It is oh so fitting that the Empress Theatre in downtown Vallejo re-opens to an audience on Halloween.
With the pandemic hanging a dark financial cloud over the 109-year-old venue, “it’s been scary,” says Renay Conlin, executive director for the Vallejo Community Arts Foundation that oversees the Empress.
“I’m looking at the bank account and the money is going down even though we have not officially opened,” Conlin said, with insurance, electricity, garbage and other bills stressing the venue’s finances.
An obvious dilemma, Conlin continued, is that entertainment venues were immediately considered “non-essential” and appear to be the last to get the OK to kick-start business again. The state’s anointed “red tier” status has allowed the Empress to host movies at 25 percent of its capacity — roughly 100 seats with pandemic protocols.
“We cannot open as a theater with performers on stage but we can open as a movie theater with reduced capacity with all the COVID-19 measures,” said Conlin, who had big plans for “this little jewel” when she assumed the executive director position 14 months ago.
“It’s been an interesting first year, for sure,” she said.
Conlin’s hopes were buoyed by the rousing sold-out success Feb. 2 of “The Three Tenors,” conducted by her husband, Thomas Conlin.
“I still get goosebumps thinking of that” concert, she said. “The orchestra was just overwhelmed by the reaction of the audience.”
“Everyone was so excited, with plans to do more” similar performances, Conlin said. “Then it all went out the window.”
During the summer, “The Three Tenors” presentation was recognized by Classical Voice of San Francisco with third place honors for “Best Orchestral Performance.”
Nice acknowledgement, undoubtedly, Conlin said, though “I’m not sure whether people would pay attention the point of ‘Oh, they won an award. We have to go to the Empress.’”
It did show Conlin that perhaps the theater was on the right path.
“I think I have some great ideas, but I’m not going to give them away,” she laughed.
The Empress has held a handful of live-streamed events and hosted blues artist Tommy Castro for a recording he used for a San Diego Blues Festival presentation.
There was a plan to build a “parklet” in front of the theater and have performers socially-distanced. But the county squashed that idea, Conlin said.
“I don’t quite understand it, but I’m sure they have their reasons,” she said, believing that window of opportunity is about to close with chillier weather approaching.
“In terms of investing money in a parklet, we have so little so it’s probably not right to do that with the weather about to change,” Conlin said.
Conlin hopes screening “The Legend of Boggy Creek” on Halloween gets the community downtown.
“We’ll make it fun for those who really want to get out and do something with volunteers in costumes and give out Halloween candy,” Conlin said.
The film will also be streamed “so people have the option of coming to the theater or watching it from home,” Conlin said, adding that “we’ll try and do a couple of movies each month.”
Yes, she said, appropriate seats will be blocked off to maintain social distancing unless a group that lives together requires a “pod.”
Conlin believes arts venues won’t open completely until fall, 2021. And even that’s in doubt, she said.
“It depends on what happens. We’re still not doing a good job of getting the virus under control,” Conlin said. “It has to be a nationwide plan. We can’t be each state determining what they’re going to do. It’s kind of a free for all.”
A lot of performing arts organizations are not going to make it, Conlin said.
“I think we’ll see a huge decline in the number of groups that survive,” she said.
The arts, Conlin continued, are viewed by many “with a narrow lens. We really need to be viewed as part of a larger economic eco system.”
Conlin said the Empress is struggling severely .
“I think it would be very sad if the Empress goes out of business,” she said. “The arts, to me, are the heart of the community.”
Conlin said the City of Vallejo has offered grants for arts organizations and artists and Conlin is hosting two Zoom workshops to guide participants through the grant process: Oct. 20 at 7 p.m. and Oct. 25 at 11 a.m. More information is available on her Facebook page.
Normally, Conlin would do the workshops in person. As a professional vocalist, “performing involves communicating with the audience. Yes, you can live-stream from your living room and people can watch you. But it’s the connection between the audience and the communal experience. When I was singing, I was truly aware of the audience’s reaction.”
For more about Empress events, visit empresstheatre.org.