One by one, they fell. Oh sure, some held out hope and merely postponed. But, inevitably, COVID-19 won the box office this year — and every major and minor live production waved the surrender flag and hoped for the best in 2021.
Yes, canceled events was the No.1 entertainment/arts story in 2020. However, some used the scourge of a virus to re-invent. Music promoter Greg Keidan of Mr. Hat Presents brought drive-up motorists to hear bands at the fairgrounds. Bay Area Stage converted its theater into a flea market. The neophyte Frazier Trager Presents quickly learned the art of live-streaming.
There’s no telling when arts and entertainment will return to whatever “normal” will be. With the vaccination gaining steam, it could be a mid-summer night’s dream — or a nightmare until 2022.
1). Canceled events.
The Big News in local entertainment this year was, naturally, the shows that didn’t happen: Napa Valley’s blockbuster BottleRock, the Northern California Pirates Festival, Pista say Nayon, Waterfront Weekend, Juneteenth, Downtown ArtWalk, July 4 Celebration, Mad Hatter Parade, the Vallejo Symphony Orchestra. The Vallejo Admirals entire season, and the Empress Theatre. Like everyone else, they’re all crossing the fingers that events can happen if not by summer, than in the fall.
While its touch-and-go — and postpone? — for top local summer early summer events, BottleRock has already rescheduled its Memorial Weekend triple-headliner in May to Labor Day weekend in September.
“We are looking forward to presenting BottleRock during such a beautiful time of the year in the Napa Valley,” said a hopeful Dave Graham, one of three BottleRock Napa Valley partners. “We’re excited to bring back some joy to the Napa Valley through live music, with the health and safety of our patrons, artists, vendors, staff and surrounding communities front of mind.”
Mad Hatter producer Frank Malifrando, who lost his father to COVID-19, remained positive.
“It looks like a possibility for Hatter’s time to come out of the rabbit hole for July Fourth, though a real chance to happen for December’s Mad Hatter Holiday Festival to take place for 2021,” Malifrando said.
“I can honestly say it was like jumping off the highest skyscraper in Manhattan. Absolutely utterly devastating,” said Susan MacDonald, a Vallejo Community Arts Foundation board member who oversees the Empress Theatre.
“There really has never been anything like this during my lifetime,” added VCAF executive director Renay Conlin. “The abrupt drop in revenues puts our financial sustainability at risk and has resulted in reduced wage earnings and lay-offs with repercussions for the value chain of our suppliers from creative and non-creative sectors alike.”
2). Cruise-In Concerts
The pandemic obliterated live music — almost. Promoter Greg Keidan of Mr. Hat Presents kept the motors runnin’ by offering five Cruise-In Concerts at the Solano County Fairgrounds. Drive-up, tune the radio to a specific frequency, and listen and watch a live band performance from a stage in front of the fairgrounds entrance.
“I think we had a phenomenal year,” Keidan said. “I am proud that Mr. Hat Presidents was among the few demonstrating how the music industry can adapt and thrive during this difficult time, and that we were able to bring something fun and positive to Vallejo with zero virus transmissions.”
Los Lobos and Melvin Seals were two of the acts “and we put together a fantastic production team that delivered visually stunning and great sounding concerts,” Keidan said.
Keidan said he hopes to work with the fairgrounds and city to bring concerts back in the spring.
3). Six Flags returns to animal roots
It was deja gnu all over again as Six Flags Discovery Kingdom seized the day and became Six Flags The Marine World Experience, returning to its Redwood City start as an all-animals park on July 2 after closing in March.
“Once we had guidelines that said outdoor zoos and aquariums could re-open, we immediately started having conversations with our local officials about re-opening as an animal experience and working through a comprehensive plan to keep everyone safe,” said spokesman Marc-Angelo Merino.
Re-opening, Merino added, “was our way to allow guests back into the park, allow our team members to return to work, give the animals the stimulation that our guests provide, and provide a safe, controlled environment for the community to enjoy.”
The park also offered a modified Halloween event, “Boo 2020!,” and winter program, “Holiday in the Park Lights.”
