A look back at creating new experiences and lending a hand in 2020

Pianist Jim McDonough addresses his live audience as a friend monitors the live Facebook feed on his page at his home in
Pianist Jim McDonough addresses his live audience as a friend monitors the live Facebook feed on his page at his home in Cedar Rapids on March 20. McDonough gave free 30-minute concerts from his home on Tuesdays and Fridays through the end of April. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

Normally, this is the week when I would rank my 10 favorite entertainment events of the year. But as my cousin in New Mexico asked at the end of his Christmas letter, “What does an entertainment editor do when there’s no entertainment?”

I had that same question, as one by one, every event story I was editing and/or writing for the March 19 Hoopla section was being canceled. By March 15, we decided to suspend Hoopla for the near future, never dreaming we’d still be in a holding pattern nine months later, with no landing in sight.

Thankfully, I was reassigned to filling our Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday Community pages, tasked with reporting on ways people and organizations are trying to stay connected to their communities during this pandemic.

Out the Box

As I suspected — and have said all along — the creative community responded swiftly. The talented artists in our midst think outside the box with every show and event they present. Case in point: Cavan Hallman of Mirrorbox Theatre in Cedar Rapids named his groundbreaking weekly play reading series “Out the Box.” Described as “a new reading series of fresh contemporary plays,” week after week, he paired local thespians with actors and playwrights from the national stage and screen to present scripts pushing the boundaries of gender, race and issues, making their audiences re-examine their own place on the emerging woke world stage.

Jim McDonough

My first Community profile, published March 23, turned the spotlight on a local musician who also has performed far and wide: Steinway piano artist Jim McDonough. This Monticello native, now based in Cedar Rapids, began streaming free 30-minute concerts from his Cedar Rapids home via Facebook Live at noon on Tuesdays and Fridays.

“We look to the arts for so many things — the distraction or release, whether it’s at a theater or a movie — we can just get lost in it, and I think we could use that maybe more now than ever,” he said during our interview.

Listeners obviously agreed. His St. Patrick’s Day concert went viral, racking up nearly 14,000 views.

“That’s a virus that we want,” he told those who tuned in for his concert the following Friday.

The concerts continued through the end of April, then he took a break. In July, he posted a mini-concert on his YouTube page; on Oct. 1 he participated in the star-studded “Iowa Concert of Hope” to raise funds for derecho relief; and on Dec. 15, Iowa Public Television aired his special, “Home for Christmas with Jim McDonough.” Folks outside of Iowa could watch it online and join in a live conversation on Facebook. The concert was rebroadcast Christmas Eve, and can be seen any time at


Being a good sport, McDonough even posted some outtakes from that Christmas show on his Facebook page,

Holiday highlights

Speaking of Christmas, two other virtual productions deserve a special shoutout.

• Riverside Theatre’s full staging of “A Christmas Carol,” featuring John William Watkins of Iowa City voicing all the roles, with music by fiddler Tara McGovern of Coralville, and impeccable direction by retired Riverside co-founder Ron Clark of Iowa City. Rob Merritt of Cedar Rapids filmed the show at Theatre Cedar Rapids’ Grandon Theatre, just one of several venue collaborations borne of the pandemic.

In my Nov. 30 review, I called it “my new favorite telling of this ageless tale of redemption emerging out of the darkness.” It was the perfect way to conjure up Christmas spirit in this time of darkness, and the run was extended through Dec. 27.

• City Circle Theatre Company‘s “A Christmas Cabaret,” written and directed by Katie Colletta of Fairfax. With a fun story based on trying to shake Santa out of his 2020 funk, a talented array of local singers, dancers and actors created the very best of the virtual variety shows I saw this holiday season. Likewise, the run was extended through Dec. 25.


But let’s rewind to the beginning of 2020, when times were oh so simple then.

The year started off with such promise.

• The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art was celebrating its 125th anniversary with several major shows, including “Across the Atlantic: American Impressionism through the French Lens.” The only Midwest stop for this traveling exhibition from the Reading (Pa.) Public Museum, this collection of more than 75 works explored the path to Impressionism through the 19th century and the complex relationship between French Impressionism of the 1870s and 1880s and the American interpretation of the style in the decades that followed. Originally slated from Feb. 1 to April 26, the museum closed to the public March 16. It reopened June 13, and the landmark exhibition was extended through Aug. 30.

Other celebrations of the museum’s milestone year followed, with “125! 125 Masterworks from the Collection,” on view Sept. 26 and continuing through Jan. 17, and “Americans in Paris: Grant Wood and Marvin Cone’s 1920 Trip to Paris,” on view now through Oct. 10, 2021.

• Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City presented such hot-ticket shows as the national tour of “The Color Purple” on Jan. 24 and 25; Rosanne Cash on Feb. 8; my personal favorite, the immigrant saga, “The New Colossus,” from The Actors’ Gang, on Feb. 29, with a Q&A afterward led by director Tim Robbins (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “Mystic River” and writer/director “Dead Man Walking”); The Chieftains in “The Irish Goodbye” on March 4; and the final onstage, in-person presentation, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on March 10, concluding with Ailey’s masterpiece, “Revelations.”

• Riverside Theatre in Iowa City: “The Agitators,” Jan. 24 to Feb. 16, a two-person play about the enduring, tempestuous friendship of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. According to my review, “this is as close as you’re likely to come to experiencing a perfect piece of theater.”


The final show on the Gilbert Street stage turned out to be the brave emotional roller coaster of “Stages,” David Lee Nelson’s one-man autobiographical show that opened Feb. 28 and closed March 13, before the slated end date of March 15. Nelson of Greenville, S.C., shared his arduous journey through early-onset Stage 4 colon cancer, which would cut short his amazing life on Sept. 24, at age 42. He not only shared his artistry and experiences onstage, but also with medical professionals, patients, caregivers and students.

