California is allowing indoor entertainment events to resume this week at reduced capacity. But some concert halls and theaters aren’t ready to reopen just yet.
KCRW talks with Jon Halperin, talent buyer for Pomona’s the Glass House, an independent, all-ages venue known for booking local acts early in their careers, including Maroon 5 and System of a Down.
Also in the conversation: Thor Steingraber, executive director of the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts on the Cal State Northridge campus.
KCRW: The Soraya is celebrating its tenth anniversary. What has the last year been like for you?
Thor Steingraber: “It's been harrowing. We closed down on a moment's notice, like everybody else. We've iterated on plans multiple times, thinking at first, ‘Oh, this is going to be a couple weeks, couple months, or maybe a year.’ Our number one goal is not only to get audiences in seats, but to give artists work and an opportunity to do what they do.
So sometime around last summer, early last fall, we started innovating in that area, particularly in the online space. But then all of a sudden, in the last couple months, it's [weighing] in a different way. Things are changing quickly. And the news is coming fast. And it's basically like starting over, to be honest.”
Like starting a whole new business from scratch?
Steingraber: “Sort of. All of our part-time staff went their various ways last May. And we went from an operation of 120 employees down to 30 employees. At this point, we're in operation of about 20 employees. So getting from 20 back to 120 is a significant effort, right?
And then there's really the question of: What does a concert look like in the post-COVID era? I don't think we're just simply going back to normal. There'll be some opportunities to innovate. There will be some silver linings. But also, there will continue to be some challenges I foresee for at least the next six to 18 months.”
Jon, the Glass House is celebrating 25 years of shows. How was the last year for you?
Jon Halperin: “Yes, [Glass House owner and Goldenvoice President] Paul [Tollett] called me on March 11, and said we were going to cancel shows for two months, and my jaw dropped. I'd been booking at that point for 20-plus years, I've never experienced anything like that. And two months turns into six months, turns into 12 months, and here we are. We were hoping to have all kinds of celebrations and secret shows and underplays for our 25th anniversary. And all that went away.”
Paul Tollett also owns Coachella?
Halperin: “Yes. He opened the Glass House in 1996, because you had to go to Los Angeles or to Orange County to see shows. He grew up in that area, so the idea was to provide a place for kids to go see shows out in the Inland Empire area.”
Presumably, Paul Tollett has enough money to keep it afloat, even though you're closed?
Halperin: “We're down to a skeleton crew of three of us on a reduced pay. I don't know what his financial situation is. But you have to also understand that he's now going on at least a year and a half without a Coachella. With his industry, everything that he does just came crashing down as well. We're here hoping for some assistance from Save Our Stages. But there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel. So that's encouraging.”
It sounds like it's almost a mixed blessing. Especially for you Thor, it sounds like you're a little trepidatious about the next few months?
Steingraber: “I think trepidatious is a good word, for a couple of reasons. First of all, you can't turn this ship around in two months. We typically take six to 18 months to plan a season, with the sweet spot being right about a year in advance. ... We have a lot of international artists, and those artists don't come here and play one concert and go back home. They set up elaborate tour schedules in multiple states and multiple countries, and all those things will require months to bring back.
And that isn’t even hiring back your staff, as will be necessary. It has yet to be seen how many COVID measures will still even need to be put in place, either backstage or front-of-house. So it's a daunting task. I will also say, if I sound trepidatious, it's because the fine print on the governor's announcement was, of course, assuming that all conditions continue to improve with our COVID-related data points.
And as we know, that hasn't been the case in every state. Twenty-seven states had increases in COVID cases in the last two weeks. And I'd love to be optimistic and say that California is going to skip that part of the process. But if the audience thinks they’re going back on June 16, and then sometime between now and then the numbers turn the other direction, we're just going to be the bearer of bad news again. And so I'm afraid to say that we've been put in the hot seat one more time. And that's maybe the reason I sound trepidatious.”
By being in the hot seat, do you think that audiences would blame you? Or what do you mean by that?
Steingraber: “It's not a matter of blame, but those people who go to concerts, just like those people who go to sporting events, or who eat out a lot, a lot of people see these things as important symbolic returns of their life returned to normal. And if you're vaccinated, you're even more eager to get back. So if people are starting to make plans, to deny people those important plans, which have more value to them than ever before, is really being the bearer of bad news.
And while I think most reasonable people don't place blame anywhere, it's hard to manage expectations right now. And I will say, the governor's announcement came out just four days after the very incremental and slightly restrictive guidelines came out for reopening. So there was a real sense of whiplash. Like, on a Friday, we were thinking about how can we get 200 people back into a venue of 1700 people, and then a few days later, it's like, ‘Oh, but if you can wait till June 15, everything will be back to normal.’”
