A return to normalcy? Entertainment is back on the big scale

Barbara Merkley

March 2020 is when everything changed. Two years later, we are examining how those changes inform us and inspire new direction.

Over the coming weeks, we will be taking a look at the way forward and how change has transformed our communities in every way — schools, health care, politics, policing, entertainment, religion, nonprofits and business.

Stories by a team of local reporters will be published periodically over the next several weeks and online at timesherald.com/tag/coronavirus/

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With apologies to Prince, it appears like it’s time to party like it’s 2019.

The COVID Pandemic hit the theater crowd hard. From getting ready to put on a full week of Les Misérables at the Kimmel Center Campus to quiet concert tickets being sold to foot traffic around the city, the shutdown 2020 shutdown came as a shock to the business.

Now, things are getting “back to normal,” but there still might be a few changes that will stick.

“As fans prepare for what is on track to be one of the biggest summer concert seasons in history, there are a few measures that were introduced last season that will continue to be in place, particularly in Camden at the Waterfront Music Pavilion, and several other venues,” said a spokesman for the venue, mentioning things like clear bags to enter and cashless transactions.

“All points of sale including parking, merchandise, food & beverage will only accept debit, credit or mobile pay (Apply Pay or Google Pay). For fans that wish to use cash, cash to card conversion will be available on-site. To reduce staff contact with guest belongings, the venue has implemented the following bag policy: we will allow clear plastic, vinyl or PVC tote bags no larger than 12” x 6” x 12” and/or small clutch bags (4.5”x 6.5”). No other bags of any type will be allowed.”

The summer concert season is back to a full schedule. Such musical heavyweights such as Judas Priest, Pearl Jam, Norah Jones, Bonnie Raitt and Robert Plant will be performing around the region.

“Nothing replaces the live music experience,” said the spokesman. “It’s a magical moment when those lights go down and you see your favorite artist singing your favorite song live. Judging by early response to the recent announcement of our summer concert series in the Philadelphia-region, people are excited to attend a live show this summer. We have an amazing line up of outdoor shows coming to our area this summer at Waterfront Music Pavilion, the Mann Center, Lincoln Financial Field, and Citizens Bank Park.”

Meanwhile, Broadway plays at the Kimmel Cultural Campus have been selling out since ‘Hamilton’ took over the Academy of Music in October. Shows such as ‘Rent,’ ‘Oklahoma!’ and ‘Pretty Woman: The Musical’ has been playing to packed, albeit masked, crowds since.

Coming up later this year will be the show ‘Waitress,’ as well as the critically acclaimed ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and the award-winning ‘Dear Evan Hansen.’

The Kimmel Center Cultural Campus has ...
The Kimmel Center Cultural Campus has a full slate of events over the next few months, induding Broadway plays and concerts.

Also hit hard were museums. Everything from the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the Franklin Institute to The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University went from a full schedule of events to nothing. Now, many are still not open a full seven days.

“One of things that we did was it launched digital programing in ways we really hadn’t embraced at the beginning of the pandemic,” said Lisa Miller, the Chief Financial Officer and Chief Operating Officer at the The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. “I think those things were super well attended at the beginning, then, as with COVID, people started to get tired of those things. I think what we found is there is definitely a place for those digital programs going forward. And, having a good mix of in-person, on-site programing and virtual programming is here to stay. It’s exciting, because people who haven’t been able to attend programming over the last number of years for any number of reasons, began to take advantage of some of that virtual programming.”

The Academy of Natural Sciences is on the Parkway, in Philadelphia’s Museum District.

Some of the programming includes podcasts, virtual visits to the museums and videos.

Now as some of the masking and mandates are being removed, attendance at the museums is starting to pick up.

We are starting to see in-person visits start to pick up as well as memberships,” Miller said. “Which is super exciting. We love to see the people look at our exhibits here at the museum.”

The Franklin Institute has been seeing pre-pandemic crowds since the opening of ‘The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.’ (VINCE CAREY / MEDIANEWS GROUP)

While many of the indoor museums and theaters are still requiring masks, many believe that will be lifted in the next few months.

Theatre Philadelphia announced this week it will kick-off the Fifth Annual Philadelphia Theatre Week with an event on the rooftop garden of the Kimmel Center March 30 at 5 p.m. Audiences can see preview scenes, songs, and interactive performances from participating Philly Theatre Week companies at Theatre Philadelphia’s first in-person event since 2020.

