At least 209 pandemic-hit South Florida music clubs, theaters, museums and movie-houses have gotten the good news they had long awaited: a $174.7 million chunk of federal grants.
For devastated entertainment venues, some in danger of closing, the big payout from the $16.2 billion Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program is the first optimistic sign in 18 months that fall cultural events, theater productions and major music shows will go on.
The majority of South Florida live venues received at least $10,000 but only three businesses picked up the $10 million maximum: Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center for the Performing Arts, Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and Brickell-headquartered CMX Cinemas.
Congress set aside the grant – which doesn’t have to be repaid – back in December and tacked it onto its March 11 COVID-19 package. Yet the aid program, which finally opened in late April and doled its first payouts in early June, had been bedeviled by six months of disastrous bureaucratic delays, including site crashes on the Small Business Administration’s grant application portal.
Count 78-year-old theater owner Marilynn Wick among the anxious. After two months of “waiting and waiting” since applying in May, the owner of the namesake Wick Theatre and Costume Museum in Boca Raton rejoiced last Friday when she learned of her grant: $1.369 million. The SBA’s congratulatory email clarified that it could take up to 20 days for the money to land in her bank account.
“We still haven’t gotten it,” Wick says. “We need the money so bad. I’m on my last leg here.”
Wick says she lost $1 million in revenue overnight when the pandemic shut down her production of “A Chorus Line” – a six-week show with 14 equity actors from New York City – forcing the Wick to refund 9,000 pre-paid tickets. She even had to pay severance for the show’s unionized – but suddenly unemployed – cast.
Wick, who owns Costume World in Pompano Beach, also lost revenue from the 100 Broadway-quality wardrobes she rents out to theater houses around the country that also shut down. She also converted the lobby of the Wick into a restaurant called The Tavern at the Wick to draw more customers and stay afloat.
“I couldn’t see this theater going down the tubes, so I made every sacrifice to save it,” says Wick, whose theater has lost 2,000 subscriptions since March 2020. “I never thought in my senior years I would be running this by myself. The customers are coming back but we’ve lost so much it feels like starting over.”
Rock clubs, art museums, movie theaters and talent agencies all qualified, according to the SBA, which approved grants equal to 45 percent of a live venue’s 2019 gross earned revenue, minus any aid they received from the federal Paycheck Protection Program. (The formula differed slightly for businesses that opened in 2019 or 2020.) Nationally the grant, which is still accepting applications, has so far paid out $7.6 billion to 9,844 live venues, with 732 applications still pending.
Phillip Dunlap, director of the Broward County Cultural Division, calls the federal program a “lifeline for an industry that was first to close and last to open.” He says many big venues, like the Broward Center, found it harder to restage big concerts and theater shows compared to smaller venues, which could rebound easier with non-union performers and lower overhead.
“Broward Center is a union stage, and it’s not cheap to put on a concert,” Dunlap says. “They’re one of those too-big-to-fail massive economic generators, but their ability to make money is based on tickets.”
Kelley Shanley, president and CEO of the still-shuttered Broward Center, which got the maximum $10 million, says he was “greatly relieved” when the SBA approved his grant on July 9 – two-and-a-half months after applying. He plans to cover costs for existing and furloughed performing-arts staff between March 2020 and the end of 2021.
Without it, “building maintenance and repairs would be deferred indefinitely,” Shanley says, adding that it would have “drained our reserves and set us back a decade financially.”
Still, the Broward Center would have survived, grant or no grant. Fort Lauderdale’s Empire Stage “was definitely going under” until a grant deposit for $46,580 showed up in owner David Gordon’s bank account in June, he says.
Gordon, who lives part-time in New York, says he donated $10,000 from his personal finances last year to keep the black-box theater alive, which he runs by himself. He says Empire Stage, which hosts campy comedies and R-rated drag shows, sometimes with full nudity, has tried to scrape by on limited-capacity shows this year, including one he describes as a “one-man Bea Arthur show.”
For now, especially as COVID cases surge upward again, his audiences remain small – about 20 patrons. He plans to use the money to fix the theater’s air-conditioning system and book new shows through 2022.
“$46,000 is a lot of money to me,” Gordon says. “I was basing whether I would stay open on this grant, and it took a lot of pressure off. I would have missed it terribly if I shut my doors.”
Here are the top 10 recipients of the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant:
Broward Center for the Performing Arts, Fort Lauderdale performing-arts venue: $10 million
Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Miami performing-arts venue: $10 million
CB Theater Experience, LLC, Miami-headquartered CMX Cinemas: $10 million
Elite Media & Marketing LLC, Miami-based live events promoter: $9,941,900
Loud and Live Inc., Doral-based live events promoter: $9,091,064
Cloud 9 Adventures, LLC, Delray Beach-based live events promoter: $8,186,913
Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, West Palm Beach performing-arts venue: $8,083,428
Cinemex USA Real Estate Holdings, Inc., Miami-headquartered CMX Cinemas: $6,791,593
Event Entertainment Group, Inc., company that programs Ultra Music Festival: $6,713,762
Spotlight Entertainment Productions Inc., Fort Lauderdale-based talent agency: $5,404,727