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Community support ‘shot in the arm’ got State Theatre through COVID-19; Freddys back live for 20th anniversary

The State Theatre Center for the Arts has survived the Great Depression, World War II and a friendly ghost.

The historic 453 Northampton St., Easton, theater has also survived the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Although most Lehigh Valley arts and entertainment events, festivals and venues, including the State Theatre, have bounced back to a greater or lesser extent, it’s estimated that several hundred venues across the United States have closed.

And as millions of citizens in the United States have or are getting the jab, State Theatre President and CEO Shelley Brown says support of the Lehigh Valley residents has been “ a real shot in the arm.”

“The community rose up to help and said, ‘We’re anxious to have the State Theater reopen,’” It was really gratifying in a grim time to have that kind of support. It was a real shot in the arm,” Brown says.

“We had no income other than the great financial donations of the people in the Lehigh Valley who continued their support of the State Theater. The city, the county ... We were supported by everyone to be able to reopen,” says Brown, adding, “And all of our local legislators were driven.”

And, yes, The Freddys will be back live and in-person for its 20th anniversary on the State Theatre stage in May 2020.

The State Theatre reopened for the 2021-22 season, and for the first time in nearly 18 months, with the Sept. 10 concert, “Craig Thatcher Band: Eric Clapton Retrospective.”

A Sept. 18 concert, “Early Elton Trio: 50th Anniversary Triple Play,” was canceled because of illness on the performer’s part. The ticket option deadline is Oct. 15.

“Big Eyed Phish: Dave Matthews Band Tribute” was Sept. 17, rescheduled from June 5.

A concert by Engelbert Humperdinck, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 7, was rescheduled from April 14, with tickets for the former date valid for the new date.

Humperdinck is known for the hit songs, “Release Me,” “The Last Waltz,” “After the Lovin,’” “This Moment in Time” and “A Man Without Love.”

“We will sell it to at-capacity,” Brown says of the Humperdinck concert.

As of the Sept. 21 phone interview for this article, approximately half of the tickets for the Humperdinck concert in the 1,500-seat State Theatre were sold.

“We’re selling every show at capacity unless there’s a change in the Pennsylvania mandate,” says Brown.

Each venue in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania and in the U.S. has its own policy to mitigate COVID-19.

At the State Theatre, proof of vaccination is required. Wearing a face mask is optional. Shows have no intermissions.

“We’re going to update our policy monthly, hoping that things change. That way we can be as current as possible,” says Brown.

Events and concerts are not being held in the Acopian Room. The State Theatre Gallery is open.

Staff furloughs

The 18-month coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic shutdown had an impact not only on State Theatre attendees, but on its finances.

“We had to furlough staff when we were shut down initially. We brought back the staff. Some left because they got other jobs. We brought people back as soon as we could,” says Brown.

The State Theatre’s last show, prior to its reopening in September, was March 12, 2020.

“We shut down for about two weeks. We thought we’d come back. That was why we had to furlough people. Our income went to zero.

“We brought people back in August,” continues Brown.

“We were hoping to open in spring. We couldn’t get the acts. Ninety-nine percent of our acts are touring. They have many logistical issues, as we do.

“They have to put people on buses. They have to put people in hotels. They had to get vendors and truck drivers. They had to rehearse.

“They had to literally get their shows on the road. And combine that with the varying capacities of venues that they were going to visit. That’s why there were waves of postponements.

“That’s why we were able to open this fall. Hopefully, people will be comfortable returning to indoor entertainment and dining. For many people, vaccinated or not vaccinated, they don’t necessarily feel the same as indoor and outdoor.

“We were happy to see that Musikfest opened and gathered, but that’s outside,” says Brown.

Federal aid

“We were grateful for PPP assistance and we were recipients of the Save our Stages federal grant. SVOG [Save Our Stages] was approved in January, but the money wasn’t received until June,” Brown says.

PPP is an acronym for the Paycheck Protection Program, a loan to help businesses keep workers employed during the COVID-19 crisis, provided by the Small Business Administration.

SVOG is an acronym for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program established by the federal Economic Aid to Hard-Hit Small Businesses, Nonprofits, and Venues Act.

“We lost 100 percent of our performance income,” says Brown. “We own three buildings that require heating, plumbing, refrigerators, elevators, insurance, mortgage. We still have bills to pay.”

The State Theatre has an annual budget of $5 million.

The PPP and SVOG funding to the State “was proportionate to our losses,” according to Brown. “It’s still not everything we lost. But it’s hugely helpful.”

