At the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, the marquees of Athens’ two iconic concert establishments debuted uplifting messages for their patrons.
“We love you Athens, be well. See you soon,” read the entrance to the iconic 40 Watt Club. Georgia Theatre’s bright red awning displayed “We love you Athens. Wash your hands. Be back soon.”
Ten months later, the waiting game continues for both venues.
As COVID-19 cases and deaths have hit record highs in Georgia and government regulations limit venue capacity and social distancing, the doors of 40 Watt and Georgia Theatre remain closed with no immediate plan on when they’ll be back open.
But both venues hope to maintain financially and be ready when that time comes.
“If we can open in the fall, we should make it,” said Scott Orvold, president of Zero Mile which owns the Georgia Theatre, in an email to the Athens Banner-Herald. “We will have to assess and lick our wounds once we get to that point, but we are not considering the idea of shutting the business down at this point and we believe Georgia Theatre will continue to provide top notch concerts in Athens, for many more years to come.”
Athens music venue Caledonia Lounge closed its doors in early March and will not reopen.
The 40 Watt Club temporarily closed March 12 and manager Jim Wilson isn’t certain when they’ll reopen. The Theatre has managed to open its rooftop bar in limited capacity recently as a means to supplement some of the loss sustained during the past year.
Wilson has been furloughed as a full-time employee since the start of the pandemic but has remained busy as a merchandise salesman for Athens rock band Drive-By Truckers. He continues selling merchandise for the 40 Watt and set up a GoFundMe account where portions of its funds are used to financially aid independent contractors working at the club who couldn’t receive unemployment benefits.
It also received some assistance from Steve Shook, a Washington, D.C.-based artist who will donate 20% of what he earns off of a painting he drew of the entrance of the concert venue.
Even upon the venues’ return, the 800-capacity Theatre and 500-capacity 40 Watt will likely be limited in their attendance numbers as the world gradually returns to normalcy.
Wilson figures the 40 Watt — which has a hit list as the home venue of legendary Athens artists such as R.E.M., Pylon, Modern Skirts, the Whigs and many more — will likely be at quarter capacity for a while as the COVID-19 preventative measures, like the vaccine, reach the public.
“There’s a lot going on with the government and a changing of the guard, so right now all you can do is get ready and wait,” Wilson said.
Band and artist response during the pandemic hasn’t been the same as, say, when the Theatre burned down in the summer of 2009, Orvold said, mainly because they’re in dire financial straits much like the venues.
To rebuild the Theatre after it burned, local artists such as Perpetual Groove held concerts at the 40 Watt and Classic Center to contribute to the building’s restoration. But with no venues to play, artists are turning to virtual shows that don’t bring the same compensation as touring.
Open as a full-time music venue since 1989 and one of Widespread Panic’s first home stages, the Theatre has hosted acts the likes of the B-52s, The Police, Blues Traveler, Dave Matthews Band and many more. Orvold said it’s been a struggle for the past year.
“The burden has been gigantic,” he said. “We are still losing (money) and won’t understand the full extent of damage until we are back up and running. The idea of fundraisers when we come out on the other side of this feels unlikely, but we’ll see.”
Wilson expects socially distanced crowds when the venues are able to reopen, but he’s looking forward to the moment when he can get back to his full-time job managing one of punk rock’s most iconic venues, adding: “We’re here, definitely. We’re not going anywhere.”
As for Orvold, who also manages such venues as Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse in Little Five Points, he said his concern wasn’t who the first band will be to grace the Theatre’s stage when things are back to semi-normal. Rather, his focus was when the venue can get back to making money—and making concert-lovers happy.
“For now, I have to focus on when and not who will reopen the doors but once we nail that down, we will put serious consideration into who that will be,” Orvold said. “It’s going to be an emotional and joyous night once we are rockin’ again.”