Brandon Martin describes the past 10 months for himself, his employer and his industry in a single word – bleak.
Martin, director of operations for American Music Theatre, has seen the formerly thriving business battered by crushing punches from COVID-19, the same as many similar venues have suffered.
With the theater temporarily closed to help fight the spread of the virus, nearly all of AMT’s 40 full-time employees have been laid off, except a handful in the box office who are working part time to answer inquiries from customers.
Not only is no revenue coming in, $1.2 million in ticket refunds have gone out so far. Meanwhile, the costs associated with its 1,600-seat facility on Lincoln Highway East – insurance, real estate taxes, maintenance – continue unabated.
Federally funded aid has helped immensely through the fall, but it fell far short of the long-term financial needs of AMT and thousands of other live-event venues nationwide, who’ve been scuffling since COVID-19 arrived in mid-March.
That’s left them hanging on until that unknown time when vaccinations and safety protocols allow audiences to return in profitable numbers.
But their grim outlook improved dramatically two weeks ago when a new grassroots coalition of live-event venues, dubbed the National Independent Venue Association, joined with privately owned cinemas and museums to score an unlikely victory in Washington, D.C.
The bipartisan coalition got its proposal for a potent relief package ‑ specifically for the arts ‑ included in a sweeping, $900 billion COVID-19 stimulus bill signed by President Donald Trump on Dec. 27. That sum includes $15 billion for the coalition’s Save Our Stages program, which takes up a mere 29 pages of the 5,600-page stimulus bill.
Not a bad outcome, considering that legislation to create Save Our Stages -- often referred to simply as SOS -- was given a mere 2% chance of becoming law by one legislation-tracking website when it was introduced as a stand-alone bill last summer.
“All we’ve asked from the very beginning was a fighting chance for survival, and this bill gives us just that,” Martin said.
Penn Ketchum, managing partner of Penn Cinema on Airport Road, reacted to Trump’s signing of the bill this way: “The pit in my stomach is beginning to feel better for the first time since March.”
Penn Cinema partner Jonathan Byler added, “The good news is that we qualify for this funding. The bad news is how clearly we qualify for this funding. It's been a devastating year…,” with revenue down over 90%.
“Save Our Stages is key to keeping our artistic quality high,” said Scott Bowser of Mount Hope Estate & Winery in Manheim, which canceled some events but went forward with others, retaining their usual production values, although audiences were much smaller.
“You don’t want to dilute the experience,” Bowser said. “If people expect high quality entertainment, and you do less, people are going to get frustrated and not come back. The entertainment business is, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ You’re only as good as your last performance.”
Save Our Stages promises up to $10 million in grants to each eligible entity. (See related story for details.) Roughly 20 entities in Lancaster County appear to fit the criteria. The program will be administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration, which has yet to say when and how entities can apply.
Helping these businesses get back on their feet via Save Our Stages will yield powerful benefits for the county, according to the business operators as well as community leaders.
In normal times, these businesses give the county an economic boost by employing 1,300 people, per the Lancaster County Workforce Development Board, and by drawing hundreds of thousands of customers who also patronize nearby hotels, restaurants and stores.
And beyond their monetary impact, the businesses are cultural and social assets that add immeasurably to the quality of life here.
“We’re fortunate to have venues that bring people in from all over,” said Lisa Riggs, president of the Economic Development Company of Lancaster County.
“But equally if not more important, these are places where Lancastrians gather, where we go for entertainment, for social connections. It’s not just about the economics. It’s about the social fabric of the community,” she said.
To gauge the potential impact of Save Our Stages here, LNP | LancasterOnline spoke with executives at seven live-entertainment venues, the operators of three privately owned cinemas here and a science center.
Sight & Sound Theatres
Sight & Sound Theatres in Strasburg, the county’s most popular tourist attraction and a major employer here, is taking a close look at the Save Our Stages program.
“We are hopeful that Sight & Sound can qualify and benefit and we will evaluate as the SBA releases further guidance,” said CEO Matt Neff.
The pandemic has pummeled Sight & Sound, as has been previously reported. The outbreak delayed the March debut of its latest show, “Queen Esther,” led to capacity restrictions when it finally premiered in July and most recently, triggered a mid-December shutdown by the governor.