“Philly Theatre Week continues to be a special time of year when the entire theatre community, from audience, to solo producers to our Center City theatre institutions, get to pointedly celebrate our world class sector,” said Executive Director LaNeshe Miller-White. “We are thrilled to see the ongoing commitment of audiences and producers to make space for this annual event. Our kick-off event marks the first in-person event for Theatre Philadelphia since 2020. We are so excited to be able to gather again with the artistic community.”

Just as the Philadelphia area is enjoying a rebirth post-pandemic, much is the same across the region.

Santander venues going at full tilt

At Santander Arena and its nearby sister venue, the Santander Performing Arts Center, an 1,800-seat theater in downtown Reading, things have largely returned to the “old” normal.

“We had a 16- to 18-month lull,” said David Farrar, general manager of the ASM Global-managed facilities, “and once this fiscal year started in July we started ramping back up.”

Farrar said masking is now recommended but not required unless a particular performer requests it, which he said hasn’t happened for a while. Vaccination cards are not required.

The venues kicked off their 20th anniversary season in August and have had one of the busier years in recent memory, according to Farrar, including 30 events in February and 36 events this month.

“I think people are glad that we’re back,” he said. “The crowds have been really good overall.”

The Santander Arena in Reading is mask optional (Reading Eagle file photo)

Both venues will be hopping for the foreseeable future, with highlights including Mark Anthony on Thursday, a sold-out Slipknot show on April 2, comedian Bert Kreischer on April 7, Christian pop duo For King & Country on April 24, Breaking Benjamin on April 30 and Hot Wheels Monster Trucks Live on May 21. The full schedule is at santander-arena.com.

Reading Symphony Orchestra perseveres

The Reading Symphony Orchestra, which presents its subscription concert series at the Santander Performing Arts Center, came through the pandemic very strong, said David S. Gross, executive director.

They pivoted to livestreaming concerts beginning in January 2021, with the first one resulting in 7,500 views from people in 36 countries. In April 2021, they were the first orchestra in Pennsylvania to welcome back live audiences, and offered repeat performances so they could limit capacity and allow for social distancing.

Music Director Andrew Constantine leads the Reading Symphony Orchestra at the Santander Performing Arts Center. (File Photo)

Gross said they came within about $7,500 of their pre-pandemic subscription cash level, which was gratifying.

“I think we’ll always look at the idea of being able to offer some of our programming as a livestream or pre-recorded,” Gross said. “I think there is some value in that. On a targeted basis, we’ll be able to reach some of our patrons and supporters who are no longer able to come out and attend a concert on a Saturday evening.”

Gross said the first in-person concert last April went beyond an entertainment experience.

“I think it was as much therapeutic as it was anything,” he said. “It was for me. Being able to hear our orchestra perform live again kind of signaled that we were going to get through this.”

The first three concerts of 2021-22 season averaged around 1,200 attendees per concert. There are two more classic concerts (April 9 and May 21) and a pops concert (April 23) still to come this season, and the orchestra has already announced a full slate of concerts for the 2022-23 season.

“I feel like we’ve come through it well,” Gross said. “Every arts organization is going to continue to have some challenges until everything is back to normal, but I have a high degree of confidence in the long-term viability of the Reading Symphony, and that it’s going to be a strong arts organization and there will be a strong arts community in Berks County for a long time to come.”

A buzz in the air at the Miller Center

At Reading Area Community College’s 500-seat Miller Center for the Arts in downtown Reading, a sold-out Three Dog Night concert in September marked the return to live events.

“There was just a buzz in the air (that night),” said Megan Schappell, house manager and box office coordinator. “People were so excited to be back. I do think a sense of community and a sense of people being together is going to be our biggest takeaway from this. People are just excited, so there’s more of a bond when we’re all together now.”

Masks are no longer required at the Miller Center, nor are vaccination cards.

Schappell said ticket sales have been up compared to prior years.

Upcoming event highlights include the family-friendly, circus-type act, The Great DuBois, on April 22 and a couple of expected sell-outs: the Pink Floyd tribute act The Machine on April 23 and singer-songwriter Josh Ritter on May 7.

Also on the horizon is a concert by Mary Chapin Carpenter to kick off the Miller Center’s 15th anniversary season on Aug. 16. Schappell said more big anniversary-season announcements are forthcoming, including a children’s series.

GoggleWorks finds new avenues

A block away at the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts, president and executive director Levi Landis said the pandemic prompted an entirely new approach focused on small groups and outdoor activities.

