Landmark Theater Navigates COVID-19's Impact, Triumphantly Announces 2021-2022 Season

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The date was March 12, 2020. A production of “The Play that Goes Wrong” was set to take the stage that night at Wilmington, Delaware’s iconic theater The Grand Opera House. More than 800 tickets to the production were sold, and opening night preparations were in full swing.

Until, suddenly, they weren’t.

At 4:15 p.m. on March 12, 2020, Delaware Governor John Carney issued a State of Emergency declaration addressing the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The edict advised that event organizers in Delaware cancel non-essential public gatherings of 100 people or more, to prevent the virus’ community spread.

Suddenly, “The Play that Goes Wrong’s” title had become eerily prophetic. The Grand staffers quickly set about canceling 6 shows slated for the weekend, contacting nearly 5000 ticketholders to shut the production and the theater, itself, down, for what was believed to be a few weeks.

In fact – for The Grand and for the world – those “few weeks” were just the beginning. Under COVID-19’s strangle hold, those few weeks turned into months turned into more than a year of COVID-related disruption.

But The Grand – from its beginning – was nothing if not resilient. Past chapters in its 150-year history included a period of substantial deterioration and complete shuttering, with the renowned theater rising again and again from the proverbial ashes. Through its history, The Grand persevered. And, through COVID-19’s impact, perseverance would, once again, be the order of the day – this time, with support from SBA’s COVID-19 Paycheck Protection, COVID Economic Injury Disaster Loan, and Shuttered Venue Operators Grant Programs.

Since its construction on downtown Wilmington, Del.’s vital Market Street commercial corridor in 1871, The Grand Opera House has been a community cornerstone. The Grand first operated as the Grand Lodge of the Masons, a traditional theater, a stop on the vaudeville circuit, and a movie theater. Over its 150-year history, The Grand has hosted thousands of renowned entertainers and performing artists over the years, including Ethel Barrymore, Buffalo Bill Cody, John Philip Sousa, political cartoonist Thomas Nast, and the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University.

By 1967, though, The Grand was a badly deteriorated second-run movie theater house and, that year, closed its doors. Thanks to a groundswell of support for The Grand, the theater re-opened on December 22, 1971, the hundredth anniversary of its original grand opening. Over the next few years, The Grand was completely restored. It was rededicated as performing arts venue on February 1, 1973 and began the modern chapter of its history.

Ever-evolving, The Grand constructed a new companion theater, the baby grand, next door in 2000. The baby grand, a 300-seat proscenium theater, occupies the first floor, with offices, rehearsal rooms and teaching spaces extending several floors above.

The COVID-era notwithstanding, The Grand presents more than 75 shows each season, ranging from symphony orchestras and ballets to rock and comedy stars, with jazz, folk, and family artists, as well. The Delaware Symphony, Opera Delaware, and First State Ballet Theatre are all in residence at The Grand, each presenting full schedules. Between The Grand, its resident performing companies, and rentals, the building hosts more than 300 events a year bringing more than 120,000 people into downtown Wilmington, Delaware and through its doors.

By Spring 2020, it was clear that the COVID-19-forced pause would be an extended one, both for The Grand and for its larger community. And, for The Grand and its virtual army of community supporters, it was equally clear that both creative action and outside funding would be required to sustain The Grand for the duration.

Thanks to The Grand’s own top-tier staff and support from SBA, both were in the offing.

That spring, with its future hanging in the balance, The Grand turned to SBA’s Paycheck Protection loan program to keep its staff on the payroll and meet expenses despite being fully shuttered by the pandemic. Indeed, the now-concluded Paycheck Protection loan program’s partially forgivable, low-interest funding kept scores of COVID-impacted employers like The Grand nationwide, meeting payroll and sustaining business expenses to secure futures for organizations, their staffs, and, in turn, their communities at large.

Its immediate future financed with SBA’s PPP funds, The Grand’s creative team took the theater’s navigational helm. With the theater itself still shuttered thanks to COVID, The Grand re-set its production framework in keeping with pandemic times. That summer, The Grand’s team launched to an enthusiastic local reception two new outdoor programs: Concerts by Car in a nearby stadium parking lot and a drive-in cinema at Bellevue State Park showcasing movie musicals, the proceeds of which helped bridge The Grand’s immediate funding gap.

Nonetheless, Summer 2020 was, in no uncertain terms, uncharted territory for The Grand. COVID had not only cut off ticket revenue overnight, but it had cut the historic theater’s event rental space income to zero and sharply curtailed community contributions traditionally motivated by in-house performances. And there was no end in sight to COVID’s hold on the venerable theater’s future.

To survive the pandemic’s duration, The Grand turned, once again, to the SBA.

That Summer, the Grand secured disaster funding through SBA’s COVID Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program. The Program supports small business and non-profits’ like The Grand’s recovery from the COVID-19 disaster’s economic impacts by providing low-interest, fixed-rate, long-term loans to help overcome the pandemic’s effects with working capital funds to meet operating expenses including payroll, rent/mortgage utilities and other business expenses, and to pay business debt incurred at any time – past, present, or future.

Buoyed by that additional SBA funding, along with the success of its outdoor concerts and drive-in, The Grand welcomed the 2020 holiday season by producing its first-ever drive-through light show at Wilmington’s Riverfront. It was a production that far exceed expectations on every level. As was hoped, the novel offering supported The Grand’s continued, albeit COVID-crippled, function. But, more than that, the light show was a resounding success, growing the Grand’s traditional audience base and carving a much-needed source of entertainment – in signature Grand style – for its pandemic-scarred community. Happily, the light show welcomed not only loyal local supporters but a whole new audience, with carloads hailing not only from Delaware, but from Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, as well. Through and through, the show’s festive vibe was a triumph, hinting at the ‘next chapter’ that was to come for the venerable theater, despite the pandemic’s continued uncertainty.

The success of The Grand’s non-traditional COVID-era productions – the drive-in cinema and drive-through holiday light show – were, doubtless, bright spots in a COVID-dimmed time, both for the theater and its community. But, as the COVID era wore on, it became increasingly clear that they would not be enough to secure the iconic theater’s long-term future. With everything on the line, The Grand again, turned to SBA, this time tapping into the agency’s Shuttered Venue Operators Grant Program.

SBA’s now-concluded Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) Program appropriated more than $16.2 billion for grants via the Economic Aid to Hard-Hit Small Businesses, Non-Profits and Venues Act and the American Rescue plan Act. Those funds were aimed at supporting venues like The Grand as they navigated COVID’s impact. The SVOG program provided grants to eligible organizations that suffered revenue loss due to COVID-19. Successful SVOG applicants could receive grants equal to 45% of their gross earned revenue, up to a maximum of $10 million. 

In Summer 2021, The Grand received that much needed funding through SBA’s SVOG Program. Those funds, coupled with an influx of donations from The Grand’s loyal patronage, were an essential financial bridge to The Grand’s next chapter. By late summer, The Grand announced its long-awaited 2021-22 season of performances to be held, once again, in the iconic Grand theater. Today – thankfully intact despite the pandemic’s worst – the Grand old theater stands. As The Grand celebrates its 150th anniversary this December, she stands – together with the community that built her – on the cusp of a new normal, inviting, with the new season to come, an influx of vital patronage to downtown streets felled nearly silent by the pandemic. By all accounts, it is a season to herald economic rebirth – for the theater, for the Market Street mom-and-pops that are her neighbors, and for the First State that, for more than a century, she has called home.

This article does not constitute or imply an endorsement by the SBA of any opinions, products, or services of any private individual or entity.