California is hurtling toward its big reopening when capacity limits at businesses will go out the window, but even ahead of that, large groups are already coming together again.
Hundreds piled into the Candlelight Pavilion in Claremont for appetizers, drinks, and a show at the start of this month. For almost four decades, the dinner theater has been a destination for families, seniors, or dates. After a COVID closure spanning nearly 15 months, it reopened on June 2.
Retiree Ann Bach was in the crowd that evening, and she was drinking in something we used to take for granted.
“It’s nice to hear the buzz of people,” Bach says, surveying the theater. “It’s nice to see all these tables full. I have felt … almost a grief for some of the theater kind of venues. It’s wonderful to see people back. I think people are glad to be back. I’m glad to be back.”
The road to “back” hasn’t been easy for this venue that provides both food and entertainment. It’s jumping through two sets of hoops: one for restaurants and another for performance spaces. The Candlelight reopened at half capacity. In order to do that, they’ve instituted a strict policy of no entry without a vaccine card or negative COVID test.
The story of getting to that (half) packed theater spans more than a year and includes existential questions, illness, and a lot of anticipation. We present the Candlelight’s road back to business in two acts.
Act 1, Scene 1. The setting: the box office a week before opening night.
For a theater, the end to a year of uncertainty sounds like a busy box office. Phones are ringing, reservations that were made for a season that never happened in 2020 are being reconfigured, and poster-sized seating charts of the Candlelight Pavilion with names scrawled on the tables are littered all over the place.
This theater’s future wasn’t in as much doubt as some small venues that are still worried about whether they’ll ever reopen, but the Candlelight’s brother and sister management team still had some dark days.
“My mind went into complete damage mode,” says Mindy Teuber as she thinks back to those early days of COVID lockdowns. “How do I navigate no income, still knowing that there’s payables sitting on the books [like] food, rents? We couldn’t just turn off everybody’s health insurance. Everybody who’s on health insurance, we said, ‘We’ll cover you through June and then we’ll talk again.’”
She started working here when she was 16. Her brother, Mick Bollinger, started at 18. Their dad, Ben Bollinger, came up with the idea for the Candlelight and opened it in 1985.
Before the pandemic, they’d stage eight big musical productions a year, classics like “Oklahoma!” or sometimes racier fare like “The Full Monty.” The audience of several hundred got a full sit-down meal: Think tri-tip or marinated chicken with couscous. The baked brie appetizer has been on the menu for 20-plus years. And between Friday night and Sunday night, it would all go off without a hitch five times.
But the pandemic threw a beach-worth of sand into the gears of the operation. When the virus prompted all businesses not deemed “essential” to go dark in March of 2020 and there was no clear picture as to how long the shutdowns would last, Teuber, who does a lot of the finances, immediately battened down the Candelight’s hatches and tried to hold on to every cent possible.
She says they’d banked savings from a string of good years, but without securing assistance like PPP loans, they wouldn’t have been able to eke by.
As Teuber navigated a sea of spreadsheets, Bollinger was adrift.
“I would come into work and just kind of stare over her shoulder at her working her butt off trying to figure out these loans,” he recalls. “And I could tell she didn’t like it, but I just felt like I needed to be here, just to keep in my mind the theater’s still here.”
The doubts got especially bad when he thought about not being able to share the theater with his grandkids.
“I used to take them up on stage for my curtain speeches,” he says, voice cracking, eyes starting to water. “It was just a difficult time not to be able to have them enjoy that. And of course they would ask me all the time, ‘Papa, when’s the theater going to open?’ And that’s when it got tough, thinking it may not happen.”
The virus didn’t just stop at threatening the business. It came for the family too.
“So when I got COVID, I got really sick,” Bollinger says. “If it wasn’t for the monoclonal therapy, I think I definitely would’ve ended up in the hospital because my lungs were really bad. And as a result I’m still suffering from a hardening of the lungs.”
A week before opening day, he’s feeling good and in high spirits.
Act 1, Scene 2. The setting: the empty theater.
This big open space will soon be filled with people sitting at amply spaced smaller tables than pre-pandemic. The usual guitarist who played on stage while people dined will be gone because that’s against health rules. And, what’s maybe the most important safety measure will bring the biggest reward.
“By requiring the COVID shot and by requiring a COVID test within 72 hours, we were allowed to have 50% occupancy,” says Bollinger looking around the empty room.
If they didn’t check vaccine status, occupancy would be capped at a measly 15%.