“Every venue that I know of received SVOG money.”

Receiving federal funding “was a really grueling procedure,” Brown says, adding, “And it took months and months and months. It was approved in January and nobody got any money until June.

“The theater business was affected more than anybody in the sense that we were the first to close and the last to open.”

‘Making magic’

“The protocols that the theater goes through, in our case, include that we have to get an audience into the theater expeditiously. A ton of options causes lines with lots of explanations.

“You want to have an atmosphere in which patrons are brought in comfortably and quickly. We don’t want arguments between patrons. You have skirmishes in normal times.

“If it becomes so cumbersome, it becomes an unpleasant event. We do the best we can.

“Theater is a happy thing. It’s a joyful thing. It’s an optional thing. We want to make it as pleasant as possible.

“People try to turn this into a debate about vaccinations. We’re trying to run a business that’s based on having a pleasant experience in a venue.

“‘Hairspray’ will probably not have an intermission. That might change. Everybody wants it to go back to the way it was.

“Maybe they are going to allow intermissions. So far, it’s been headliner artists who are able to adapt.

“What about microphones, wardrobes, dressing-room sharing? We have a lot of things we’re dealing with just to get the shows back and make our lives a little bit normal.

“This is no fun for venues. We’re trying to have feel good evenings where people get away to have a good time.

“We’re in a business where we make magic. It’s very difficult to get things going again.

“Everybody in the country needs to show each other grace because we’re all trying to make each other happy.

“With theater, everybody just used to pack in. It’s part of what the experience of what theater is. We’re like an old-time vaudeville theater.”

The State Theatre dates to 1910 when the building was modified from a bank to Neumeyers Vaudeville House. The building was renamed The State after being renovated in 1926 with a bigger auditorium, a balcony, Beaux-Arts style decorations, and overhanging marquee.

“We’ve had very few complaints. People have been very supportive. And artists have been very supportive,” says Brown.

“What’s going on now is very reflective of people who haven’t been together. The fellowship at the State Theatre is what I love about it. It’s the shared experience of the show no matter what it is.

“They leave our place feeling better. Some of what’s going on is that people have been isolated from each other. We’ve really been thought this awful alienating year-plus. We’re very social creatures. We need other people probably more than we realize.

“We had a screening of ‘Blazing Saddles,’” Brown recalls of Mel Brooks’ December 2016 screening of the ribald 1974 western movie comedy. “And then he spoke about making the film and his career.

“The theater was a capacity crowd. Multi-ethnic, multi-everything. He said, ‘Can you believe we got that movie made?’

“That first joke, everybody gasped,” Brown remembers. “And then everybody was howling. One thing about that movie: It insulted everyone. Yet people left feeling good about each other.”

Freddys live

“Our high schools, our students, we really need the fellowship of being together. They need the high school shows. They need to gather for the Freddys. It’s really important.”

The 2020 Freddys were virtual. The 2021 Freddys included one song-and-dance number that was socially-distanced.

“This year, so far, one-half of the participating schools say they are doing full-out musicals.”

There are 30 high schools in the Lehigh Valley and Warren County, N.J., expected to participate in the 2022 Freddys. “That doesn’t mean the others aren’t. We just are not at the deadline yet,” Brown says.

The deadline is January. So far, 15 schools plan musicals.

“People have always said, ‘What are you going to do for the 20th to make it [The Freddys] really special?’ For me, doing it is going to make it special,” Brown quips.

State survives

“People said, ‘We want you to come back.’ They stayed with their memberships. Sponsors stayed with us. That was the high spots.

“People have never really understood what goes on behind the curtain of the theater. Just to show some grace to us, all of us, as we try to open. It’s way more complicated than people realize.

“We have to do things seamlessly. We want to open. We’re trying to figure it out. Theater is not an exclusionary business.

“People who love us and donate to us, say, ‘I’m not sure if I feel comfortable sitting next to someone.’

“For me, it’s about making the audience happy. This has been a dispiriting time for all of us.

“I look at our schedule and I think, ‘Just let us be able to pull this off.’”

Information: https://statetheatre.org 1-800-999-7828

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO State Theatre Center for the Arts President and CEO Shelley Brown
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO “Waitress,” 7:30 p.m. Nov. 16, 17, State Theatre Center for the Arts, Easton
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Kenny G, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 19, State Theatre Center for the Arts, Easton
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO “A Christmas Carol,” 7 p.m. Dec. 10, State Theatre Center for the Arts, Easton
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Blue Man Group, 7 p.m. April 14, 2022, State Theatre Center for the Arts, Easton