A year ago, the coronavirus pandemic was a looming force, but still just that — looming. No one knew that a year later, it would be so much more than looming. It would be real, and its effects would be real, too. There is perhaps no other industry that was affected more by the pandemic than arts and entertainment.
After all, what do you do when your entire business model relies upon a large number of people gathered together in an enclosed space, watching other people perform, when those very things are not viable nor safe?
Thankfully, no theaters in Cobb have closed because of the pandemic — yet. But they certainly have had to use the creativity they express every day with or without a pandemic to continue bringing entertainment to the masses who so desperately need it and employing those who help make it happen.
Cobb’s oldest theater, the Earl and Rachel Smith Strand Theatre on the Marietta Square, is still lighting up its marquee, welcoming guests and doing its best to keep the lights on.
“On March 14th, I thought it would be two weeks, we’ll hunker down, then we’ll get back to business. I was never expecting this,” said Strand Theatre General Manager Andy Gaines. “I wouldn’t say it’s been a roaring success, but when we knew we had to survive, we had a plan that wasn’t just going to take us through a few weeks or months; we had a solid plan with people we’ve invested in over time and it took us further out. We knew that, as long as we stuck to that plan, we were going to be OK. Right now, we have another plan to get us through a long forecast out. And as long as we stick to that, as we have with the past two pandemic budgets, we’ll be ok.”
Gaines and the Strand had to rely heavily on donations last year, and he hopes to see more this year, whether they are in-kind or monetary. Many of the fundraising drives last year were led by local philanthropists, offering up a match to dollars raised.
“The matching donations started in July with Jay Cunningham, CEO of Superior Plumbing,” Gaines said. “He said, ‘This is your 85th birthday, so I’m going to put up $8,500 if you can get the community to match that. And I’ll actively solicit other businesses to come in and do the same thing.’ And he did, over the course of three months. Then Earl Smith called and said, ‘If Jay will do it, I’ll do it with $10,000.’ And it just kept rolling. Not in a million years did I think we would be able to raise $50,000, much less match $50,000. But (local philanthropist) Steve Imler, with his big heart, made it happen.”
Looking to the future, Gaines said the theater will continue to produce its private movie nights and hopes to get back to its normal productions when it is safe. As of Jan. 29, Gaines said the theater had hosted 90 private movie nights, which cost $350 each for up to 15 people and include non-alcoholic concessions. Gaines said the theater will continue to host those even when live theater returns, to give those still being cautious an opportunity to safely enjoy the theater.
Gaines also said Cobb’s close-knit arts community has helped all of the county’s organizations find ways to survive, whether it’s through grant suggestions or just bouncing ideas off of one another.
“I am so happy that everyone in our arts district took the time to start talking to and partnering with each other before all of this happened,” Gaines said. “So now, there is a network of us who are partnering together and relying on each other for information and advice on how to get us through this, and continue successfully into this year.”
On his outlook, Gaines said he is “cautiously optimistic. When we know we can reopen and it’s safe and makes financial sense to do so, we’re going to open in a big way. We will sustain and do what we can to serve the public. We have a plan, we’ll stick to that plan, and if something were to happen, we’ll adjust.”