MANCHESTER, NH – In the four months since the Palace Theatres went into pandemic hibernation mode, the only thing that hasn’t changed is its dedication to bringing arts and entertainment to the masses.
Last week one of the glass-pane entrance doors was propped open and house manager Ray Garon, masked up with more to share, welcomed pint-sized patrons and parents back to the theatre for the first production in its usual children’s summer series, “Beauty & the Beast.” He is one of about a dozen or so Palace employees out of 74 who stayed on the payroll after the doors closed March 13.
Palace President and CEO Peter Ramsey has been at the theatre every single day since then, overseeing interior upgrades like fresh paint, social-distancing cues, sanitizer stations and strict protocols designed to keep everyone safe once the floodlights switched on again.
Reopening last week was a return to the familiar, even under unfamiliar circumstances, says Ramsey.
“I appreciate the governor’s courage in letting us reopen and letting us try to return to business. Our challenge is to do it safely, which is critical,” says Ramsey. “Out of 74 employees we’ve got 17 here, which is how we’ve managed. At the end of every show our staff and six volunteers will wipe down every seat.”
And that is how it went Thursday morning, as the house lights went up and about 40 or so attendees were directed through side-door exits directly to the street, circumventing the lobby. Ramsey and his crew picked up spray-bottles of sanitizer and cleaning cloths and went seat-by-seat, wiping everything down like a germophobic army.
Week one was a success by every new measure – about 400 patrons so far for five out of six shows. Free masks are readily available, but Ramsey noted that every single person brought their own.
“People are so happy to come back,” he says, sitting in his office surrounded by posters and playbills, a highlights-reel gallery and constant reminder of the mission, which is to share the joy of live theatre, to make it accessible to all, and to keep the legacy going for generations to come.
Ramsey says they haven’t canceled any shows, although there have been some postponements, including engagements with comedians Howie Mandel and Bob Marley.
“And we haven’t lost one deposit. On the day we shut down in March we had sold 19,000 tickets for future shows. Four months later, we are at 20,000 tickets sold. Most of our patrons don’t want their money back – they trust us to do the shows as soon as we can,” Ramsey says.
Keeping the trust is paramount. They will be announcing their fall lineup in about a week, which will include a reprise of “Mamma Mia,” a blockbuster show for the Palace which was interrupted in the midst of its 2020 run by the pandemic.
“We’re bringing it back in June of 2021 for five weeks,” Ramsey says.
The Palace has applied for a share of the state’s $60 million Nonprofit Emergency Recovery and Relief Fund, administered by New Hampshire Center for Nonprofits, New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and Community Development Finance Authority.
“It’s been a secret as to how many non-profits applied, so we don’t know what ‘relief’ will look like, but we’re not generating enough money to pay our bills,” says Ramsey, which operates not only the Palace, but the newly-revived Rex Theatre, the Spotlight Theatre and Forever Emma Studios, which is home to the Palace’s youth programs. Ramsey says the Rex will also reopen in two weeks with a capacity of 100, and shows will be focused on New England performers and an indie music series for young artists.
Current capacity for the Palace is 320. Normally, it’s 841. No matter how you calculate the COVID-19 math, the books come up short.
“We’re $1.5 million behind where we should be. We’ve saved enough money to pay our bills, but like everyone else, we don’t know the future,” Ramsey says.
The Palace is one of seven “landmark” theaters in New Hampshire with legacies spanning a century. Ramsey hopes that holds some sway when the emergency relief money is designated.
“There’s no doubt that the Palace makes our community a better place, and I guarantee you that the Palace will not go under. I’ve come in every day since we closed because, in my mind, the Palace is essential and we won’t let it close,” he says, a slight furrow in his brow underscores the intention in his voice.
With 15 minutes to curtain, Heather Collins steps into the lobby with Adeline, 10, and Finley, 3, her kids decked out for the occasion in their Disney-inspired dresses.
“It feels great to be here,” Collins says, noting that her older daughter normally participates in the Palace Youth Theatre productions. “We’ve missed it.”
Appropriately, they are greeted by Megan Quinn, longtime Palace regular performer and administrator of the youth theater program. She stands by a vertical kid-friendly poster and goes through the checklist with every guest before welcoming them to take a seat.
“It’s been crazy here. We’ve painted everything, from the main theater to the Marquee Club room, installed four more bathrooms and basically have adjusted to whatever the new normal is going to be,” Quinn says. “I was here for the first show on Tuesday and it warmed my heart to see all the little girls dressed like princesses.”
One pandemic perk has been that the Palace was able to continue using a 5,000-pound 30-by-20-foot high-res video projection screen backdrop which is rented back in February for Mamma Mia, adding state-of-the-art special effects and a modern feel to the refreshed theater ambiance. The new paint job makes everything look fresh, including the dazzling golden gilded stage.
As for the process of preparing for productions, the small ensemble cast rehearses with mandatory masks and, when backstage, abide by physical distancing protocols.
“Each actor has a ‘home pod,’ six on stage right, and five on stage left,” explains director Shane Hurst, returning for his fourth year with the children’s summer series. “The rule is they’re not allowed to sing within 10 feet of each other, and must keep 25-feet away from the first row. It’s been a creative challenge.”
Meanwhile, he notes how important it is that the Palace is allowed to return to producing shows, given that the mother of all live theatre, Broadway, will remain dark for the foreseeable future.
“I have so many friends in the industry struggling to make ends meet. People are hungry to work in a safe and responsible way. We’ve done everything here to be smart and create a safe environment for not only the actors but the audience members,” Hurst says.