MONROE — The live events and entertainment industry has been uniquely hard hit by pandemic-related shutdowns.
It was the first industry to get shut down. It will be the last industry to return.
And with good reason. The new coronavirus loves nothing more than a big crowd of people jammed close together, shouting, sneezing, singing, dancing, coughing, laughing, hugging and shaking hands.
As the pandemic pushes into its ninth month in Wisconsin, arts and culture organizations are getting grants through two state-administered programs to release federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds to help offset shutdown-related losses.
Gov. Tony Evers designated $10 million for movie theater operators across Wisconsin, including Goetz Theatres in Monroe, which received just over $58,000. Funds are distributed based on the number of screens. Goetz has three screens downtown and a fourth at a drive-in just south of Monroe.
In another program aimed at helping arts and cultural organizations, the state is distributing another $15 million from the CARES Act. So many organizations applied for assistance that funds are being awarded at 55% of the amounts requested.
Recipients in Green County include the Monroe Arts Center, Monroe Theatre Guild, Turner Hall and Alfred & Lois Kelch Aviation Museum.
In Lafayette County, Driver Opera House Restoration, Inc. of Darlington was awarded just over $54,000.
Stacked like planes on a runway
Lost revenue isn’t the only financial impact on businesses from pandemic-related shutdowns, Duke Goetz learned this year.
There’s also the mice.
Goetz shut down his downtown movie theater in Monroe in March at the start of Gov. Evers’ “Safer at Home” emergency order and delayed opening the Goetz Sky-Vu Drive-In just south of Monroe from April to June.
At the drive-in, mice took advantage of the delayed opening to make themselves at home, chewing through cables and ruining an electronic board. Repairing the damage took “hours and hours,” Goetz said.
At the downtown theater, the light prism inside a digital projector gave out from lack of use, losing color and focus.
“It went bad from not being used, and that seemed to be a problem for other theaters, too,” Goetz said.
Digital projector parts aren’t cheap. A replacement prism costs $25,000, plus another $1,000 for a new lamp, he said.
On Sept. 2 — the 89th anniversary of the historic downtown theater’s grand opening in 1931 — Goetz tried opening his indoor operation back up. Business was slow. Few people were eager to gather for movies indoors during a pandemic. After a month, he shut back down.
The one bright spot has been the drive-in, where Goetz said he’s had both new and repeat customers.
Typically he closes down the drive-in for the season in October, but this year, without many competing events happening, he’s keeping it open as long as possible, even showing holiday movies this weekend after Thanksgiving.
Overall, though, financial losses of 70 to 80 percent due to the pandemic have been “huge,” he said. The CARES Act grant is “a nice shot in the arm,” but the entire theater industry needs more.
Goetz says he’s fortunate to have a “decent reserve in the bank” to cover some losses. He worries other small theaters will go under.
Without federal assistance, about two-thirds of all small and mid-sized movie theater companies in the U.S. will be forced to file for bankruptcy or close permanently by the end of January, according to an estimate by the National Association of Theater Owners of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan.
George Rouman, president of the organization, called the CARES Act grants “a lifeline ... but only in the short term.” Longterm, he said, more action is needed at the federal level.
Meanwhile, “there’s a lot of good movies out there,” Goetz said. “They’re just stacked.” He compared the buildup of new releases to airplanes waiting at an airport on a cloudy day until they can take off.
‘Pivoting as much as we can’
For the Monroe Arts Center, a grant of just over $56,000 “will have a huge impact on stabilizing us for a bit,” said Executive Director Kathy Hennessy. “We were extremely grateful to be one of the awardees.”
Monroe Arts Center (MAC) lost all ticket sales from the second half of its 2020 season. Meanwhile, the organization still has operation costs like upkeep of buildings that are over 100 years old. MAC’s usual staff of three full-time and three part-time employees is down to two working full-time and one working part-time.
“Right now we’re sort of in sustain mode,” Hennessy said.
She is thinking to the future.
With COVID-19 spiking across Wisconsin, she anticipates virtual events will remain the status quo for a while — and may even transform for the long term how theater and the arts are shared.
“We are pivoting as much as we can to online,” like live-streaming concerts, she said, adding that pivoting to online has its own set of expenses, like camera gear. MAC’s annual holiday silent auction fundraiser this year is virtual and by appointment.
Then again, “we fully realize that there’s a segment of our community that’s not online, and what do we do for them?”
Hennessy also wonders how MAC will handle public health precautions at live events once a COVID-19 vaccine comes out.
“We’re starting to think about what it’s going to take to get up and running again. It’s a little bit daunting. It’s going to take some money to get started again and fully engage,” she said.
But “we are a determined bunch here at MAC. ... We’re hanging on, and not every day is unicorns and rainbows, but we’re OK and we’ll be here. We’ll be here when it’s all done.”
Theater provides ‘some kind of levity’
As at all entertainment venues, the Monroe Theatre Guild had to abruptly cancel its season this spring and go dark.
Denise Plantenberg, part-time facilities manager and sole employee of MTG, suspended garbage pickup and shut down as much of the building as possible.
The MTG board requested that she maintain her schedule, she said, but she’s looked for anywhere else to save money. The CARES Act grant — just over $13,000 — will go toward operating costs that can’t be suspended, like property taxes and utilities.
Until it’s safe to hold large in-person events, MTG is looking at alternative ways to connect with the community.
For Halloween, the theater company streamed a scary storytelling event for free to Facebook. They’re hoping to do a similar type of show for Christmas, Plantenberg said, with actors coming in to film short segments that get “stitched” together into a seamless virtual production, also free to the public.
Plantenberg sees the virtual events as a community service and a way to “maintain some kind of levity” in a difficult situation.
“As the year goes on, it becomes more and more apparent (that) just doing these virtual events seems to be helping people’s hearts (and) giving them something to enjoy, something that was normal to them in the past,” she said. “People have missed it.”
‘Til we’re singing again
Thanks to COVID-19, Turner Hall had to cancel some of Monroe’s most time-honored Swiss-themed traditions, including the Swiss Heritage Series programs and events like Sunday Afternoon Dances, Christkindlmarkt and the annual tree lighting.
All operations at the downtown Monroe building have been temporarily suspended. Meanwhile, the cost of maintaining the organization’s licenses and insurance and upkeep of the historic building have continued.
The roughly $26,000 grant from the CARES Act “is going to help us defray a lot of expenses that we’re going to have during this pandemic,” said Wanda Bowles.
Bowles, who wears many hats at Turner Hall as a manager, events coordinator and bookkeeper, said the community’s financial support has also been vital to the 152-year-old institution.
“We just recently had to do our parking lot over, the roof we had to repair, other things. We’ve used the money we’ve received from the community to cover a lot of those costs,” she said. “We’re so grateful for anything.”
She’s excited to get back to normal life.
“We take things so for granted: our health, the music and the joy and being able to get together and celebrate. I think this is just going to make everything that much more special,” she said.
“It’ll be good to have Monroe vibrant again and singing again.”