached a breaking point," managers announced in a sad Facebook post, "and we feel the only actionable response is to pause our operations. The health and safety of our staff and community is what's most important right now. So for now, it's not goodbye, but it's see you later."

Congress tentatively plans to reopen in mid-September, meaning that the popular Labor Day weekend Hoco Fest is canceled this year.

As the fall arts season looms, more and more venerable institutions are canceling previously scheduled performances.

Tucson Symphony Orchestra, one of the oldest and largest arts organizations in town, has postponed its entire 2020-2021 season, moving the scheduled concerts en masse to 2021-2022. In the meantime, music director José Luis Gomez will orchestrate multiple online programs, including music performed by the TSO talent and guests, interviews and so on.

Arizona Opera, which operates in both Tucson and Phoenix, is "reimagining" the 2020-2021 season, and replacing large-scale live operas with online events as well as "socially distant" outdoor performances. First up in Tucson, on Sunday, Oct. 4, the advanced singers of the opera's competitive Marion Roose Pullin Opera Studio will perform outdoors in a venue to be announced.

Arizona Theatre Company, which also performs both in Tucson and Phoenix, is pushing the planned fall 2020 plays to January. Artistic director Sean Daniels promises a full array of six shows, staring in January 2021 and extending to the summer. Each of the plays will be recorded on tape; patrons who are still iffy about sitting in a theater can watch the dramas online at home. The opening production in January will be My 80-year-old Boyfriend by Charissa Bertels, Christian Duhamel and Ed Bell.

The company is also preparing an array of outdoor and digital events throughout the fall.

Ballet Tucson, the only professional ballet troupe in the city, has canceled its fall season. That means no spooky Halloween dance at the annual fall opening concert, and no Nutcracker at Christmas. For now, the plan is to return to the stage in the new year. But like all the arts groups, Ballet Tucson is facing a financial emergency and asking art lovers to help with donations.

"The loss is critical," says board president Jim Allen. "The majority of our budget comes from earned income such as tickets and special events, so the complete loss of this revenue has been overwhelming."

Over at Centennial Hall at the University of Arizona, UA Presents typically brings in top dance companies, orchestras and musical acts throughout the school year. The companion group Broadway in Tucson brings in five or six traveling musicals each season. But this year the 2500-seat historic theater has lain dormant since March. And it will remain empty until January 2021.

Hamilton, the hit musical about the early days of the republic, won't be on the Centennial stage until late fall 2021; it will run from Nov. 17 to Dec. 5, more than a year from now. 

Broadway in Tucson had nabbed the celebrated musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda for a three-week run later this year, but COVID squashed that plan. Mario Di Vetta of Broadway in Tucson says there will be plenty of tickets to go around for the rescheduled Hamilton; fans who bought tickets for the 2020 show can use them in 2021 or get a refund.

Right now, Broadway in Tucson plans to host an array of traveling musical shows during the spring 2021 season, starting with Jersey Boys, Jan. 22 to 24, and ending with Come from Away, June 22-27. Both shows were originally scheduled for spring 2020, but they were scotched by the pandemic.

Chad Herzog, executive director of UA Presents, has been using the COVID downtime to recreate the performing arts at Centennial.

"There are going to be a lot of big changes," Herzog says, from ditching the name UA Presents to staging art events in outdoor spaces away from campus. (The new name and show lineups will be revealed later this month.)

This fall, there will be "a number of performances, but nothing in Centennial," he says. "We're going to take art to the people. We're really excited about it."

The new format will have local artists performing in multiple outdoor places all over town—in the desert, in drive-ins, on mobile stages. UA Presents has already given the concept a trial run this summer, staging outdoor musical performances made to be watched on line.

UA Presents, embedded at the UA, might seem to be financially secure but it has to watch its own budget. Plus the UA's own money woes are so dire that its employees are getting significant paycuts. Hiring local artists instead of, say, the Martha Graham Dance Company, is good for UA Presents' the bottom line.

Outdoor shows are a good way to get around the pandemic, since the risk of catching the virus is reduced outside. Certainly Centennial Hall, a 1936 building on the National Register of Historic Places, will still be used in the years ahead. But even when the pandemic ends or a vaccine is available, Herzog plans to continue taking shows all over town.

"In the future," he says, "Southern Arizona will be our stage."

Twenty years ago, the

Fox Theatre was a crumbling mess. The roof leaked, pigeons nested in the balcony, and piles of trash and human waste were everywhere. A former vaudeville house and movie theatre built in 1930, it had essentially been abandoned by 1974.

Thanks to the vision and dogged advocacy of Herb Stratford, a young artist who later become the Fox's first executive director, and others, the old theatre was transformed into a breathtaking show place. By 2006 what had been a dangerous eyesore became a glittering asset to the downtown and the city.

The same is true for Hotel Congress, the Rialto and the Temple of Music and Art, a 1927 theatre that was saved from demolition in the 1980s; Arizona Theater Company has performed plays there since 1990. These rescued historic venues have not only brought the arts to town; they have played a crucial part in the downtown renaissance.

"That's one of the things performing arts do," Schock says. "The arts are an economic driver. Downtown Tucson is absolutely a case study for that."

After all, art lovers and theater goers dine in restaurants, grab coffee at cafés, get drinks at bars, stay in hotels, ride in cabs and the streetcar, pay for parking. Hotel and apartment developers like to build in cool artsy neighborhoods. And the performing arts venues don't dole out paychecks only to artists; they also give paid employment to administrators, ticket-takers, cleaners, security staffs, carpenters and painters.

Arts groups hit by the pandemic crisis are asking their fans for donations, but Schock and others are trying to get a fair share of federal money as well. She belongs to the National Independent Venues Association (#SaveOurStages), an advocacy group that quickly formed when it became clear how devastating the pandemic is to the arts.

According to the National Endowment for the Arts, the arts and culture contribute $877.8 billion to the nation's economy while employing some 5 million workers. Despite these big numbers, the arts have been relatively short-changed in the distributions of federal stimulus funds. The NEA got $75 million in federal CARES money, but only $44.5 went directly to individual arts groups; the rest, some $30.5 million, was earmarked for the 50 states. Gov. Ducey gave $2 million in state funds to be given out through the Arizona Commission on the Arts. 

Tucson did land $500,000 in CARES money, meted out by the NEA through a competitive process. The Arts Foundation for Tucson and Southern Arizona got $250,000, which will be divided up and re-granted to multiple arts organizations. Four local groups, the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, the Southwest Folk Alliance, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Lead Guitar, each got $50,000 directly from the NEA cache.

More money is needed to save other arts groups from the fate of the Chicago Bar.

"Many of our venues won't make it," Schock says. "And we can't afford to lose them. The Fox is too precious not to make it. It's too important to our downtown and it's too unique. It's up to all of us in the community to decide what matters."

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