CORONAVIRUS

Curtain rises to COVID-19 precautions at Cedar Rapids venues

Positive reviews for VenuWorks reopenings in pandemic

General Manager Jason Anderson holds the door open for guests Saturday at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids. The the
General Manager Jason Anderson holds the door open for guests Saturday at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids. The theater reopened with “An Evening with C.S. Lewis.” (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids is gaining attention in the entertainment industry with the recent reopenings of the U.S. Cellular Center, the Paramount Theatre and the McGrath Amphitheatre.

“Promoters and agents are taking notice that Cedar Rapids is open for business,” said Michael Silva, executive director of VenuWorks Cedar Rapids. The organization manages the sites for the city, as well as the ImOn Ice Arena, which was heavily damaged in the Aug. 10 derecho and is closed for repairs.

Silva is hearing industry buzz that Josh Turner’s Sept. 18 concert at the U.S. Cellular Center was one of the first ticketed arena shows in the nation since mid-March, when COVID-19 brought everything to a halt.

The McGrath Amphitheatre opened next, with sold-out shows for comedian Theo Von on Sept. 26 and Aaron Lewis and Sully Erna on Oct. 2. Demand was so high that a second performance was added for Lewis & Sully, which didn’t sell out but sold well, Silva said. The Paramount Theatre reopened Saturday with “An Evening with C.S. Lewis.”

Tickets sales are off and running for back-to-back amphitheater concerts Oct. 23 and 24 by Grammy-winning artists Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, Silva added.

He’s heartened by on the strong sales and positive audience survey responses not only to the events, but to VenuWorks’ extensive Return to Live pandemic safety protocols. Among the steps is reducing audience capacity at each site, taking the U.S. Cellular Center from 7,000 to 1,800 seats, the Paramount from 1,600 to 500 and the amphitheater from 4,000 to 1,339.

”The patrons have indicated that they really appreciate all the measures we’ve put in place to keep them safe and make the experience enjoyable while distanced from all of the other patrons,” he said. “We’ve just been lucky with good shows and good weather. So we take this as a really good sign ... that there is a demand for entertainment in Cedar Rapids and on a national stage.”

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Precautions like mandatory face coverings, clear bags only, non-contact ticket scanning and revamped concessions including covered beverage cups are seeing little resistance, he said.

VenuWorks also bought in bulk backpack electrostatic sprayers that can sanitize room surfaces organically, without harming upholstery, carpet and humans. The Cedar Rapids group has five units, purchased for $1,300 each back in May, as well as handheld units.

These new procedures come from VenuWorks’ corporate office in Ames and the Event Safety Alliance, combined with local mandates.

“Every state, every city has its own mandates, its own laws and so on and so forth,” Silva said. “You have to take the best information out there and personalize it to our own venues, and that’s what we did with our Return to Live program.”

Reactions

“I felt completely safe,” said DaLana Rigby, 50, of Monticello, who attended the Josh Turner concert. She’s a fan of the country artist, and was happy to use the tickets a friend won in a radio giveaway.

She appreciated the signage for social distancing, the blocked-off restroom sinks and other safety measures. It was her first concert experience since the pandemic closures, and she’s eager to return.

“Any chance to participate in an activity and feel like I’m ‘living a normal life,’ I’m in,” she said in response to a Gazette social media inquiry.

Eric McGarvey, 46, Cedar Rapids, also responded to that request for comments, after attending the C.S. Lewis production at the Paramount Theatre. He’s a fan of the author, and said he enjoys these one-person shows.

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He also has attended some movies in town and said he has felt secure with the precautions at each venue.

“As with all of this, how safe you are depends on your own choices and those around you,” he said via email. “A venue can have all precautions in place, but if people don’t play along, those precautions are useless.”

Jeff Johnson, 59, of Fairfax, is one of the promoters/producers bringing shows to town through his company, USA Entertainment Agency. The founder and original owner of Penguins Comedy Club until the floods of 2008, he’s launched the Impractical Jokers and Michael Carbonaro onto the touring scene from Cedar Rapids, and is doing the same with the “Tiger King” live show he’s developing. It will debut Nov. 13 at the Paramount. He’s also booking other shows to be announced.

“I love the Paramount, and I love Cedar Rapids,” Johnson said, adding he had no hesitation about launching the “Tiger King” production on his home turf.

“I knew the Paramount was doing things safely. And even though it’s reduced capacity, it’s really not about making money on this show,” he said. “For me, it’s about getting the cast together and putting the show on.”

With other events, making money or at least breaking even is important, Johnson and Silva both noted, so promoters will see Cedar Rapids as a viable city for booking touring shows.

Some of the big-name events, like the Impractical Jokers, that typically sell out stadiums and huge venues aren’t hitting the road just yet, Johnson said, citing both safety concerns and the financial hits they would take from playing to reduce-capacity crowds.

“If you look at some of the stuff out there,” he added, “Cedar Rapids is doing a really nice job of promoting social distancing (and) masks. And they’ve done a really good campaign, marketing-wise, to let people know they take it seriously and they’re going to do things the right way, which is pretty cool.”

Upcoming Events

2020 shows at VenuWorks of Cedar Rapids sites:

• Buckcherry: 7 p.m. Saturday, U.S. Cellular Center, 370 First Ave. NE, $25 to $55

• Beatles vs. Stones: 7 p.m. Sunday, Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE, $20 to $65

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• Jason Isbell & Amanda Shires: 8 p.m. Oct. 23 and 24, McGrath Amphitheatre, 475 First St. SW, $39.50 to $99.50

• “Menopause The Musical”: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 27, Paramount Theatre, $48 to $58

• The Black Jacket Symphony presents Led Zeppelin IV: 8 p.m. Nov. 8, Paramount Theatre, $25 to $30

• Uncaged: The Untold Stories from the Cast of Tiger King: Tour launch, 7 p.m. Nov. 13, Paramount Theatre, $35.50 to $107

• Justin Moore & Tracy Lawrence: 7 p.m. Dec. 2, U.S. Cellular Center, $39.50 to $59.50

• Jim Brickman Virtual Event: 7 p.m. Dec. 11, $40 to $125, watch at home, a portion of the proceeds benefit the Paramount Theatre

• Details & tickets: Creventslive.com/events

• Return to Live video: Featuring the Pork Tornadoes, Youtube.com/watch?v=Zd2SLpxzapY & t=1s

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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