Laughter and music resounded from the stage and the seats at Ohnward Fine Arts Center as the Clauson Family Music Show entertained an audience of less than 250 people — the most permitted to gather in a public space at one time.
It made center director Richard Hall happy.
“I had people coming up to me thanking me for (holding the event), saying they needed to get their minds off (COVID-19),” Hall recalled. “I remember observing the lobby, and there wasn’t much social distancing going on then.”
That was March 14.
After that, everything changed.
About 24 hours later, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds recommended that all schools close for four weeks and people limit public gatherings to 50 people or less in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The move effectively closed Ohnward as well as Central DeWitt Performing Arts Center (CDPAC) through at least the end of the month.
“There’s nothing going on here now,” DeWitt city administrator Steve Lindner said Friday as he talked about the forced cancellation of events at the CDPAC. The eight-year-old center is attached to the high school and for that reason is closed until at least April 13.
“This is just so unusual, unlike any other time, like we’re in lockdown,” Lindner said.
Two events at the CDPAC were canceled this month (James Garner’s tribute to Johnny Cash April 17 and the Wartburg Concert Band Wind Ensemble April 19).
Canceled shows mean loss of revenue for the venues, which often pay deposits to book entertainment acts. Those deposits are not returned if the venue cancels the event.
And, non-profits such as the CDPAC and Ohnward depend on public donations, ticket sales, and grants to continue offering programming, Lindner and Hall explained.
“Fortunately for us, (canceling) these two shows aren’t going to hurt us badly,” Lindner said.
Hall said he’s working with the Maquoketa Area Chamber of Commerce on small business loans because Ohnward has some debt to pay on the new outdoor, electronic sign it installed.
No school means no spring programs from the elementary schools and no high school musical, Hall said. Those events have tentatively been rescheduled for May, “so there’s a chance to recoup,” Hall said, but no one knows how long the COVID-19 pandemic will continue.
Just this week, Hall had to cancel the first Ohward-sponsored show of the coronavirus era, the April 25 Helen Russell and Co. show. Patrons who purchased tickets are asked to call Ohnward for a ticket exchange to any upcoming show. The next show there will be “Absolutely Country, Definitely Gospel” May 17.
Marketing and advertising also become issues in these uncertain times, Lindner and Hall agreed. Paying to advertise a show that ends up being canceled means more lost revenue for the performing arts facilities.
“The hard part is we incur costs for advertising,” Lindner said. “And even when school opens, it still may restrict the number of people allowed in the building or the events that can be held.”
The biggest concern for the CDPAC, Lindner said, is that the bulk of their patrons are age 60 and older; medical professionals have said that age group is at greatest risk.
Area movie theaters in both towns also have closed, in addition to the Maquoketa Art Experience and other arts and entertainment venues.
Still, people need to be entertained at a time like this, Hall said. But since no more than 10 people at a time can be inside Ohnward, Hall is considering hosting live music events and other activities there, broadcasting them to people via Facebook. Ohnward hosted its first such event last Saturday night, featuring Nutsy Turtle and Lori during a live show on Facebook.
“I wanna see these local bands survive,” Hall said. If the online-viewing events take place, people could send donations to the acts or to Ohnward, he said.
Hall and Lindner remain optimistic about the future of the Ohnward Fine Arts Center and Central DeWitt Performing Arts Center.
“I think when this is over, people will want to get out in droves and we will be inundated and we’ll be so busy,” Hall said. “I am really looking forward to things getting back to normal. I can’t wait for summer when about 75 kids will be running around, enjoying life as we rehearse ‘Frozen Jr.’”
Lindner is looking forward to the CDPAC’s Missoula Children’s Theatre production this June, which brings in money for the CDPAC, and the summer theater event in July.
“We’re keeping our chin up,” Hall said. “We’ll get through this.”