4). Frazier Trager Presents live streamed
The Vallejo tandem of Kevin Frazier, a former Empress Theatre general manager, and Jeff Trager, a longtime music promoter, started a production company and brought live-streamed shows to the masses based out of the Downtown Theatre in Fairfield.
High-profile shows included Lenny Williams, Tommy Castro, Roy Rogers & Carlos Reyes, the VOENA children’s choir, with Negrito and Erick Martin in the books for early 2021.
“Everyone is learning,” Trager said. “I’m happy. I think we’re doing some diverse shows which is really important. We’re learning.”
Financially, a concert by Drew Harrison as John Lennon on what would have been Lennon’s 80th birthday Oct. 9 was the highlight, Trager said, with an eye on the Jan. 23 show with Negrito.
“People like the quality of our shows,” Trager said, though acknowledging that the “more seasoned” performers are wary of a live-streamed concert and all the technology that entails.
“They’ve been in business a long time and don’t understand. This is a new way of putting on shows,” Trager said.
5). Three Tenors, “The Next Generation,” Empress Theatre
With maestro Thomas Conlin and performers Christopher Oglesby, Alex Boyer, and Rene Pati, the Vallejo Community Arts Foundation’s production on Feb. 1 not only escaped the lurking COVID-19, but sold out the 420-seat venue in downtown Vallejo.
Board member Susan MacDonald said she “still gets goosebumps” thinking of the concert in all its pre-pandemic glory.
“This performance was the highlight of the 15 years Tim (her husband) and I have been involved with the Empress as part of serving on the VCAF Board,” she said. “The patrons walked in the door and went wow. The front of the stage was covered with fresh flowers, our new lighting system was breathtaking, everyone was awestruck.”
“The performance was, by any measure — and in every way — a stunning success,” added Renay Conlin, VCAF executive director. “Everyone’s expectations for a spectacular evening of music-making were realized.”
“Their singing yielded no fewer than nine standing ovations and five encores, surely a record in our venue,” Conlin continued. “All of us involved with this concert were shattered when the coronavirus shut down the theater, as subsequent events like the Three Tenors were in the planning stage.”
6). Flea Market saves Bay Area Stage
Stacey Loew and business partner Jeff Lowe realized something had to be done if the production pair would keep the lights on for the community theater company. Loew came up with a flea market. What started as a few donated items turned into a business that’s helped pay “some semblance of rent, though it’s not even close” to the usual required rent, Loew said.
The entire venue is filled with roughly 10,000 items from clothes to stuffed animals and used books, with Lowe grateful that managing the flea market and its “sea of stuff” six days a week “gets me out of bed” in the morning.
Even when COVID-19 subsides, Loew believes she’ll keep the flea market open at least Saturdays “in an abbreviated version — probably just the lobby only. It’s a way to generate revenue.”
When the Bay Area Stage doors open again “it’s going to take a long time to bounce back,” Loew continued.
For now, she welcomes the neighborhood.
“People come in here and say, “I didn’t even know there was a theater,’” Loew said.
7). Creep the Streets Home Decorating Contest
Trick-or-treating basically disappeared for Halloween 2020. But Sarah Cain, director of NightMARE Island, gathered the troops and came up with Creep the Streets Home Decorating Contest.
Around 15 homes entered the drive-up and view-from-a-distance-only contest that apparently has a future.
“In September, as the days were getting shorter, and the prospect of Halloween cheer seemed to be slipping further and further away, one of our volunteers initially suggested it,” Cain said, with the event inspired by the Christmas “Candy Cane Lane” idea.
“We knew that a lot of folks probably would not decorate because they thought there would be no trick or treaters, so why bother decorating? We said, do it anyway, go big, and spread the spirit with lights and props,” Cain continued. “It was also a way to keep our volunteers engaged and working ‘together’ even though physically distanced — 18 of our volunteers participated, along with five special guest judges.”
