VDT Nutcraker 12-07-18 1515

A pandemic relief bill passed by Congress this week could help theater venues across the nation. It awaits approval from the president. Seen here is a December 2019 performance of "The Nutcracker" at Livermore's Bankhead Theater. (Photo - Doug Jorgensen)

By Larry Altman

LIVERMORE — If President Donald Trump signs it, the $900 billion emergency pandemic relief bill that passed in Congress this week will help independent venues like the Bankhead Theater in Livermore to meet payroll and pay the bills, possibly until patrons can return.

However, at press time the bill, which includes $15 billion in grants, was in jeopardy. Trump threatened to veto it in disagreement with how much money individual Americans would receive.

Tri-Valley Congressman Eric Swalwell was among more than 120 co-sponsors of a “Save Our Stages” bill that was included in this relief act. The funding will allow the U.S. Small Business Administration to make grants of up to $12 million to smaller live venues, specifically for payroll, utilities and rent expenses, and personal protective equipment.

Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center (LVPAC) Executive Director Chris Carter will apply.

In a discussion posted Dec. 18 on the LVPAC website a few days before the House was expected to approve the measure, Swalwell said the grants would not have to be paid back.

“We know it’s not only the talent that’s on the stage, but it’s the people who are behind the curtain offstage — workers in concessions who have also been affected and have lost their jobs,” Swalwell said, adding that the grants could be used to prepare a theater for reopening, such as spacing out seats, taking temperatures or administering vaccine checks.

“I’m glad the omnibus budget and COVID-19 relief legislation ... includes $15 billion in dedicated funding for live venues, independent movie theaters, and cultural institutions, like our own Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center,” Swalwell said after the vote. “Venues like this are the cultural lifeblood of our communities, providing enlightenment and entertainment to all, and we must help them survive until this pandemic recedes and we can safely gather again in celebration of the arts.”

Carter declined to say how much funding he might request from the federal government when given the opportunity, but the money and community donations throughout the COVID-19 pandemic should allow the theater to pay its employees through 2021 and keep the building in good condition until shows resume, possibly not until 2022.

“We are not out of the woods,” Carter said. “This is a great bill. I am super happy that it got included. I think it’s really wonderful, and I think it’s going to save a lot of spaces from closing.”

The grants for independent venues are among a slew of relief measures in the bill, which provides $600 checks to people who make less than $75,000 a year, adds Payroll Protection Program loans for small businesses, includes $25 billion for rental assistance, offers aid for freelance and gig workers and gives $300 a week in unemployment benefits.

Live music and entertainment venues, including movie theaters, across the nation had recently rallied together for help in this relief plan. The National Independent Venue Association pushed for economic help and unemployment benefits for its workers.

Locally, the Bankhead Theater and Bothwell Arts Center — each part of the Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center — joined 24 other venues last week to create the East Bay Venue Coalition. The organization plans to advocate for community and government support and financial help for an industry they say generates $257 million a year for the local economy. According to the coalition, for every dollar spent on a ticket, $12 is spent at bars and restaurants, on transportation and at retail stores.

Besides the Livermore venues, others included in the coalition are The Greek Theater in Berkeley, The Ivy Room in Albany and the Oakland Metro Operahouse. The coalition is part of a larger group.

“We had to close before everybody else, and we are going to be one of the last ones to open,” Carter said.

In a statement announcing its formation, the coalition noted that lawmakers in Nashville, Tennessee; Austin, Texas; and Sacramento have already allocated funding to save live venues from closing in their cities. The State of Wisconsin authorized $15 million in a larger relief plan.

“Without similar actions in Alameda County, the county could lose its live entertainment scene for good,” East Bay Venue Coalition said in a statement.

Carter does not expect to even partially reopen his 500-seat Bankhead theater until the summer at the earliest, with a full recovery predicted in about 18 months. The venue annually offers a full slate of entertainment including all types of music, dance troops, acrobatics, theater and comedy.

The county’s stay-at-home order shut down the venue March 12. Although Carter had hoped it would reopen after a few weeks, the pandemic has kept the doors locked for nine months to date. The Bothwell Arts Center has limited access to its programs.

Carter reduced his 55-member staff to eight people, cutting the pay for those who remained by 40%. Unlike restaurants and retail outlets, theaters with live performances cannot offer curbside service, Carter said.

"We got really lean," Carter explained. "It was awful, and it was scary. I had no idea what we were going to do to stay afloat."

The federal PPP, passed in a relief bill in March, offered businesses forgivable loans to keep employees on the payroll and pay their health care. The loan provided a “lifeline that we needed” for a couple of months, Carter said. But the pandemic is into a second wave with vaccines just beginning to reach first responders and hospital workers.

Tri-Valley residents also are helping keep their favorite theater afloat. A fundraiser in November brought in $200,000, part of about $1.8 million secured from donors since the closure.

“It’s been really amazing,” Carter said. “We are very fortunate. We got our first estate gift this summer. Someone left us their home in a will. That made an incredible difference.”

Meanwhile, LVPAC has online performances for Christmas and more available for purchase on its website. Carter’s staff is scheduling its performance dates for the future, mostly shows and speakers postponed during the COVID-19 closure.

For more information, visit livermorearts.org.