The shutdowns and capacity restrictions cut Sight & Sound’s revenue during the pandemic by nearly 70%, a company spokeswoman said. It also led to the permanent layoff of 10% of its workforce and furloughs for most of the others, including 215 last month.
Undaunted, Sight & Sound will resume shows of “Queen Esther” on Feb. 12, with shows at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Mount Hope Estate & Winery
For Bowser at Mount Hope Estate & Winery, his business needs to stay fiscally healthy now in order to have quality productions down the road that will not only keep his employees working but also keep its independent vendors busy and nearby hotels filled.
The reason is lead time – Mount Hope starts preparing for its Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire a year ahead of time and its theatrical productions three years ahead of time.
But with revenue slashed by 70% due to COVID-19, or more than $8 million, it’s been a challenge.
“We can only cut back so far,” Bowser said, noting that his team is busy working now on future theatrical shows by attending national auditions, booking group sales and performing other tasks.
At the same time, while the abbreviated 2020 Renaissance Faire drew smaller audiences, it carried extra expenses such as hand sanitizer, temperature checks and other precautions.
Bowser credited a first round Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loan and a $125,000 Recovery Lancaster grant, both received last year, for providing Mount Hope the needed funds to keep operating so far.
American Music Theatre
At American Music Theatre, revenue dove 90% during the pandemic, causing management to take swift and decisive action, Martin said.
“We’ve turned off every expense we possibly can,” he said, with the exception of maintaining health insurance for its formerly full-time employees. Still, no business can stay alive without revenue for a year or more, he said.
Like Mount Hope, AMT has been helped significantly by a PPP forgivable loan and a $125,000 grant from Recovery Lancaster. Many customers also have provided relief, by offering to hold onto their tickets for a future credit or rescheduled show.
Still, without Save Our Stages, Martin said, a permanent shutdown would have been “certainly a possibility,” although AMT would have first explored some “less than desirable” options. “This is not a business we want to get out of.”
But because it takes months to plan and promote tours, it will take some time for AMT to ramp back up. “Even if tomorrow we were able to magically reopen at full capacity, we’re still months away from the touring industry getting back on its feet,” he said.
The leaders of Penn Cinema, with that location on Airport Road plus theaters in Montgomery County and Wilmington, Delaware, see the Save Our Stages grants as “incredibly important for the ongoing viability” of those cinemas as well as The New Main in Ephrata, which Ketchum owns separately.
“This support allows us to plan how we can survive long term and hold on, allowing us to keep our employees on board and continue to serve our community," Byler said.
Each Penn Cinema location and The New Main will apply for a grant, Ketchum said, calling the grants “a critical piece of real recovery for us and theaters like ours across the country.”
Fulton Theatre on North Prince Street is one of several businesses pondering whether to pursue relief under Save Our Stages or the second round of PPP forgivable loans, which also were a part of the stimulus bill, said Marc Robin, executive artistic producer. (Entities can’t receive both.)
“It’s a lot to weigh,” he said.
Whichever way the Fulton goes, the goal is to compensate for a drop in ticket-sale revenue of more than 50%, or more than $2 million, compared to what it had budgeted for 2020. That decline, as well as a substantial decrease in rental income, contributed to a significant loss for the fiscal year ended last Aug. 31, he said.
“We were on track for our best season ever when we closed (in March),” Robin said. “It’s been a rough 10 months but we are grateful for the ongoing support of our community and we continue to have hope moving forward.”
The Fulton hopes to resume having live productions with in-person audiences in late summer or early fall.
Will Prather, majority owner of the Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre on Centerville Road, also is deciding whether to pursue a Save Our Stages grant or a PPP forgivable loan. Whichever he gets, it will be badly needed.
Prather called the pandemic “the most challenging thing we’ve faced” in the Dutch Apple’s 33-year existence, slashing revenue by 79%, or $3 million. As a result, Prather has cut the winter payroll to 10 from the usual 60, while continuing to provide health insurance for full-time employees who’ve been furloughed. Over the holidays, payroll normally peaks at 130.
“The reality is, we just have to keep grinding through this and figuring out that path forward,” he said.
Prather, like some of his peers, credited a first round PPP forgivable loan and a $125,000 Recovery Lancaster grant for getting the Dutch Apple through the coming months. As of now, it expects to resume live shows in late February, despite what are likely to be capacity restrictions.
