Senator Takes a Bow for Helping Youngstown Playhouse Survive Shutdown

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – With its current production of “Elf” nearly sold out for all performances, The Youngstown Playhouse is making a strong comeback from the pandemic.

But the community theater, which had to close for 18 months, got some help in staying solvent.

The Playhouse is one of eight Youngstown arts groups that received federal money from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program. The $108,000 the theater received in two grants helped it pay its utility bills and other expenses and meet payroll.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who co-sponsored the Save Our Stages legislation that established the SVOG grants, visited the Playhouse Monday to get a firsthand look. He was led on a backstage tour by John Cox, president of the Playhouse’s board of directors.

The SVOG program, which was later expanded by the American Rescue Plan, awarded nearly 400 Ohio venues more than $350 million in initial and supplemental rounds of funding – ranking the state eighth for most amount of money received.

The bipartisan support that created the program no longer exists, according to Brown. “But we’re going to find some way to continue it,” he said, adding that lawmakers will assess the need for future funding as the pandemic unfolds.

It was necessary to give an infusion of cash to venue operators, Brown said, so that they could resume their cultural role as soon as they were permitted to reopen.

“We want to go back to these things,” he said. “We don’t want to lose … the amenities in these communities that so many have worked so hard on for so many years.”

The arts, he pointed out, have a ripple effect on the economy by driving spending at restaurants and other businesses.

With COVID infection rates rapidly rising, Brown said that increasing the rate of vaccinations is “critical” to making sure arts venues can stay open.

The Playhouse is currently in the middle of a two-weekend run of “Elf.”

It’s the first holiday season show to grace the theater’s main stage since 2019, and it is providing a happy ending to a situation that could have been a tragedy. The show was at capacity for its first three shows last weekend, and is close to being sold out for the remaining four, said Cox.

“The [Shuttered Venues] grant has provided us the opportunity to be standing here right now,” Cox said. “After 18 months of not having anything on our main stage, we had a sellout on opening night. The entire run is almost sold out and that has never happened before that I can remember.”

Wayne Bonner, an actor who plays several roles in “Elf,” said he was overwhelmed to see the packed auditorium at the start of the first performance.

“It was so amazing to see so many people in person and it was one of most emotional moments I’ve ever had,” he said. “[I] didn’t know if we were ever going to get to do this again, do the thing [I] love.”

Cox said that he was at the state high school football championship game in Canton when he was told by the Playhouse’s executive director that a seventh performance of “Elf” was being added because of the strong ticket demand.

He said his disappointment over the defeat of Ursuline High School’s football team quickly turned into elation over the Playhouse’s success.

The South Side theater teamed with the DeYor Performing Arts Center to produce “The Color Purple” at Powers Auditorium two months ago. That show lured many who had never seen a Playhouse snow before, which Cox said translated into exceptional sales for “Elf.”

“It was exactly what we were hoping [would happen],” he said.

While the SVOG money was critical in helping the Playhouse get through a harrowing time, it was not even close to being the largest amount received by an  area venues.

Eight Valley venues, all in Youngstown, received SVOG money, with the most going to JAC Management. JAC, which operates the city-owned Covelli Centre and Youngstown Foundation Amphitheatre, received $3.792 million.

Here is a breakdown of how the rest of the SVOG money was awarded in the Valley

  • Stambaugh Auditorium, $728,288.
  • Youngstown Symphony Society, $559,144.
  • Westside Bowl, $230,000.
  • Butler Institute of American Art, $53,460.
  • Lemon Grove LLC (operator of the Knox Building, home of The Federal restaurant and bar and performance space), $47,800.
  • Hopewell Theatre, $15,266.

Pictured: John Cox, president of the board of directors of The Youngstown Playhouse, leads Sen. Sherrod Brown across the theater’s stage. On Monday, Brown toured the theater Monday, which received over $100,000 in federal grants to help it survive the pandemic.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.