The entrance to the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts. At the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts in Reading, PA Thursday morning February 17, 2022. The Center recently created an endowment to help support the operations of the organization. (BEN HASTY — READING EAGLE)

Now, things are beginning to return to normal at the campus, formerly home to a safety-glasses manufacturing facility that has been converted into an arts facility housing several galleries, more than two dozen artists’ studios, eight teaching studios and the 125-seat Boscov Film Theatre that focuses on art films.

“It’s 145,000 square feet where art happens,” Landis said of the site. “It’s a whole super-block.”

During the pandemic they offered highly curated experiences called Art Explorer packages to small groups, private screenings in the film theater, micro-weddings in their event spaces and digital art classes that attracted students from across the ocean.

In the summer, they hosted drive-in movies in the parking lot, which Landis said they are planning to continue this summer. And this winter’s art classes and workshops attracted their highest enrollment ever.

“It says to me that there’s something bigger in terms of people at least wanting to find normalcy and wanting to find their way back to the arts,” Landis said.

On the schedule at the GoggleWorks are an exhibit that runs through Sunday featuring works by Halim Flowers, a renowned artist and activist who taught himself art while serving 22 years in prison after a wrongful conviction, and an outdoor Forge Festival on April 30 that features an iron pour at dusk, blacksmithing demonstrations, live music and food vendors. The annual Arts Festival Reading will return in December, and some other major announcements are soon to come, Landis said.

Berks Jazz Fest ready to roll

Downtown Reading and its suburbs will be buzzing in early April as the Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest returns for its 31st year. It’s been a tumultuous two years for the festival, with March 2020’s 30th anniversary festival being postponed twice due to COVID before finally being held in August 2021. But festival general manager John Ernesto said thanks to strong support from the community and the participating artists, the festival remains on firm footing.

Running April 1-10, with downtown Reading’s DoubleTree by Hilton hotel serving as the hub, this year’s festival boasts more than 40 ticketed events featuring nationally known artists, plus approximately 60 free events in local bars and restaurants. (File Photo)

“Given all the challenges and the constant rescheduling, the fans stuck with us, and I think at the end of the day the (August) festival was successful,” he said. “Was it as successful as some other ones? No. But given the challenges and COVID that we had to hurdle, we were satisfied with how the festival worked.”

Running April 1-10, with downtown Reading’s DoubleTree by Hilton hotel serving as the hub, this year’s festival boasts more than 40 ticketed events featuring nationally known artists, plus approximately 60 free events in local bars and restaurants.

Ernesto said more than 20,000 people typically attend the ticketed events, with 65 percent coming from out of town, and an estimated 15,000 more people take in the free events.

In normal years, tickets sells well right out of the gate, but this year’s on-sale date coincided with the surge of the omicron variant, which gave people pause, so Ernesto said they had to adjust their marketing strategy.

“As things got better, we saw an uptick, and every week ticket sales are getting stronger and stronger,” Ernesto said. “So we’re cautiously optimistic that we’re going to have a strong finish with a lot of sales leading right up to the festival and during the festival, which is not our normal business model. I know the hotels are doing very well; their reservations are very strong.”

Ernesto said masks will be optional for attendees and vaccination cards are not required.

For the lineup and additional information, visit berksjazzfest.com.

Theater, cinema returning to normal

Vicki Haller Graff wears two hats in the local arts scene, serving as artistic director for the community theater group Reading Theater Project and executive assistant of Fox Theatres, which operates Fox Berkshire, a multiplex cinema in Wyomissing, Berks County. On both fronts, she said, things are returning to pre-pandemic normal.

Not having its own theater space, nor the expenses that go with it, proved beneficial for Reading Theater Project, which adapted to the pandemic by trying ZOOM performances and outdoor performances at the Reading Pubic Museum Arboretum, and also launched an every-other-month program on Berks Community Television called “Reading Reading” (as in “Reading reading”) featuring interviews with playwrights and readings of new plays. Another performance at the Arboretum is planned for July 10, and the TV show will continue, as well, with the next one airing May 17.

Reading Theater Project returned to indoor performances with “Mixed MESSages” in the fall and “5 Minute Fringe Fest” last month. Audiences were masked but the performers were not.

“We didn’t have any issues,” Graff said. “We all felt safe and healthy and felt like it was still a great theater experience for audience and performers.”

She said audience members were excited to be out seeing live theater again, although they did get some feedback from people who just weren’t ready for that yet, and were grateful for the BCTV show.

