Long-darkened North Bay nightclubs, theaters, attractions set pandemic reopening dates

The Year of COVID-19

This story is part of a series that looks at the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic since March 2020 and how North Bay businesses are recovering.

The blues of this past year with the COVID-19 crisis have failed to take away the hopes of getting more greenbacks by nightclub owners and managers of attractions.

Just ask Blue Note Napa Managing Director Ken Tesler and Uptown Theater General Manager Erica Simpson, who have experienced some of the worst business economic conditions brought about by this horrendous past year.

Tesler’s nightclub on Main Street closed, alongside the majority of entertainment businesses statewide, and continue to be shuttered. But that hasn’t stopped him from dreaming big for the coming year — outside, for starters.

May concerts return?

Tesler told the Business Journal he hopes to get people going back to concerts managing weekend events on the grounds of Charles Krug Winery, while following county protocols beginning May 21. He expects to follow up the weekend event with Memorial Day concerts by Los Lobos and Pink Martini.

Of course, all this depends on control of the virus and the progress of vaccinations.

“A lot of people have been missing (the Blue Note). We’re going to be back, and there’s pent-up demand. We’re hoping for sold-out shows,” he said.

The optimism represents a far cry from a business manager who lost “100%” of revenue this past year, relying on reserves, a GoFundMe page, Paycheck Protection Program funding and previous ticket sales in which customers didn’t ask for refunds for cancelled shows. It’s also helped to be a part of a cohesive effort in a North Bay venue coalition to share notes and support in order to keep nightclubs surviving.

The big takeaway for Tesler in this past year revolves around his renewed appreciation for the aspects of life that matter, singling out spending time with his wife, staff and supportive patrons as well as the sheer joy of the arts and outdoors. To Tesler, life is about special moments now that he won’t take for granted.

“You take something as monumental as last year. We’ve learned to appreciate each other,” he said. “Like I miss ordering burritos and talking about the show the night before with my staff. I’m used to being in the office and calling out in a bullpen environment with that personal connection,” he said. “I’ve determined on many levels — personally and business wise — that I am lucky to not have lost family members, friends and not gotten sick myself.”

His big hope is for a vaccinated public.

In the meantime, he has pledged “to take lemons and make lemonade.”

He’s not alone. Despite placing Simpson’s life with the Napa landmark — the Uptown Theater — on hold, she’s tentatively anticipating a rousing opening perhaps late summer or early fall.

There’s no doubt life has been difficult since nightclubs went dark a year ago. More than 50 shows were cancelled during shutdown orders. She shares the joke “we really miss cancelling plans with you.”

Like Tesler, she believes there is a light at the end of the tunnel — one that has rekindled her appreciation for the finer, simpler things we take for granted. She recalled being invited to the South-by-Southwest music and tech festival and turning it down.

“I’ll never turn down invites again,” she said.

Simpson plans to embrace life as it comes. This includes putting much effort returning the theater to its historic glory.

“We want to get back. And we know it’s going to feel as natural when we go back as it did a year ago,” she said, adding the return should be better than ever.

The Uptown Theater marquee that hovers over downtown Napa says it all: “See you in 2021.”

Reading Cinema Rohnert Park reopened after a year with $8.50 tickets on March 19. (Taylor Green photo)
Reading Cinema Rohnert Park reopened after a year with $8.50 tickets on March 19. (Taylor Green photo)

Coming attractions: Movie theaters return

Taylor Green, general manager of Reading Cinema in Rohnert Park, told the Business Journal he’s extremely enthusiastic about opening up his southern Sonoma County theater with 16 screens on March 19.

The movie theater has been reeling since a closure that’s lasted over a year. Its more than 40 employees were laid off, but for its reopening, 19 have returned.

And Green emphasized there’s more to celebrate with the theater’s reopening. As a way of turning back the clock, the cinema will throw open its doors with family features like “Tom & Jerry” going for $8.50 a ticket.

“That was like a matinee ticket price in the mid 2000s,” Green said. “We’re so happy to provide this to the community.”

Green expects a promising year filled with movie goers that have pent-up demand to view a film on the big screen — complete with their signature movie popcorn and Milk Duds.

He realizes that, even with Warner Brothers’ having announced streaming services upon theatrical release as a “concession” to the shelter-in-place guidelines, there’s still no substitute to experiencing the large-screen, Dolby sound formats.

“No matter how good the TV screens become, they’d never be able to match the experience,” he said.

The only revenue the Rohnert Park theater pulled in over the last year was from its “food to go” program it ran for a few months that featured movie-style popcorn via takeout.

From night to day

More coming attractions are expected to reopen in their entirety across the North Bay in the coming months.

Safari West Executive Director Keo Hornbostel admitted the year has been a test of resilience for the African-style park in Sonoma County.

Hornbostel recalls shutting down the park in March only to reopen partially in June.

In those three months, the staff feverishly installed 25 hand-sanitizing stations and stored about 1,000 masks to hand out as well as modified the tour trucks and even painted cheetah paws on the flat rocks to indicate social distancing.

“We put so many protocols in place,” he said.

The public responded.

“The phone rang off the hook,” he said, explaining a big day used to bring in 125 calls a day. Now the park averages 175 to 200.

“The support from the community has been amazing. People were tired of being cooped up at home,” he said.

In some respects, Hornbostel didn’t see another option other than fight to maintain the park.

“We can’t furlough our animals,” he said.

Then, the fires hit. The Walbridge Fire that was sparked west of Healdsburg in mid-August licked at the park from across the road. The smoke that blanketed the region kept people away. Still, Safari West persevered.

