The Grand to host national acts outdoors this summer, plans to reopen venue this fall
Mark Fields had his world turn upside down on a Thursday. It happened in prophetic fashion last March. He had to figure out how to convince 800 patrons not to show up at his Wilmington theater.
“We were to open a new production of a show in The Playhouse on Rodney Square, our Broadway theater,” said Fields, executive director of The Playhouse. “Everybody knew something was going on [with COVID], but didn't know what was going to happen and when. The name of the show was ‘The Play that Goes Wrong.’”
It’s been a year since COVID-19 crippled Delaware’s performing arts venues. But as the weather gets warmer, you can expect more live entertainment to ramp up this spring and summer – barring an uptick in coronavirus cases. This will include live events both indoors and outdoors.
While The Grand hasn’t had any national acts since the pandemic started, the historic venue plans to return with a beefed-up offering of outdoor entertainment this summer.
Last year The Grand delivered a set of drive-in car concerts in the parking lot of Frawley Stadium. Folks could listen to live performances either on their car radio or sit beside their car socially distanced in the parking lot.
Fields, the executive director of The Grand, said he’s not sure if Concerts by Car will be held at the baseball stadium again because he’s not sure what the Blue Rocks will do for their upcoming season. But somewhere there will be an encore for Concerts by Car, he said.
The Grand to debut pod seating
New this year for The Grand will be outdoor concerts with pod seating at a location to be determined. Pod seating has become a trend during the pandemic. Groups of four can sit in circles that have been spray-painted on grass, letting fans see live entertainment in a socially distanced setting.
Pod seating is more convenient than Concerts by Car, Fields said, because it allows more people to attend.
“In the pod, people can take their masks off and enjoy the concert. We all know it’s much safer to be around people outdoors than indoors,” Fields said. “If people leave their pod to go the restroom or concession, they’ll [have to] wear a mask.”
The expectation, Fields said, is he will land some national acts for pod concerts because many musicians need the money.
“Most artists can’t afford to take the year off from work. They live from tour to tour and depend on the money they raise to perform live on tour to pay their bills,” he said. “Many of them are in very desperate situations.”
Big names coming to Small Wonder?
As more venues reopen, Fields anticipates venues will be able to attract national artists that normally would be out of their price range in a non-pandemic year.
Don’t expect to see Bruno Mars or Paul McCartney at a venue like the 1,200-seat Grand theater. Concertgoers, however, will likely see artists like Leon Bridges – who performs in rooms that seat 2,000 to 2,500 people – playing in venues the size of The Grand, Fields said.
The Texas singer-songwriter is just an example, Fields said, and not someone The Grand is pursuing, although they tried but were unable to afford him in the past.
Touring is messy right now
There are many factors as to why The Grand has remained dark during the pandemic.
One is because of reduced indoor capacity. Even if that weren’t the case, there’s a concern that not enough people will feel safe attending indoor concerts, Fields said.
“It’s not just a matter of the governor saying we can open the doors and start doing shows again. It’s a really complex situation,” he said.
There’s also the touring situation. “Routing” is an industry term used to describe the way national performers tour from city to city. The goal is for artists to create a tour schedule that allows them to play about five to six shows a week.
It’s important they select cities that will take them less than a day to drive between. They also need to carve out time to do soundchecks, make pit stops, get food and lodge at a hotel.
“They’ll perform in Wilmington on Friday night, then they’ll go to Baltimore or Washington, D.C., on Saturday, and then Richmond, Virginia, on Sunday night,” said Fields, describing what a route could look like.
But routing is complicated by the pandemic because every state doesn’t follow the same COVID-19 guidelines. For example, Texas recently reopened, while Delaware is on lockdown.
Artists haven’t been able to tour because some venues are still closed or at reduced capacity. That would cost artists to lose money because they’d still have to pay for their crew every night, as well as hotels, food, gas and a tour bus if they have one.
And even if the country was completely reopened, some artists might not feel comfortable touring yet.
“You’re coming in contact with a whole different group of strangers every day – the crew at the theater, the people in the audience — but also the people at the restaurants where you had to eat in,” Fields said.
“It’s really high risk for an artist to go on tour during a pandemic.”
Why won't The Grand reopen now?
The Grand is on pace to reopen for indoor shows in the fall, Fields said. By then he anticipates more people will have the vaccine and the pandemic will be closer to its end.
This plan, however, isn’t set in stone because the coronavirus is steadily keeping Fields and his peers on their toes, he said.
Before the pandemic, The Grand had around $8 million in endowments. That has since dropped to about $5 million, he said. The venue has a campaign named RISE (Rebuild, Invest, Strengthen, Empower) that’s intended to help them return to $8 million.
The Grand qualified for the Save our Stages Act, which passed late last year as part of a massive federal COVID-19 relief package, Fields said. The fund is intended to provide live music businesses with access to an estimated $15 billion in grant programs.
Reopening her doors:The Queen to dust off her musical thrones this spring
The Grand hasn’t received any money from Save our Stages, he added. Although things are starting to look up for The Grand, Fields confided there have been some terrifying moments over the last year.
