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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘There’s only going forward’: As live events return, venues navigate strong demand, continuing uncertainty

The strangest thing about Ice Cube’s concert on Thursday night at the 5,000-seat BECU Live amphitheater at Northern Quest Resort and Casino was how normal it was.

At the first major live concert in Spokane in a year and a half, the beer lines were long, every seat was sold and the crowd pressed close to the stage to hear hits like “It Was a Good Day.”

But while signs of the global pandemic were almost impossible to come by, Leah Mays had one tucked in her pocket.

“I brought my mask,” she said, “just in case, even though I’m vaccinated.”

Mays and her husband, Harry, had driven from the Tri-Cities to see a hip-hop legend under the night sky, and they were relieved it was actually happening.

When they booked their tickets some five months ago, Mays said they weren’t sure a concert that had already been rescheduled would proceed as planned.

Leah Mays isn’t the only one dogged by a sense of uncertainty about whether it’s safe to return to packed theaters and clubs – and about whether to count on the long-term stability of the long-awaited return to live entertainment.

Jeff vom Saal, executive director of both the Spokane Symphony and the Fox Theater, leads a large and complex organization that’s charting a return to packed houses, guest conductors, stocked concession stands, rehearsals for orchestral works, and concerts booked by outside promoters.

Restarting the gears of such a complex operation after a sudden shutdown in early 2020 and a prolonged period of uncertainty has left vom Saal, like others who work behind the scenes to bring live entertainment to life, both eager to return to the way things were and uncertain about how to chart a new future.

“Is there a going back?” vom Saal said. “No. There’s only going forward.”

Reserved and ready

When the pandemic made its presence known in Washington, the Spokane Symphony didn’t delay decisive action.

Before Gov. Jay Inslee had even issued his unprecedented “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order on March 24, 2020, vom Saal and the symphony canceled the rest of the season they were in the middle of.

That was the first in a series of difficult decisions vom Saal and his colleagues made as part of their effort to “focus on ensuring long-term viability.”

After shutting down the end of the symphony’s 74th season, vom Saal had to ax the entirety of its 75th season.

But it wasn’t just audiences who were bound to be disappointed by the need to batten down the hatches and ride out the storm.

The symphony’s 70 contract musicians effectively lost 80% of their salaries last year after being furloughed. The symphony’s staff of 30 was slimmed down to 20, and those remaining employees also only received about 20% of their income. Another approximately 225 part-timers lost their income as well.

On top of those cuts, though, the Spokane Symphony was “even more vulnerable” to the global shutdown than similar orchestras, vom Saal said, due to its “unique” status as owner of the hall in which it plays.

Not only did the symphony lose the income from its own performances, it also lost the income from the countless cancelled or rescheduled events slated for the Fox, including everything from weddings to rock concerts.

By the time shutdown orders were lifted at the beginning of July, the Spokane Symphony had lost $1.7 million in revenue, vom Saal said.

And while the organization had the opportunity to open its door and flip the stage lights back on, it wasn’t quite that simple.

Vom Saal described the symphony’s decision to return for its 76th season as a mixture of “art and science.”

He and his colleagues consulted public health officials, talked to patrons and sought input from the League of American Orchestras, vom Saal said, before deciding to resume live performances, albeit in a somewhat scaled-down way.

Instead of the usual 10 masterworks performances, for example, this season will feature only seven.

Vom Saal is also working with promoters to meet their “huge pent-up demand” to host shows at the Fox.

A “long-term symptom” of the pandemic, he said, is that the symphony is now “extra sensitive to spending.”

“We have to be a little bit more reserved and be ready,” he said.

While that conservatism has benefits, vom Saal also worries about the potential effects of an arts organization that thrives on adventuresome programming being left in a “very strong defensive position.”

Despite treading lightly, vom Saal hasn’t abandoned his ambitions for the orchestra. He’s enlisted, for example, the acclaimed conductor Leonard Slatkin to lead the Spokane Symphony during its 2022-23 season.

The symphony is on the brink of entering negotiations with the union that represents the orchestra’s musicians, and it is in the position of trying to re-staff full- and part-time positions at a time when hiring is difficult.

So while the Fox will host its first large concert since March 9, 2019, on Sept. 11 and the symphony will be back in its home hall a week later, the challenges presented by the pandemic won’t disappear.

“It continues to be hard in new and unexpected ways,” vom Saal said.

But he said it’s important to overcome those ongoing obstacles.

“Without an orchestra, it’s just a hall,” vom Saal said. “Without an audience, it’s just a rehearsal.”

‘A feeling coming back’

Tim Lannigan got a firsthand look at the importance of a live audience on July 1, one day after the state’s pandemic restrictions were essentially lifted, when his band Big Raffle played the combination restaurant-bar he co-owns on First Avenue, just a block away from the Fox.

