Entertainment Venues Hope Crowds Will Return

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — “It’s the new normal” might be the buzz phrase, but the entertainment business is yearning for the good old days.

Those who make a living by bringing people together for live theater, music and comedy are eager to get back to some semblance of the way it was before the COVID-19 shutdown.

The Business Journal checked in with five of the more distinctive, if not iconic, Mahoning Valley venues and stores to see how they are faring and what they see down the road.

The five – The Youngstown Playhouse, Westside Bowl, The Record Connection, the Funny Farm and Golden Star Theaters – represent various genres of entertainment – but all depend on getting people through their doors.

Each has its own set of problems and all see a troubled path going forward. This week we’ll visit all five, starting today with the Youngstown Playhouse

450 Seats with Social Distancing?

Jim McClellan isn’t sure how many people will buy tickets when the Youngstown Playhouse reopens. But he is certain of one thing: There is no substitute for live theater.

Like many entertainment entities, the Playhouse staff has toyed with posting video clips of past performances on social media. It’s a way of staying in the public eye and can even help in fundraising during the shutdown, says McClellan, who is operations manager of the theater.

“But we’re having a hard time reconciling that to the fact we are a live theater. And I’ve never thought a video quite conveys as theater,” he says. “It doesn’t ring as theater. The quality tends to be poor. You have to ask, ‘How are we representing ourselves?’ People come to us as an alternative to the internet. And it’s an older crowd that might not be noticing our presence on Facebook. They just want the all-clear to watch live theater.”

Another issue is that theaters are not allowed to share recordings of plays because it violates rights agreements. “At this time, we could probably get away with just showing clips but I don’t see the point of it,” McClellan says.

For now, the Playhouse remains dark. “We may get to the point where we start a fundraiser, but we ask for money all year long,” McClellan says. “With our overhead lower, our utility bills down, we might be able to make it through.”

When theaters get the green light to open, their revenue will likely be slashed since they won’t be able to sell every seat because of social distancing requirements.

But reducing capacity will be mitigated by a reduction in rights fees for the titles produced.

“If we’re mandated to have less [capacity], we’ll report that back to the rights companies to tell them how many seats we now expect to sell,” McClellan says. “They will lower our rate.”

The Playhouse has 450 seats. Sales of tickets for plays are rarely more than 200, and that many could be accommodated in the auditorium. But musicals are much bigger draws and would therefore mean a significant reduction in capacity should the Playhouse be permitted to sell only – for example – 150 tickets per performance.

The Playhouse plans to announce the lineup for its upcoming season at the end of May. But “it will likely come with a pretty strong ‘subject to change notice,’ ” McClellan says.

The theater received word this month that it was granted the rights for a major new title, but the announcement might be delayed. “We got the word two weeks ago,” McClellan says. “But can we even get [actors] in to rehearse it? If we announce auditions, it could become a question of how many parents will let their kids audition.”

The Playhouse has a full-time staff of five and all are being furloughed this month. The theater has applied for a payroll protection loan from the Small Business Administration, and will hire back all five if it is approved, said John Cox, president of the Playhouse Board of Directors.

Coming Tuesday: Westside Bowl in Youngstown.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.