“We're going to make it. But there were times in the last year where we weren't, or it certainly wasn't a foregone conclusion that we were going to make it. So we're feeling cautiously optimistic,” Fields said.
Soon you'll bend the knee for The Queen
The Queen in Wilmington will reopen her castle for concerts upstairs in April.
The first shows on the Crown Stage will feature seated and ticketed performances by local acts Aziza Nailah (April 3), Maya Belardo (April 9) and Ladyy. (April 17). A comedic Drag Diva Brunch series starts April 3.
The Crown room features an English gastropub-themed kitchen and socially distanced full-band shows at 50% capacity, per state rules. In normal times, full capacity is about 250 for that stage.
On the ground level, the open-air Knights Bar reopens March 19. This new addition to The Queen accommodates about 45 to 50 guests and offers an opportunity for local rising artists to showcase their talents. Newark artist Nic Snow will perform there March 31, said The Queen general manager Sam Blumin.
The Queen hasn’t announced a full lineup for the Knights Bar, but the plan is to host free events there Thursday to Saturday, along with programming in the Crown room four or five days a week, he said.
Folks can stay tuned for new announcements at The Queen's website.
Eventually the goal, Blumin said, is to book national acts for the Crown Stage, like The Queen did before the pandemic struck.
But the elephant in the room is still large: When will national acts return to The Queen’s main concert hall downstairs?
“We’re targeting fourth quarter,” Blumin said. “It depends on vaccinations. Since things have to be seated right now, [with] no gathering or dancing, it’s very difficult to sell the proper amount of tickets in that room. We’re hoping in late fall/winter is when that will happen.”
The first national act to play the downstairs stage will debut on The Queen’s new $500,000 upgrade. Construction has increased capacity from 958 to 1,227 pending final inspections, says Chris Buccini, co-president and managing partner of Buccini/Pollin Group.
BPG is the Wilmington-based developer that owns the building and took over management of the downtown Wilmington theater from global live entertainment giant Live Nation last summer.
Blumin, the general manager, believes The Queen will be able to land bigger names than they would have before the pandemic. “I think because of the pandemic and with how limited artists have been financially, I think we can swing booking some larger artists than we normally would’ve,” he said.
Freeman Arts Pavilion eyes national acts
Whereas The Grand is going to explore pod seating this year, the Freeman Stage in Selbyville found success with it last year.
The Freeman Stage has expanded and is now known as the Freeman Arts Pavilion. The venue is aiming to open in mid-to-late June.
It will return with pod seating, along with hand sanitizer stations and mask requirements. The venue can accommodate up to 550 seating pods, with four patrons in each pod, said executive director Patti Grimes.
The $27 million complex will seat over 4,000 patrons, with 1,100 of those seats under a roof. This year an audience capacity of about 2,200 people, which is about 50% of Freeman Arts venue capacity, is expected, Grimes said.
A number of big entertainers have performed at the Selbyville venue, including Gary Clark Jr., Diana Ross, Buddy Guy, Jim Gaffigan and Jeff Foxworthy.
The Freeman Arts Pavilion isn’t ready to announce its 2021 lineup yet. But Grimes said patrons will get a variety of fun.
“We anticipate presenting similar programming that was featured at The Freeman Stage in previous years — including national recording artists, local artists, tribute bands, performing arts, and free family and children’s programming,” Grimes said.
Concerts on The Green encore
One of the few entertainment events that was able to be salvaged in Dover last summer was its free Concerts on The Green series, now in its 46th year.
The family-friendly series introduced pod seating and featured a variety of entertainment offerings including soul, rock and jazz. There was even a show by Reptile World, an educational program featuring a reptilian wizard.
Recreation specialist Sherwanda Rachal-Speaks, of the city’s Parks & Recreation Department, said the plan is to announce this summer’s lineup next week.
Rachal-Speaks said last year’s Concerts on The Green showed her how valuable their programming was.
“Despite having to do social distancing and wear a mask, one thing that I learned is people still showed up, week after week,” she said.
The Grand: 818 N. Market St., Wilmington; (302) 652-5577; thegrandwilmington.org
The Queen Wilmington: 500 N. Market St., Wilmington; (302) 400-7020; thequeenwilmington.com
Freeman Arts Pavilion: 31255 Americana Parkway, Selbyville; (302) 436-3015; freemanarts.org
Concerts on The Green: 25 The Green, Dover; (302) 674-7541; cityofdover.com
Bottle & Cork: 1807 Highway One, Dewey Beach; (302) 227-7272; bottleandcork.com
The Starboard: 2009 Coastal Highway, Dewey Beach; (302) 227-4600; thestarboard.com
Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats: 320 Rehoboth Ave., Rehoboth Beach; (302) 226-2739; dogfish.com
Rusty Rudder: 113 Dickinson St., Dewey Beach; (302) 227-3888; rustyrudder.com
Smyrna Opera House: 7 W. South St., Smyrna; (302) 653-4236; smyrnaoperahouse.org
Andre Lamar is the features/lifestyle reporter. If you have an interesting story idea, email Andre Lamar at email@example.com