And what Lannigan, who owns Neato Burrito and Baby Bar with Patty Tully, saw was revelatory.

“A number of people during the show cried, just seeing live music,” Lannigan said. “It was overwhelming to them. … It’s loud, it’s in your face. It’s a feeling that’s very nonpandemic.”

Lannigan said the show represented a “really emotional” return after 18 months of uncertainty and isolation.

After shutting down in mid-March of 2020, Lannigan and Tully kept the flame of its live events lit by hosting livestreamed events before reopening the bar and restaurant at half-capacity in May.

While those online shows helped people stay “part of the scene” despite being stuck at home and helped keep “Neato fresh in everyone’s mind” during its closure, Tully said, it couldn’t replace the feeling of being in a room with a band, within a crowd.

The loss of live music, Lannigan said, made people appreciate what they had tended to take for granted.

“Crowds before, you knew that you were going to see that band, especially a local band, again,” he said. “I think people had a feeling coming back how special it actually was. There is a chance you won’t ever see this band again, you won’t ever be in that moment again.”

And as vaccination rates languish and COVID-19 variants spread, Lannigan acknowledged the possibility that his venue may have to backtrack.

“I would hope for the best,” he said. “But in all honesty, if we have to go back, we could go back to half capacity and no shows. … If that’s what has to happen, that’s what should happen. And we don’t have a problem with it.”

Dawson Hoerner, who co-owns another downtown venue, the Big Dipper, is taking a similar approach.

She and her husband, Dan Hoerner, reopened earlier this month, though not without reservations or precautions.

Their first few shows earlier this month were a success, Hoerner said, but she is reluctant to move forward too fast.

“People have been asking for shows, but we really wanted to ease into it to try and be careful,” she said. “Even in August, we’re only doing five shows and it’s not because of lack of people asking for shows. It’s really, we’re trying to get back to it slowly and carefully and see how people feel.”

Among the shows she’s turning down are those from touring bands due to concerns that, despite progress, the pandemic may resurge.

“I do worry that with new variants, like the delta variant, we don’t know what to expect,” Hoerner said. “And I don’t want to set up a bunch of things that we would have to cancel.”

‘Champing at the bit’

Not everyone, however, is comfortable bringing their venues back just yet, even in a limited capacity.

Jeremy Whittington is the managing and artistic director of Stage Left, a 60-seat black-box theater on Third Avenue.

He’s spent the pandemic rehabbing both the inside and outside of the space, but audiences will have to wait until January to file in and see the changes.

Stage Left has had success livestreaming shows, drawing more than 1,000 views for some productions, which “is more than we would normally have in-house,” Whittington said.

Over the next six months, the theater will offer more online-only one-person shows while also beginning auditions and rehearsals for an in-person production slated to open on Jan. 7.

“I think people are being a little naïve if they think coronavirus and shutdowns are a thing of the past,” Whittington said. “I think we’re going to see more of that this fall.”

And while he’s “super champing at the bit to get back to in-person shows,” he worries that opening too quickly could backfire.

“I’m just imagining a theater that seats 500 people and it’s packed to the gills and half of them are unvaccinated and coronavirus is back on the rise,” he said. “It’s seems really irresponsible to me to make those calls right now, to me personally. Since we’re finding success in online streaming, it seems the safe route to go until we have better numbers here in Washington.”

But come Oct. 19, the 2,700-seat First Interstate Center for the Arts will likely be packed to the gills.

Peter Rossing, director of marketing for WestCoast Entertainment, which puts on the Best of Broadway series at the FICA, acknowledged COVID-19’s future effect remains “unknown.”

“But we really hope by October there won’t be anything that changes the experience or the enjoyment of the show,” Rossing said.

If everything goes according to plan, audiences will return for a new run of the show that launched the Broadway series in the 1980s: “Cats.”

“It’s fun to think that’s how Broadway in Spokane got started, and that’s the way we’re restarting after an unexpected break,” Rossing said.

And there’s a new venue in Spokane that is getting its actual start in the post-pandemic world: the Pavilion at Riverfront Park.

Michael Spadoni, director of marketing for AEG Presents Pacific Northwest, booked the shows for the Pavilion’s first season, which was supposed to take place last year. Instead, it will begin Aug. 13, with Primus.

While he worried people might be “timid” to return to live events, Spadoni said things have gone better than expected.

“Every day I get a full Excel spreadsheet of our (Pavilion) ticket counts and lately it’s been the favorite part of my day,” Spadoni said. “Tickets are selling really well across the entire region. That’s all genres as well. I think people are really excited to go out and party again.”