Will the Florida Theatre’s Darkened Stages and Empty Seats Survive COVID?

Photo by: Andrew Hobson

The iconic marquee at the Florida Theatre is among the most recognized landmarks in the downtown Jacksonville landscape. Since its second act from a movie house to a performing arts venue, the neon lights have illuminated some of the biggest names in entertainment, until March when it all went dark.

No one could have predicted what was to come in early 2020. After closing out 2019 on a high note, the year was off to an auspicious start. But when Numa Saisselin, president of the Florida Theatre, took the stage March 12 to welcome the audience to that evening’s show with Get the Led Out, he also delivered an emotional – and indefinite – goodbye.

“That was the week when the shit hit the fan. Major sporting arenas were starting closing, the NBA shut down their season, and it was becoming really apparent that places of public assembly had to close. We actually made the decision that afternoon, so I told the audience during the curtain speech that night. I said I think this is the last time we see you for a while,” he recalls.

The next day – in fact, the same day that Mayor Lenny Curry ordered the closure of all sports and entertainment venues – the historic theatre shuttered its doors, and those doors have remained closed throughout the last several months.

“We like to say we closed voluntarily for the sake of the public good, but it doesn’t really matter because we would’ve been shut down the next day anyway. It all happened so fast, and it was a real hard decision to make,” Saisselin says. “Looking back, we thought it was going to be two weeks, and we were scared stiff about that.”

Approximately 90 percent of venue owners, promoters, and bookers reporting they are at risk of closing permanently without additional financial assistance.

Independent music venues are among the casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic. An integral thread in the country’s cultural fabric, such venues were among the first to close and will be the last to open in the wake of the novel coronavirus. Approximately 90 percent of venue owners, promoters, and bookers reporting they are at risk of closing permanently without additional financial assistance. Now just a hollow echo of darkened stages and seas of empty seats, the performing arts community is in dire need of relief for the music to play once again.

Numa Saisselin, President of The Florida Theatre,   Photo by Agnes Lopez

“We’re living through something that nobody alive has lived through. I think clearly some of our leaders have done better than others, but even the ones who I think are doing well are still making this up on the fly,” Saisselin says. “The worst part for us is not knowing when the return-to-business date is. We will need somewhere between eight and 12 weeks to start advertising and preparing for shows. We end up cancelling shows by default.”

The Save Our Stages Act is endorsed by (NIVA) and the National Independent Talent Organization (NITO). Formed at the onset of the COVID-19 shutdown, the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), now represents more than 2,000 members in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. NIVA’s mission is to preserve and nurture the ecosystem of independent live music venues, promoters and festivals throughout the United States.

To date, more than 1 million emails have been sent through SaveOurStages.com letting all 538 members of Congress know that constituents want to keep independent venues alive.

The first few weeks mid-March were a blur. Each day presented a new deluge of information. Things were happening so quickly once you wrapped your head around one set of circumstances, they would completely change in the blink of an eye, replaced with a whole new set of information to process. For venue operators struggling to stay afloat, it felt as if they were weighed down by a block of cement.

In the weeks and months that followed, Saisselin faced a myriad of concerns. How would the Florida Theatre maintain a healthy staff? What would become of the contract employees from security to parking attendants that rely on show times for extra income? How would a community sustain itself without the shared connection that sparks between audience members? Would the Florida Theatre survive the unknown?

“All of our show workers are out of work, all of the stagehands, bartenders, security, part-time box office people who typically work when we have a show. We’ve been able to keep the administrative staff intact. We closed March 12 and had a board meeting March 18, and the board said very clearly that we have to keep everyone employed. This will end someday, and we have to make sure we still have our staff when that happens,” he says.

“We’ve come right to the brink of having to lay off a significant number of people twice and both times we were able to figure it out. So, we’re hopeful that something happens between now and then,” he says. “The Save Our Stages Act is one possibility if Congress decides to A) do something and B) shine on the entertainment industry because we’re closed closed. There’s no way we could open.”

By law, the Florida Theatre could open at 50 percent capacity but adhering to the necessary social distancing restrictions with the venue’s intimate layout, small lobby, bars and restroom areas would limit the capacity to 25 percent which is not fiscally viable.

“We’re closed by order of the government, and we’re happy to do it because we have to get through this. If that’s what it takes, but, at the same time, we would appreciate some support from the government. It’s a little like eminent domain. The government comes in and says we need to put a highway in for the public good and we’re going to pay you for your property. This should be the same thing. You have to close for the public good, we’re going to give you a little help. It’s gotten some traction in Congress. Amy Klobuchar and John Cornyn introduced it in the Senate but there hasn’t been a vote yet. And it seems like they might go on vacation without voting on anything.

In his tenure as president of the non-profit organization, Saisselin has endured temporary closures during a hurricane. But flood waters recede and it’s back to business.  He worked in New York post-9/11 when a curfew was in place for an estimated six weeks amidst the chaos “but it was nothing like this.”

“It’s a very strange situation because it’s a little like 9/11, but not really. It’s a little like cancelling because of a hurricane, but not really,” he says. “There are all these elements of it which are a little like other things but not exactly.”

For venues like the Florida Theatre, there is no contingency plan in place to manage a universal health crisis. Saisselin says he’s managed to assemble enough relief funds – a combination of grants and loans totaling $1.2 million – that will carry them through late November or early December. What happens after that is a giant question mark.