• Theatre Cedar Rapids: “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” brought uproarious murder and mayhem to the main stage from Feb. 7 to 23. Aaron Murphy of Cedar Rapids played at least eight members of the doomed D’Ysquith family — male and female — in what I called “one of the silliest, most difficult, dizzying shows to hit the Theatre Cedar Rapids stage, where it’s slaying and staying through Feb. 23. Audiences who take a chance on this new musical are going to love it to death.”

And then “The Humans,” slated to open March 20, was canceled before the curtain rose, but its scenery was used for several virtual productions.

• Orchestra Iowa presented its Masterworks concert, “Beethoven 250,” Jan. 31 at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts and Feb. 1 at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids. The concert was to begin a celebration of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, but the subsequent events, including an April performance of his First Symphony, were canceled.

• Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre got to stage “Madama Butterfly” on Jan. 17 and 19 at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids. In my review, I noted: “This weekend marks the fourth time Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre has brought ‘Madama Butterfly’ to life, but everything about this production feels fresh and new, from the sparkling performances to the director’s bold choices. Puccini’s tragic masterpiece is ... a thing of beauty, with utter strength floating on fragile wings.”


That just scratches the surface of all the wonderful events that came our way before live entertainment shut down.

Afterward, many troupes and artists pivoted to online, virtual performances and discussion series that continue to enrich our lives.

• Orchestra Iowa’s Tuesday “Happy Hour with Maestro Tim,” features Tim Hankewich talking shop with local artists as well as luminaries including Branford Marsalis, cellist Zlatomir Fung, Dan Gable, pianist Joyce Yang, pianist and Iowa City native Conor Hanick, Cedar Rapids historian Mark Stoffer Hunter and former Z102.9 morning show host Scott Schulte.

• Theatre Cedar Rapids featured a different kind of “Happy Hour” over the summer, with lively kids’ programming by Joe Link and Happy the puppet, as well as “Coffee with Katie: Inspired Conversations with Makers and Masters” at 2 p.m. Tuesdays through November, in which Executive Director Katie Hallman spoke with local and national artists about their work. Links to past episodes are available at

Helping Hands

And of course, the best of times comes out during the worst of times.


• Mask makers took to their sewing machines by droves to offer or sell face coverings to help protect essential workers, friends, neighbors and strangers, while others helped make face shields to be shipped to hospitals from Eastern Iowa.

Among them, Deb Siggins of rural Lisbon sewed hundreds of masks and hung them on an evergreen tree, free for the taking. “Good Morning America” called her for an interview and posted her story online April 20. She had made more than 600 masks by then.

Miriam (Mim) Hoffman of St. Donatus put her theatrical costuming skills to use spearheading an effort to supply cloth face coverings across the country, including Pottsville, Pa., Dallas and Pico Rivera, Calif. She had recruited stitchers from Eastern Iowa as well as 44 across the country by April.

“As a volunteer gig, it’s very intense,” she said back then. “I start on the phone and email about 7:30 in the morning, and I usually don’t finish up until 10 o’clock at night — a pretty steady stream all day.”

Catching up with her on Sunday, she said: “We made 15,000 masks here in Iowa. I procured donations for enough fabric to make another 2 million. ... Now that commercial vendors seem to have caught up, I have slowed down, but I still have a team in Cedar Rapids supplying St. Luke’s and Mercy (in Cedar Rapids and Dubuque). Masks for the Frontlines Iowa takes care of the rest of the requests here.” She also gave a shoutout to Jan Smith, who heads up her Cedar Rapids team.

• Heart Hunters: A movement that began in Galesburg, Ill., became a worldwide phenomenon when people started taping hearts to windows in their homes, stores, hospitals and more, to not only spread a message of strength and solidarity during social distancing, but also to give stir-crazy kids and families a scavenger hunt for their outdoor walks. Teddy bears and rainbows soon followed.

The movement also moved to rural areas, where few people would see their hearts. That especially touched the heart of Krista Wynes of Galesburg, who started the movement with a Facebook post.

“They had absolutely no reason to participate,” she said, “but the heart is a symbol of love and to me, some unity, because every human being has a heart inside of them, so it’s something we all share, and we can share it this way, which to me is just a fabulous thing.”


• Photographers also jumped onboard, offering porch portraits to capture this moment in time, as well as photos from the Aug. 10 derecho tree canopy destruction and prints from fallen trees to frame and memorialize especially the old-growth trees lost in the storm. Other artisans created keepsakes from cut wood, including derecho coasters made though NewBoCo, the Iowa BIG high school education program, and volunteers wielding chain saws, with proceeds benefiting more than 20 local nonprofits.

• Derecho response came from near and far, as volunteers and experts from across the country responded to the massive destruction from the inland hurricane. It generated winds up to 140 mph Aug. 10, plunging the area into darkness, and damaging crops, property, homes, businesses and landscape.

Among the volunteers were groups from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which made quick work of the fallen limbs in my front yard, and Eight Days of Hope, based in Tupelo, Miss., which sent volunteers from 20 states. They arrived on Aug. 15 and stayed through early September. They not only worked up fallen trees free of charge for about 60 households, but also brought a laundry trailer that parked at sites around Cedar Rapids to bring the gift of clean clothes, also free of charge.

“Seeing the devastation hurt my heart, but it made me feel good, too, about being here, and seeing other people coming together in the community to help,” said Liz Morris of Nashville. “ ... I see a little more light shining in people’s eyes.”

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