Holiday Magic, The Movies and A Pandemic

This Monday really crushed me. For years I have been extolling that magic that is The Historic Artcraft Theatre at Christmas. My wife who volunteers at the Artcraft received an email informing the volunteers that because of COVID, this magnificent theater would be forced to close temporarily. What really hit me and hit me hard was that this pinnacle of community theater was going to be shuttered during the Christmas movie season. The air left my lungs when I heard the news, and it took me ten minutes to regain my composure. This was tragic.

No “Elf”, no “Christmas Vacation”, no “It’s A Wonderful Life”, no “A Christmas Story”. For the past decade, the Christmas season started when Rob Shilts came on stage prior to the movie “A Christmas Story”. I was then flashed into a vat of Christmas spirit as I witnessed Ralphie connive for a Red Ryder BB gun. When the movie finished, I would make my way out of the theater, my heart glowing with the magic that is an Artcraft Christmas. I would exit, wait for a minute, more often than not be suddenly adorned with soft flakes of snow and the gentle pulsing of the marquee. For a movie guy like myself, it was always heaven.

Not this year. For my town, which I love, this is the equivalent of having a near-fatal heart attack. The Artcraft, noble and fine lady that she is, quote unabashedly is the heart and the soul of this perfectly small MidWest City. A city or town in many ways is a living organism, it has its own pulse, its own personality and its own way of breathing. For my town, The Artcraft is its center. Without it, in many ways, it becomes untethered and without focus.

For years I have crowed that the Artcraft always led the box office globally when it came to Christmas movies. I verified this from several industry sources. Their performance was amazing; 5-7 sold-out shows of “Christmas Vacation” and remember the Artcraft has in pre-COVID days 623 glorious seats available and not a bad seat in the house. The team at the Artcraft are the best in the business. For years I was perplexed that in the days of rapidly declining audiences the attendance at the Artcraft was rising, then in a moment that was almost a baseball bat to the head, I got it. It was not about the movie, it was really about building the community.

The Artcraft is about to endure a time of struggle like it has not seen before. My prayer is that my community will rise to the challenge and give back a small portion of what that theater and its operators have given to the town. To be frank, The Artcraft is owed and owed big.

What is happening to the Artcraft is happening to theaters across the country. The hearts of communities are being put at risk. It is crucial that independent theaters get support, and support that is not just based on wage subsidy. It is imperative that the “Save Our Stage” initiative get funded in order to save thousands of independent theaters. In late September. The House of Representatives passed the revised $2.2 trillion “Heroes Act” coronavirus stimulus package, which includes provisions of the now $15 billion Save Our Stages Act. Originally designed to provide financial assistance to independent music and live-entertainment venues across the U.S., the act’s funding base was widened in order to accommodate the needs of independent theaters. Any publicly held company is not eligible to receive assistance under the act. So, the large circuits are not able to receive assistance. The Democratic-controlled House voted 214 to 207 to pass the bill, largely along party lines.

Section 619 of the Heroes Act reads: “Grants for Independent Live Venue Operators (H.R. 7806, Save our Stages Act or the SOS Act) 37 1. Authorizes $10 Billion for the SBA to make grants to eligible live venue operators, producers, promoters, or talent representatives to address the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on certain live venues. 2. The SBA may make an initial grant of up to $12 million dollars to an eligible operator, promoter, producer, or talent representative; and a supplemental grant that is equal to 50% of the initial grant. 3. Such grants shall be used for specified expenses such as payroll costs, rent, utilities, and personal protective equipment.”

Senator Klobuchar was quoted as saying that, “Independent venues were some of the first establishments to close down and will likely be some of the last to open. I refuse to sit by and let the music die, which is why I was proud to introduce the bipartisan Save our Stages Act in Congress. Now that the new coronavirus relief bill includes Save Our Stages, we are one step closer to getting small entertainment venues the help they need to make ends meet and serve our communities for generations to come.”

It is imperative right now that local communities step up and support these theaters. The demise of any theater heralds the demise of a downtown core. The long term effects of a closure of a theater can be decades-long and are the beginning of the unraveling of the fabric of a community. If support does not come soon from Washington (and right now that place is an unholy mess), then as shown by States like Iowa and Wisconsin, then State and local government should intercede. If they do not intercede then communities should rise up, acknowledge the debt they owe these theaters, and sustain them in this time of crisis.

This Christmas things will be smaller, by necessity much smaller. In the quiet hour maybe reflect on the sense of community theaters as the Artcraft provide. I know I shall walk by the Historic Artcraft Theater, raise my eyes to the marquee, and hear the heartbeat of a small American City.

For me the Artcraft is a gift in my life that keeps on giving, reminding us of what was, what is, and what can be.

These theaters are our heart.