“It’s important because the Florida Theatre is part of what makes Jacksonville a unique place, and it supports a lot of jobs. A lot of people who are not employed by us directly derive work from us. All that adds up to the $12 million of economic impact every year and it supports a full-time equivalent of 401 jobs and $10 million of household income and well over $1 billion in state and city taxes. We want that to be intact when this is all over because that will just be worse. if we go through the pandemic and get to the other side and the Florida Theatre is out of business, it was not worth it. And you can magnify that by all the other arts locations in Jacksonville. You can apply the same to Theatre Jacksonville, the Arena, Times-Union Center, the Symphony. Nationwide, it’s tens of thousands of jobs.”

The Save Our Stages Act would provide Small Business Administration grants for independent live music venue operators affected by COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. These grants would provide at least six months of financial support to keep venues afloat, ensure employees are compensated and preserve a critical economic sector for communities nationwide.

If ticket sales do not resume until 2021, the industry will have lost an estimated $9 billion in ticket sales alone. The Save Our Stages Act establishes a $10 billion grant program for live venue operators, promoters, producers and talent representatives. Legislature also directs the Small Business Administrator to make grants to eligible recipients equal to the lesser of either 45% of gross revenue from 2019 or $12 million.

It will also authorize the Small Business Administrator to issue supplemental grants in the future if funding remains available and applicants can demonstrate continued need and permits recipients to use grants for costs incurred during the COVID pandemic  including rent, utilities, mortgage obligations, PPE procurement, payments to contractors, regular maintenance, administrative costs, taxes, operating leases, and capital expenditures related to meeting state, local, or federal social distancing guidelines.

“The irony of all of this is we were experiencing about a year and a half of just tremendous business. For whatever reason October of 2019 was a terrible month for us. Then starting in November 2019 right up until March 12 of this year, it was like an unstoppable freight time for us. The shows we were able to book were fabulous, our donations were very strong, we were $7.5 million toward a $10 million capital fundraising campaign. And on March 13, we shut the door, so it was bittersweet in a way because we were having this tremendous moment,” recalls Saisselin.

“I used to tell everyone in the office to enjoy this ride because it’s not always this easy. The good times will end; business does slow down. That’s just the way it goes but no one predicted this. I do think however, at least for us, that when this is over it’s going to be like flipping a light switch. People are that hungry to return to normal, but the longer this lasts, the more of an economic effect it has on people. But mentally, spiritually, it’s going to be like flipping a light switch because people are going to want to go out and see shows right away. I’m hopeful that when we do return to business our recovery will be quick.”

At the onset of the pandemic, Saisselin’s biggest fear was the possibility of rescheduling shows that had already been rescheduled and an audience revolt in the wake. Now that it’s happening, nobody cares. “Everybody has learned to roll with the punches and most people are just keeping their tickets and metaphorically shrugging their shoulders and saying ‘oh, that show that was supposed to be in March that then was supposed to be in July will now be in January? Okay.’ What can you do? If you want your money back, we’re happy to give you your money back but 90 percent of people are hanging on to their tickets and saying, ‘okay, we’ll see you whenever we have the show’,” he says.

The tickets are a tangible reminder of life B.C. (Before Covid). At a glance, the events scattered through the theater’s calendar offer a glimmer of hope. Taken in context, the limited programming mostly consists of rescheduled events into 2021. “We have made the appearance of resuming limited programming but they are all actually shows scheduled way in the future,” says Saisselin. “We might show something on the calendar for this year but it’s going to move, no doubt about it. 2020 is going to be a wash.”

Small fragments of promise are emerging along the way, silver linings flecked against the rubble of a year. Donations are holding and membership renewals remain steady. Dozens of new shows on sale since the pandemic started that are all selling very well. In some cases, shows are selling better than the last time they were here. They are small victories measured in half steps. It’s the giant leap into the unknown which poses the greatest challenge.

“Two things that have given me hope throughout all of this is that the performers and all the people that work for them have been super cooperative about rescheduling. The touring artists want to work and they are going to be ready to return to work just as soon as they can. If you are Taylor Swift, you can afford to sit this out. If you’re Beyonce, you can afford to say listen, ‘I’m just going to stay home with the kids until this is all over’ but most people in the performing arts world need to work. Clearly, there will be shows when this is over,” says Saisselin.

“The other thing that is giving me hope is the audience. People have been hanging on to their tickets and happily rolling with the punches when we reschedule a show. The audience is dying to go out. Whenever this is over, in terms of going to concerts, they are ready to do it again.”

For all of the hope channeled through ticket sales and membership drives, there is an indefinite sense of limbo that remains resolute. “If you had said to me on New Year’s Eve, ‘this is what was about to happen in the next 90 days’, I’d have said that you were drunk. And if you’d said to me on March 12, which was the night of our last show that it’s going to be more than 20 weeks and there will be no end in sight, again I would’ve said that’s crazy talk. We’ll never survive that long. I’m confident that if we get to the other side of this, and that’s the key, then we will be okay,” muses Saisselin.

“My hope is that people recognize the importance of music and art in their lives. People want to have music and art in their lives and they want to do it in the company of each other. So, I hope that people realize how important that is in their daily lives. It’s unique. It’s special. Ephemeral is a word that I like to use. You’re listening to something that’s happening just for you in that time and space and it’s never going to happen exactly like that again.”




About Liza Mitchell