Given all that, what are you planning for at this moment?
Steingraber: “At every point during COVID, because we have such long timelines in terms of planning, we've been constantly reiterating on a version of a season. And so we have in our back pocket a season that stretches from October to February at the moment. It includes a lot of international artists, and we know that some of those, depending on the country of origin, may not be getting on planes and joining us.
But assuming things between now and June 15 continue to go well, let's say on June 16, we might be able to announce a season that starts in October, and that would be really exciting. But I am calibrating my expectations and, of course, expectations of our audience to be patient.”
Do you have thoughts as to who or what would be your first show?
Steingraber: “I’m not going to share the details, because I want our tried and true and most loyal patrons to be the first to hear about it. But we have a very glamorous evening of extraordinary Broadway talent planned that you wouldn't normally see under one roof at one time. These are folks who we’ve been talking to throughout the entirety of the pandemic. Of course, Broadway has been shut down, so our ability to strike up a conversation with some really, really terrific Broadway talent is actually one of those silver linings I mentioned before. So we'd like to open with a bang and some really exceptional talent.”
It's a different situation for the Glass House, because it’s an all-ages venue, but not all ages can get the vaccine. John, what are you thinking about reopening? How would you manage that?
Halperin: “We've written off the summer. Whatever happens over the summer, we're not going to open. We're going to just sort of wait and see and watch what's going on in the county. And we're hoping to reopen in September. That's our plan.
We have 25 to 30 shows booked, starting in September. But we'll see. We're not going to open until it's safe. We're not going to open until we're 100% capacity. And then I think that we're going to be wearing masks in our venue for quite a while. It's a wait-and-see situation. But that's sort of what it's been for the last 13 months.”
Steingraber: “I want to add to that that being safe, of course, is paramount, but it's also become expected that we, as an industry, are going to be last to reopen. And that expectation was established early on, when restaurants started reopening and even salons, and throughout all of that, people got to go back and get their hair cut or go back and sit on a sidewalk and eat at their favorite restaurant.
But there was never a point where people got to come back to hear music. And once you remove venues from that kind of sequencing, you've established an expectation that that venue is the least safe place to be. That's basically what the unspoken dialogue here has been. So it's very hard for us to rush to reopen, and have our audience be, regardless of their age, standing in line at the door.
I think many people are eager. That's one thing, but to be completely closed for 13 months and go from zero to 60, so to speak, overnight, is difficult. I have friends and family who own bars and restaurants. And they could turn it around on 24 hours notice, because they'd been in some level of operation all along. But that's not true for our venues.”
Jon, you said that you wouldn't reopen unless you could do it at 100% capacity. Would you reopen if young people still aren't eligible for the vaccine?
Halperin: “I think that we would, depending on the situation and the climate. If Los Angeles County is looking like Auckland, New Zealand, then sure, why not? Auckland, New Zealand is hosting 17,000-person stadium festivals with no masks. But if cases are still high, or if things aren't looking that good, then why are we going to put kids at risk? We're just not going to, we'll just stay closed.”
You say you've booked 25 to 30 shows. Who's your first opening performance?
Halperin: “I'd have to look at the calendar. And even if I did, if it's not announced, the agent would get upset with me if I did announce it. But I could just say that we've got genres across the board, whether it be hip-hop, or indie rock, punk rock, everything. And touring artists, too. All touring artists. We'll just have to see what it's like. And I'll come together and make sure that we all feel comfortable opening up the venue. And then we put the show on sale and just see what happens.”
Since no one's been able to go to shows, don't you think there will be pent-up demand and that your shows will sell out immediately?
Halperin: “I think so. And you also have to remember that these artists also haven't played for a year to a year and a half. Even if they've done something online, they haven't played a proper show or haven't been in the market for [that time]. And that's going to create demand. But also every venue in Southern California is going to be blowing up with shows. And you have to decide which one to go to.”
That’s a great problem to have, at least from the perspective of a customer. Maybe not from your perspective.
Steingraber: “I think that moment will come, it's just not gonna come overnight. It's not a light switch. I think the thing that no one really is paying attention to is that the economic model of opening at 50%, or 25%, or 75% isn't viable. The margins are thin as it is.
And so what we don't want to do is rush forward and then find ourselves in a real dilemma 12 months from now that we've been trying to do concerts on a much lesser economic model, and that we're actually now hamstrung that way. If we open at 50%, or 75%, our rent doesn't change, the amount of security doesn't change. We still need that sound person, that light person. That all stays the same. And who knows what people will have as far as discretionary income, two months or three months or six months from now, right?”