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How COVID is hammering Chicago’s arts and entertainment scene

Visiting Lifeline Theatre again, we found a company and a neighborhood struggling, yet determined, to hang in there — a story being told all over town.

Lifeline Theatre, an original anchor of the Glenwood Avenue Arts District in Rogers Park, continues to produce shows online during the pandemic.
Elizabeth Davidson/Sun-Times

Two years ago, we visited Lifeline Theatre in Rogers Park to better understand the role of the arts in a community’s development.

We described in an editorial how Lifeline had been critical to a small but promising resurgence in that small corner of the neighborhood, as if a seed had been planted, leading to new energy and investment.

Now, as COVID-19 rages on, we visited Lifeline again last week, wondering how the theater and the neighborhood are faring.

We found that the symbiotic relationship between the arts and nightlife and a community — where one’s success begets the other’s — continues to hold, for better and worse, in hard times. We found a theater company and neighborhood struggling, yet determined, to hang in there — a story to be found all over town.

We also found ourselves wanting to reaffirm the message of our original editorial. Support the arts, fellow Chicagoans. Now more than ever. They are essential to our city’s identity and post-pandemic future.

Closed doors

Like most theaters in Chicago, Lifeline closed its doors in mid-March. The theater was unable to finish its season, shuttering three shows early.

“We’ve been struggling, trying to survive in a world that’s not familiar to us,” Ilesa Duncan, artistic director, told us. “We have been trying to pivot since the pandemic started.”

And when the theater shut down, nearby businesses felt the hit.

Last year, after enjoying a Lifeline production of “Frankenstein” or “Emma,” crowds of theater-goers would venture out to nearby bars and restaurants. But more than six months into the pandemic, sidewalks aren’t getting close to the same foot traffic.

“You definitely see more of a lull in the periods where the theaters would be having shows,” Wally Andersen, who manages a bar called Rogers Park Social, said. “We would usually have more people wandering around in the evenings, going to the show, leaving the show, going to a restaurant in the neighborhood. And now, that just doesn’t happen.”

Virtual theater

Lifeline started producing virtual plays in early September, asking for a suggested donation of $20 but also offering a “name your price” option. The theater also obtained small pandemic-related state and federal subsidies, such as a loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, Duncan said.

While relief grants have made a small dent in covering costs to theaters overall in Chicago, none have received significant relief from any source, according to Deb Clapp, executive director of League of Chicago Theatres, which has 230 member theaters. Funds from Arts for Illinois and grants from the National Endowments for the Arts also have been awarded to Chicago theaters, but the amounts received have been small.

Mayne Stage, a mid-size events venue about a two-minute walk from Lifeline, tried to carry on for six months. But now most of its events have been rescheduled for 2021, except for a new type of programming inspired by pandemic restrictions, Carmen Korleski, director of hospitality, told us.

The venue has been hosting “minimonies” — small wedding ceremonies for couples who want to get married with only immediate family in attendance.

A neighborhood’s character

The impact of the closing of a theater or bar isn’t only economic. It can go to the heart of a neighborhood’s character.

Billy Helmkamp, owner of Sleeping Village in Avondale and The Whistler in Logan Square, said he’s noticed some of the bars that have closed during the pandemic are neighborhood fixtures that have been in business for decades.

Rosa’s Lounge, the venerated music club on the Northwest Side, is one of many establishments that have had less flexibility to reopen because they don’t serve food, a key condition for some of Chicago’s reopening policies. Tony Mangiullo, Rosa’s owner, said the 36-year-old venue has produced zero revenue since late March.

The Chicago Independent Venue League, a coalition advocating for nearly 50 member clubs and bars, recently surveyed its members and found that they’ve been bleeding a combined $1.5 million each month.

“We are in the business of packing people in a room to see live music, and we know we are going to be among the last businesses who are allowed to reopen,” Helmkamp, a founding board member of the league, said. “As such, we are working night and day to get help and support.”

Let’s do our share

For now, Manguillo said, he is focused most on taking care of the people who brought Rosa’s Lounge to life every night: the musicians.

Performances at Rosa’s are being live streamed on Facebook and YouTube. Most performances on social media draw 10,000 to 20,000 views, from faithful old patrons to new international fans in places like Japan and Australia.

Manguillo said he hopes the extra exposure will help bands stay afloat. “We are going to need them now and we are going to need them later,” he said.

Tony Manguillo, left, and his mother Rosa, far right, outside Rosa’s Lounge in 1984.
Contributed photo

Live entertainment — theaters, music clubs, festivals and concert halls — draws hundreds of thousands of tourists to Chicago. Or so it did. It’s also the great escape that those of us who live here look forward to every weekend. Or so it was.

Pandemic financial relief packages must continue to include the arts. City policies on when businesses can reopen must be hypersensitive to making sure they work for the arts, too.

As for the rest of us? No free rides, people.

Online now, and in person as we can, let’s support Chicago’s arts.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.