“We’ll be back soon,” the marquee outside Belk Theater read on March 16, 2020.
Outside Ovens Auditorium the same day, the sign was less optimistic but ultimately more accurate: “CANCELLED CANCELLED CANCELLED CANCELLED.”
The big picture: 547 days after COVID-19 closed the curtain on Blumenthal Performing Arts’ 2020 season, Broadway returns to Charlotte this week with the opening of “Wicked.” Even as cases and hospitalizations spike again, Blumenthal CEO and president Tom Gabbard says he feels ready. “We’re pumped.”
Flashback: Gabbard was only the 20th person in Mecklenburg County to be infected with COVID-19. He was the first coronavirus patient many locals knew, at a time when testing was scarce and fears were high.
“It felt very weird,” he tells me now, a time when over 137,000 county residents have tested positive and 1,072 have lost their lives.
Gabbard and his wife Vickie’s cases were mild — their fevers and coughs healed with a little rest and time. Healing the Blumenthal and bringing musical theatre back to Charlotte, though, took longer and came with more hurdles.
- “Blumenthal has been dogged,” he tells me from Founders Hall last week. “This whole situation has thrown us one curveball after another.”
There was no harder day than the day Gabbard made the decision to let go of 75% of Blumenthal’s staff, bringing the part-time and full-time teams from 287 people to 72. “These are good people, and many of them didn’t have something else to go off to,” he says.
To bring both the staff and the audience back, the performing arts centered needed to adapt to the times, Gabbard says.
- Masks are required indoors at all times during Blumenthal shows.
- Staff members are tested regularly and are all fully vaccinated.
- The air filtration and HVAC systems have been upgraded: “We want to make the air so damn clean that people buy tickets just to come and breathe here,” Gabbard jokes.
He compares the whole situation to a winter in Wisconsin. When he and Vickie left Malibu and moved north, they changed their wardrobe and learned how to drive through snow. “Alternatively, we could have just said ‘OK, we’re gonna stay in the house all winter.’ … No, we made some tweaks so that we had this full life, and I told our team that’s what we need to do.”
Zoom out: Gabbard, 66, has been in Charlotte — and in the top seat at Blumenthal — for almost two decades. He’s put the snow chains away, but holds onto that ethos.
- He wouldn’t say how soon retirement is approaching, but he did say there’s still more he wants to do here.
- Gabbard tells me he’s left other jobs because he felt like his work was done, but, he says, “Charlotte has always given me those new chapters.”
In 2021, that meant bringing back shows like “Wicked,” plus introducing the city to new mediums like the Immersive Van Gogh exhibit, which was recently extended through October.
- Over 220,000 tickets have been sold to the interactive Camp North End show so far.
The year has had plenty of gloomy chapters, too. Good for character development, I guess. Bad for the long-awaited Charlotte Shout festival, the city’s largest celebration of arts and culture, which will have to wait until 2022 for a full comeback.
“To have a really great festival, there has to be a small army of people. I mean there has to be people everywhere,” Gabbard says. “This was not the right time to do that.”
The bottom line: “Wicked” has somehow defied the dreaded cancelation announcement dozens of shows before it received. It opened September 8 and runs through October 3.
- Admittedly, theatergoers are big vaccine fans. In a number of email surveys, Gabbard says over 90% of ticket holders answered that they were fully vaccinated.
- The performing arts center has also distributed over 30,000 buttons that read “I took my best shot! ✓ Vaccinated,” the same one he’s wearing in the photo above.
Today the Ovens marquee lists four upcoming shows in the place of 2020’s “CANCELLED” messages. In a parking lot across the street, though, a line of cars start to form at a pop-up testing site.
This book has a few more chapters left.