It closed again with California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order issued over the holidays. The park reopened at the end of February.

The park just implemented online tours for childrens’ hospitals and low-income schools in a program called “Discover Africa.”

Granted, with all the modifications made to stay alive, it hasn’t been easy.

“I don’t think we’ll be back to normal until late this year or into next year,” he said. “We’ve never had a year like this as a business. It’s been emotionally draining.”

The sentiment was shared from at least one new Sonoma County executive who spent the year across the country.

Steering into the future

Jill Gregory, who now runs the Sonoma Raceway as Steve Page’s replacement, worked for NASCAR as a marketing executive in 2020 before coming on board here a few months ago.

As the kingpin of auto racing, NASCAR joined nightclubs in “going dark” between March 13 and May 17.

“It was unchartered territory. We had to be innovative (with our racetrack venues),” she said.

When racing returned, Gregory noticed unprecedented fan enthusiasm and appreciation for the sport.

“We wanted to give them a little respite. People were hungry to get out,” she said, adding it was immensely helpful to manage a sport that’s performed outside.

Gregory is hopeful about the fans returning to Sonoma Raceway in the coming months, indicating she’s “seeing very encouraging signs” of a robust return. For example, the NHRA Sonoma Nationals return July 23.

In the meantime, Gregory has pledged to use the venue’s means to give back — offering up the raceway as a mass vaccination site if approached by health officials.

“This has been a wake-up call in terms of what’s necessary, what’s important in life,” she said.

Entertainment venues may operate under guidelines

Sonoma, Napa, Marin, Solano, Mendocino and Lake counties now are operating in California’s red tier for reopening risk. With that, the following entertainment venues may operate under the auspices of the California Blueprint for a Safer Economy guidelines:

Closed: Nightclubs, live theaters, amusement parks, bowling alleys, concert venues, festivals

Outdoor with modifications: Drive-in theaters, family entertainment centers

Indoors at 25% capacity or 100 people (whichever is fewer): Movie theaters, museums, zoos

Open at 25% capacity only for California residents: Theme parks

Open with modifications but no live audiences: racetracks

Source: California Blueprint for a Safer Economy

Art of appreciation

Museums were also hard hit during the pandemic.

“It’s been difficult for us as it has been for everybody,” Museum of Sonoma County Executive Director Jeff Nathanson said. “It’s been disappointing among businesses and organizations that have not been allowed to open on a limited basis.”

Museums took issue with the state and county yanking its doors closed upon every spike in coronavirus cases.

“It’s frustrating because we know we can operate museums safely,” Nathanson said.

After it closed under the public health order in March, the Smithsonian-affiliated museum took part in a cooperative letter sent to Newsom from the California Association of Museums asking for him to categorize museums differently.

The Santa Rosa-based museum was forced to revamp its operating budget from $1.3 million to $900,000 for 2021 because of reduced revenues. With Sonoma County just entering the red tier, Nathanson plans to reopen partially in April. A full opening is expected this summer.

There’s at least one silver lining for Nathanson.

“I feel fortunate we’ve been able to maintain a majority of staff members,” he said. “But I feel bad for other performing arts centers.”

Meanwhile, the Jack London State Historic Park just reopened the museum highlighting the famed author this week — a year after closing at the pandemic’s start. The museum was spruced up during the closure and given a refreshed look.

Like his counterparts at other performing arts centers and museums, Nathanson has worried about a “cultural depression” plaguing the public wanting to get its fix of the arts.

The museum pivoted greatly to the Internet to get its exhibits, offerings and messages out there to a starving world of arts enthusiasts. If anything, most museum managers have discovered the website has attracted more attention than ever and prompted viewers to want to show up in person.

Like Nathanson, Luther Burbank Center for the Arts CEO Rick Nowlin said he’s glad his facility placed so much emphasis on its online presence.

Nowlin told the Business Journal the center’s theater will remain closed until possibly the fall, but other center programs are expected to be offered before that. The carpool cinema, which is essentially an outdoor-drive-in format, may open in late spring or summer, while other outside programs with social distancing protocols may be announced for the spring.

“We’re looking for ways to utilize our outdoor space,” Nowlin said of the Santa Rosa cultural center. “I’m honored to have worked with a staff with such an ability to pivot like it has. That’s the lesson here. There’s a lot of creativity in this industry.”

Such is the arts — even if technology is not one’s forte

Susan Magnone, who runs the Novato History Museum, has discovered the same phenomenon since her arts center placed much of its outreach online.

Magnone was forced to embrace a sink-or-swim approach to keeping a presence. The city of Novato pays for the building and the utilities, so every little bit helps in surviving the pandemic, she pointed out.

The work and pivoting to an online presence have paid off — in a bigger way than pre-pandemic days. The Marin County museum once received an inquiry one every two- to three months. Now they’re getting seven to eight in a one-month period.

“What I’ve learned from this is a lot of people have gone to the website,” she said, adding it makes her patrons hungry for more.

Sure, times have been difficult. The museum has been closed for a year since March 17. But surviving the long haul has been heartening, Magnone explained.

“We, as a board and group, had awakened to the fact the history museum has a purpose and creates a sense of purpose for the community. Otherwise, people wouldn’t have that connection,” she said.

If anything, the pandemic has brought about a unique style of exhibit. One such exhibit is called the “Novato Historical Guild Kindness Project,” which essentially features acts of kindness provided to people by others.

“We’re collecting things about the pandemic. People are emailing items like diaries,” she said, using the tragedy as a societal teaching moment. “History is still happening.”

The Year of COVID-19

This story is part of a series that looks at the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic since March 2020 and how North Bay businesses are recovering.

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