Up next for Reading Theater Project is “Shakespeare at the Symphony,” in conjunction with the Reading Symphony Orchestra, on April 9. As for masking, Graff said, “We’re really just trying to follow the CDC guidance and follow what our peers are doing, here and in Philly and even New York.” To keep updated, visit readingtheaterproject.org.

Graff said the Fox Berkshire multiplex has been seeing a steady rise in attendance, especially for bigger films like “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “The Batman.”

“‘Batman’ really helped us feel like things are getting back to normal,” she said.

During the pandemic, Fox Wyomissing tried some new things, such as private screenings to small groups, curbside popcorn and special events. Now, they are back to full capacity, and masking is optional.

The movie industry is still reeling a bit with fewer new releases due to pandemic-induced production delays, but Graff said there are still some high-profile films on the horizon, including “Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” on May 6, “Downton Abbey: A New Era” on May 20 and “Top Gun: Maverick” on May 27.

“We’re excited,” Graff said. “We love seeing people back. People get so happy to come to theater, whether it’s a horror movie where you’re scared together or a comedy where people are laughing together. Like live theater, I guess, it’s different when you’re with a group.”

Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center

From the Kennett Flash to Longwood Gardens, live events are in full swing this spring. Yet from West Chester to Philadelphia and elsewhere, much has changed for the Arts during the last 24 months.

“We miss our audiences,” said Carol Flannery, marketing director of Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center, 226 N. High St. in West Chester.

“Our doors are open and we are very ready to welcome them back. We know what having access to the performing arts means to Chester County and we are working very hard to bring back drama, music, dance, comedy and film in a way that is entertaining, exciting and new,” Flannery said. “Keep an eye on us — we have surprises in store for this year.”

Twenty-four months ago, theatres across the country shutdown. Parades then canceled. No live events with music or even weddings. For weeks, as spring arose.

And two years later, now that the fear of an unknown pandemic has subsided, people are uniting around the world with music and events together.

“Audiences are very ready to return to live performances,” Flannery said. “They want to do so safely and they want to know that we’re looking out for them, but they want to get out to enjoy the performing arts — theatre, music and dance. “

Bands are touring again

Ethan Chambers is a sound engineer.

The East Nottingham native leaves home often to tour with bands across America and around the world. In 2019, Chambers’ work kept him quite busy.

As a sound engineer, he reaches out to 50 venues to secure logistical plans for a tour.

Right now he’s in Detroit, Michigan, on tour with Circles Around the Sun.

East Nottingham resident Ethan Chambers with Circles Around The Sun in Atlanta at Terminal West. (COURTESY PHOTO)

“I’ll be with these guys for about a month,” Chamber said.

And then he’s set to leave home again for a nationwide tour with Grateful Shred.

Chambers began supporting local theaters with sound support in Southern Chester County while still in high school.

In 2016, and after attending Prom, he left Oxford High in pursuit of music and the art of sound engineering at live events.

In 2019, “I worked all over the world,” Chambers said.

He worked hundreds of shows. In a month, he might have four days off.

“When you’re on tour, it’s very hard to keep track of time,” he said. “It’s very bizarre.”

Some bands tour for three months. Other gigs are brief.

In February 2020 Chambers said he was on an East Coast tour as news of the unknown pandemic first broke.

“I remember being on the tour bus,” Chambers said. “Sure enough the tour ended in DC. I took a train up and within four days – an entire year – everything was canceled.”

To go from $80K to $90K in scheduled work to zero, he recalled.

Chambers said the greatest lesson he learned in 2020 was simple.

“Just how fragile things are,” Chambers said. “Everything’s fragile.”

“For me in 2020, I think I did three actual days of production work,” Chambers said of 2020 after March, including two live stream events and one event for Biden in Wilmington in which Chambers provided equipment.

When tours began again, they were close to home even in 2021.

Going on tour is very expensive, Chambers said, but bands kept playing to connect with people and do something.

Rules varied venue to venue. Some had circles on the ground to showcase where people were supposed to stand.

Red Rocks outside Denver, Colorado, had venue rules that varied from elsewhere.

“It was wild,” he said of shows last year.

He’s now on his first tour of 2022.

Chambers talks to every single venue to connect with the plan of the show. He said only three venues thus far this year have mentioned Corona.

“Almost seemingly, it’s done.”

And then there’s the power of music.

“People want it. Even when the pandemic was in full swing, people wanted it,” Chambers said. “And really the only thing that stopped it was all the rules.”

Since the dawn of time, music’s been around, Chambers said.

“I don’t think it’s going anywhere.”





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