“That (Recovery Lancaster) grant is going to literally sustain our company, to pay our key managers, to pay our utilities and to get through what is probably going to be a very dark winter,” he said.
Zoetropolis Cinema Stillhouse
Zoetropolis Cinema Stillhouse on North Water Street likewise is figuring out its path forward, said partner Cheila Huettner.
“Any grant relief we get is critical to our comeback. In order to survive this far we had to take on additional debt and for a newer company that's a huge risk, plus it makes it difficult to manage month to month,” she said.
Huettner pointed out that theater revenue alone is down 82%, which in turn means less business for its restaurant and concession operations. Their revenue has declined by more than 50%.
Consequently, the workforce has dropped below 20, compared to about 35 when Zoetropolis was at its peak, she said.
While state-mandated shutdowns and capacity limits have hurt theater revenue the most, Huettner noted: “The theater is a massive space that we're paying rent on that we can't really utilize to its potential, so this is a major hardship for us.”
She thanked the community for its continued support, noting that the public “keeps showing up in a big way to help us when we need it the most, like a true friend.”
Lancaster Science Factory
The Lancaster Science Factory on New Holland Avenue, which appears to fit the Save Our Stages program’s definition of a museum, started 2020 with record-breaking attendance, fueled by a recent renovation and expansion.
Then COVID-19 hit. The science center had to close for 124 days, contributing to a 75% plunge in earned revenue during the pandemic, offset in part by a special fundraising campaign that generated $280,000, said Executive Director Emily Landis.
Still, the nonprofit has had to cut its 22-person staff in half, in part because it’s drawing only 25% of its pre-pandemic attendance. Nonetheless, Landis believes the facility is serving a worthy purpose by staying open.
“We have prioritized business continuity – being open and being there for the community ‑ our visitors and our members,” Landis said.
“We’re seeing a huge demand from new home-school families and new cyber-school families. They’re looking to break up the screen time with in-person experiences. … And the kids seem happy to get out of the house,” she said.
The science center is studying the Save Our Stages program and the PPP forgivable loans to see which is a better fit with its needs, Landis said.
Phantom Power in Millersville faces an unusual situation. Like many other live-music venues, it’s getting thrashed by COVID-19. But unlike most, it’s a new business; its owner doesn’t have the required 2019 numbers to put on applications for COVID-19 relief.
“Just because I opened in February doesn’t change the fact that I’ve had to suffer through devastating financial challenges just like somebody who opened six months before me or six years before me,” said owner Gregg Barley.
Located in the former Point of View Theater, Phantom Power opened three weeks before the pandemic triggered Gov. Tom Wolf’s widespread shutdown and stay-at-home order. Wolf since has allowed intermittent openings at a fraction of capacity, making it impossible for Barley to begin getting a return on his $1 million start-up investment.
“I’ve had to take some money from my home equity line of credit to make sure I don’t overdraw my bank account. But we have a long ways to go until the sun starts shining,” said Barley.
Though Barley is employing five people rather than the 20 he anticipated having, the pandemic has forced him to come up with imaginative ways to generate revenue, such as outdoor concerts, drive-in movies and stand-up comics.
And that’s not a bad thing at all. “If we can get back to what we’ll call a normal lifestyle, we’ve discovered a lot of exciting features that we didn’t realize we had when we first opened our doors” that will help him develop “an amazing experience for customers.”
Susquehanna Stage Co.
Susquehanna Stage Co. in Marietta, which anticipates applying for a Save Our Stages grant, shares the same struggles at its larger theater brethren, just on a smaller scale.
Jim Johnson, founding artistic director, said revenue from April 1 through Dec. 31 was down 75%, compared to the same period in 2019, as COVID-19 allowed Susquehanna to have a full run of just one show. It had to cancel four others and present half a run of a fifth. It also missed out on chances to rent its facility.
While Susquehanna was able to tap a PPP forgivable loan and Recovery Lancaster grant, keeping its two employees on board, 2020 “depleted funds” and makes 2021 “a very lean time for us and forces us to examine our early budgeted costs for productions,” he said.
Its 2021 season is set to begin March 12 with the play “Noises Off.”