Bollinger says the theater has twisted itself into a pretzel to comply with two sets of guidelines: one for restaurants and another for venues. It begs the question: How big of a pain is this?
There’s a hearty laugh from Bollinger before he concedes: “It’s not something we’re looking forward to. I mean, of course we wish we didn’t have to do this, but by the same token … we’re very happy to be able to do it so that people see that we are genuinely concerned for their safety.”
Act 2, Scene 1: Opening night. The setting: Mick Bollinger’s office. Two and a half hours until showtime.
“I’m nervous,” says an antsy Bollinger. “I’m really, uh, I’m, I’m really excited as can be. I can’t even tell you how excited I am, but at the same time I’m really nervous to even get up on stage in front of people. I haven’t done that in 15 months.”
As the pre-show minutes crawl along, Ticket to Ride, a Beatles tribute band that’s tonight’s entertainment, is settling into the dressing room ahead of sound check. This evening is a milestone for them too.
“This is the first show with like actually an audience … real people in the room with us,” Jeff Toczynski, who plays Paul McCartney, says with genuine excitement and a smile.
Act 2, Scene 2: the arrival.
School teacher Teyana Smith is with her husband and another couple lined up outside waiting to go in the theater. This is her first outing to a big venue in more than a year. She's vaccinated, feeling good about tonight, and noticing a difference.
“You know people aren’t saying, ‘Stay away from me, don’t get too close’ because you have to either be vaccinated to get in here, or you have to have a COVID negative test to come in, so it’s pretty safe,” she says.
The COVID cops for this inaugural show are Bollinger and Teuber. Midway through check-in, Teuber says things are going well.
“We’ve had one person that did not have their card or a test, but they were very lovely about it,” she confides between welcoming people in. “I was a little anxious at first, but thankfully they understood. People are very excited to show their cards, so I think that’s a good sign.”
Act 2, Scene 3: Showtime. The setting: inside the theater.
People are in a good mood and staying orderly as they’re taken to their seats.
Heading to a booth is the Dominguez family. Mom Valerie and Dad Derek have brought their 7-year-old daughter to rock out to Beatles songs.
“Yeah, we feel safe,” Valerie says. “I mean, we have our vaccines.”
But Derek is unenthused that he had to prove his vaccination status.
“As far as showing the card, that’s cool, but I don’t think things should be mandatory,” he says.
At that moment, Valerie jumps in with a laugh: “But we’re law-abiding citizens, so we’re going to do what the law says.”
As they run off to their seats, two gals are already putting a nice dent in the bottle of wine chilling on their table. One of them is Ann Bach, the other is her aqua-aerobics buddy Jane Callahan who proudly declares she’s 85.
“They take very good care of me,” Callahan says in a confidential tone about the staff. “They think I don’t know that they’re managing me. But I do.”
She’s elated to be out among people again and has no issue with having to show her vaccine card.
“Why not,” Callahan says with a shrug. “I show a passport if I go to England.”
Sipping her white wine and snacking on a charcuterie platter, she looks completely unbothered by the sea of crowded tables.
“No, I feel very comfortable here,” she says. “I know Mick wouldn’t have us come here and put us in jeopardy.”
Once the last dishes are cleared, Bollinger gets up on stage and thanks people for being here, cracks jokes, and announces his whole family is in the audience. Then he rounds the final turn.
“So ladies and gentlemen, welcome back,” he says from the stage, beaming. “I missed you all so much!”
The applause is loud and long. Then he introduces the band and the curtain rises on the four lads from Liverpool.
With a twist and a shout, life is back at the Candlelight Pavilion.
Act 2, Scene 4: Finale.
Hours after the pre-show nerves were weighing on him, Bollinger is now at ease.
“Well I can tell you this, I’m going to sleep a helluva lot better tonight,” he says with relief. “I’m refreshed and I think the staff is too. They know that we can do this and that we’re going to pull through this, and it’s only going to get better from here.”
The Pavilion was as booked as it could be tonight, and they did good sales on food and drinks. For now, just breaking even is going to be the benchmark of success as they make their way through the credits they owe patrons for last year. All of the rules they’re abiding by at the moment could completely change when California officially reopens on June 15, but Bollinger thinks their effort to promote safety was a big reason why the house was packed.
After going strong for 36 years, COVID caused the Candlelight to seriously flicker, but now it seems the dinner theater is on its way to shining again.