The event “gave community members a way to get out of the house and safely enjoy Halloween … gave our contestants the extra boost of encouragement to put on their best show, knowing that there really would be an audience for their work … encouraged the neighbors of our contestants to decorate … and definitely worked as a way to keep our volunteers connected to each other, and to what we continue to build as a crew.”
Cain said it’s not just a one-time event no matter what the pandemic status is in a year.
“We heard from so many of the contestants how happy it made people who came out to view the displays. People driving by, literally yelling, ‘Thank you for doing this!” out of their car windows,” Cain said. “It also drew people from as far away as Berkeley and San Francisco. Too many people ask us to make it an annual event.”
8). Obtainium Works
The wild and whacky Shannon and Kathy O’Hare weren’t about to let a global pandemic prevent the eccentric happenings at Obtainium Works, though all the canceled events the welder of weird stuff couldn’t participate in dampened the spirits at Pennsylvania Street.
“No anniversary party in March, no Obtainium Cup and Mad Hatter Parade, no second Friday Art Walk — no visitors, except by appointment and no crew but weekly virtual meetings,” summarized Kathy O’Hare of 2020.
Ah, but it gave the O’Hares time to reconfigure their workshop
“Shannon has been busy with that and I have been helping with some of the painting and finish wood working,” Kathy said.
Though there were no appearances on “Jay Leno’s Garage” — Obtainium was featured on the TV show in 2018 — there were the “Pandemic Projects,” said Kathy, including: Three rose trellises for the North Bay Rose Society and GVRD at Grant Mahoney Park; working with the U.S. Forest Service on this year’s Visions of the Wild Festival and created a Plastic Art Challenge which will be ongoing through March 2021; built a talking Trash Can Robot that may be a prototype for a future project in the City; worked with the Robert McConnell Campaign and brought art cars to the Farmers Market; brought art cars to the Capitol Stairs Project; started a Jigsaw Puzzle Exchange; and have a weekly humorous commentary by the “Dodos” that live on the roof of the studio called “Dodo Wisdom.”
“We’re very grateful that we haven’t had significant income issues despite my closing my acupressure practice in Lafayette in March,” Kathy O’Hare continued. “I hope to reopen my practice in Vallejo once the vaccines are widespread.”
“I guess we have been busy despite the circumstances,” she said.
9). Overcoming adversity
This is truly of year of adversity — and overcoming it. Two definite examples: Don Bassey, who rehabbed from an amputated right leg at the knee to again pick up the bass and play. And Vallejo blues stalwart Alvon Johnson, who lost his kindred soulmate, Karen, to cancer over the summer.
Alvon took the Empress stage with his band for a live-streamed performance Nov. 14.
“It was amazing,” Johnson said. “Since we hadn’t done a gig since February, I was nervous. I was also playing with another band with no rehearsals. I had to make it happen as we went along. Before the plague, I used to do that really well. But everyone was happy. The audience didn’t run me out of town.”
Johnson’s mission remains the same, whether there’s a live audience or one virtually, with expected support from his fans that extend to Italy, Spain and Russia, where he’s toured frequently in the last 20 years.
“People need not worry about problems they’re going through. If you have a smile on your face, my work here is done,” Johnson said.
Johnson plans a tribute concert to Karen some time in 2021 — pandemic permitting.
10). Entertainers with Vallejo roots
As organizations and venues suffered horribly during 2020, some individuals with Vallejo roots thrived. H.E.R. — Gabi Wilson to her local friends — made her Saturday Night Live debut, appeared on BET, was nominated for five Grammys, and her latest music video, “damage,” has 12 million views in two months.
Pioneer rapper E-40 — a proud Hogan High grad — released a music video, “Mob,” plus a double-album with Too Short a new adult beverage, Tycoon Cognac .
Joey “Jaws” Chestnut continued his professional eating mastery, claiming his 13th Mustard Yellow Belt in 14 tries at the audience-absent Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island. Chestnut downed a record 74 hot dogs in 10 minutes. And in the world of game shows, Vallejo native George McCrudden-Cook won $20,400 in cash and prizes on the Wheel of Fortune.
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