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Live entertainment struggles to return in Maryland. It may be a sign of what we see nationwide

A marquee outside the Senator theater reads "Welcome back to the movies Baltimore" and "Now showing Tenet"
The Senator theater held its first showings in months last week in Baltimore, with the Christopher Nolan spy thriller “Tenet.”
(Ulysses Muoz / Baltimore Sun)

In a normal year, Merriweather Post Pavilion draws fans from up and down the mid-Atlantic region to sit on its long, grassy lawn and enjoy live music.

But Merriweather, which is southwest of Baltimore, didn’t open this year because of the coronavirus crisis.

In theory, that could have changed Sept. 4, when Maryland entered Stage 3 of its coronavirus reopening plan. The new regulations allowed many in-person entertainment businesses, including movie theaters and live music venues, to open for the first time since March.

But the new rules also capped capacity at 50%, or 100 people indoors and 250 outdoors, whichever is lower. And local governments retain the power to enforce even more stringent rules.

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Merriweather got “no relief” under those restrictions, said Audrey Schaefer, the venue’s spokeswoman. “Our normal shows are 6,000 to 18,000. We have more than 250 people working a show normally.”

Maryland’s movie theaters and music venues, many of which remain closed, may offer a preview of what’s to come for Los Angeles and other parts of the country where commercial entertainment venues remain off limits.

Even when state and local governments ease regulations, as Orange County has done, the pandemic can produce a reality on the ground strikingly different from the one on paper.

Joi Brown, artistic director at Strathmore, a multidisciplinary arts center outside Washington whose primary performance spaces are closed, said the slow restart isn’t surprising.

“What’s clear is that the entire live events and arts economy will not look the same for many years,” Brown said in an email. “There’s no light switch, so it will come back in segments and will look different than it did before.”

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Capacity limits aren’t the only problem. The live entertainment industry has largely ground to a standstill, and a lack of touring artists makes reopening an unrealistic option for many venues.

“Bands aren’t going to tour until there’s uniformity of reopening across the country,” Schaefer said. “It’s just too expensive to design a tour, mount it, get everybody on the bus and hit one town, have to skip the next seven and then go to the eighth.”

Movie theaters face a similar dearth of content. Kathleen Lyon co-owns two theaters in Baltimore, the Senator and the Charles. Yet while the Senator has reopened, buoyed by the release of Christopher Nolan’s spy thriller “Tenet,” the Charles remains closed.

“The issue with the Charles theater … is it plays art films and documentaries and foreign films,” Lyon said. “Everything came to a standstill, but the art market even more dramatically came to a standstill.”

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After Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan eased the regulations Sept. 1, some theaters scrambled to reopen. But the hustle seems to have paid off at the Senator, where “Tenet” is playing in three of the four auditoriums.

Lyon said she plans to continue screening “Tenet” until “Wonder Woman 1984" arrives in early October — but Deadline reports that the superhero film might get bumped back to the winter.

And as releases get delayed, theaters are being required by film studios to screen the few movies that do come out for longer, said Anthony Fykes, co-founder of Next Act Cinema, an independent theater in Pikesville, Md.

“If we’re forced to keep [playing] a movie, within the fourth or fifth week … attendance is definitely going to be down,” Fykes said. “And then there’s nothing else to come out that third or fourth week to make up that revenue.”

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For venues that remain closed, the future is even less clear.

A lot hinges on when the public feels comfortable going out, regardless of when it’s allowed to.

Sandra Gibson, executive director of the Maryland Film Festival, which owns and operates the temporarily closed Parkway theater in Baltimore, said business in the surrounding arts and entertainment district “has come to a grinding halt.”

“Just because we can open doesn’t mean we will,” Gibson said.

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Supply-chain problems have also slowed reopenings. The Parkway is still waiting to receive the sanitation chemicals needed for its new disinfecting fog machine, Gibson said.

For now, some theaters and music venues are finding new ways to stay relevant.

Lyon said her theaters have hosted virtual screenings. But it’s been hard to compete with Netflix and other big names in streaming, let alone do so with the “teeny-tiny titles” she has access to.

The Parkway is also running a virtual theater, while repurposing its physical building as a TV and film studio, Gibson said.

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And at Merriweather, the musical acts eliminated by the pandemic have been replaced with one of the few remaining in-person activities: testing for the coronavirus.

“That’s not a revenue stream, but it’s something that we’ve got the outdoor facility to do,” Schaefer said. “We wanted to help.”


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