Uncertain times for Big Isle venues

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Wendy Peskin looks up while talking with Matt Fisk on May 28 about the awning at the Palace Theater in Hilo. Fisk is a structural engineer and is working on updating Palace Theater to keep it structurally sound.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Alyssa Johnasen works at the front desk of the gallery at the Niaulani Campus of Volcano Art Center on June 2.

“The show must go on” is an adage the theater and entertainment community has lived by from time immemorial.

In the age of COVID-19, however, with its social distancing guidelines and reduced crowd-size orders, that credo has been replaced by hopes venues can reopen and shows can be rescheduled sometime in the near future.


The Palace Theater in downtown Hilo put an indefinite hold on its musical production of “Beauty and the Beast,” which was scheduled to open on March 20.

Director Larry Reitzer said the cast is doing weekly run-throughs via Zoom, with the videoconferencing technology also being used for smaller dance and music rehearsals “partly to … keep it fresh in the cast’s minds but also to connect and offer support to each other during this confusing and challenging time.”

“We still have no clue when we might open but we continue to rehearse every Saturday for three hours on Zoom,” Reitzer said. “Sometimes we have one hundred kids singing and dancing in their living rooms via Zoom. It’s a sad, but a beautiful thing.”

The Palace also is running its scheduled movies online for a nominal charge and on their website is well-produced free music videos by local artists under the banner of “Live from the Empty Palace.”

Phillips Payson, the theater’s executive director, said the Palace furloughed its event staff of about 10 employees.

“Our operations staff of four people have been running things,” Payson said. He said the Palace did receive a Small Business Administration Payroll Protection Program loan under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

According to Payson, a private grant also came through recently, so the Palace has been using its downtime for a facade renovation, “while putting the final touches on our sprinkler system.”

He said the Palace, which has been raising funds for air conditioning for some time, hopes to start that project by the end of the year.

The Palace might reopen its doors to what Payson called a “limited-capacity seating option” with masks required for patrons and staff and sanitizing protocols.”

“We’re all paying attention to the information that’s being released on a daily basis and putting procedures in place, getting ready for a reopening when the time is right,” he said. “But we’re not ready to announce anything at this time.”

The Kahilu Theatre in Waimea earlier posted its stage would be dark until Aug. 31, has changed that to “is temporarily closed.”

Deb Goodwin, Kahilu’s executive director, said the theater laid off three of eight employees in March.

“What is ironic is that not only did we get a PPP loan, we got our grant-in-aid, legislative funding to do health and safety, and energy upgrades to our physical plant,” Goodwin said. “So we, during the shutdown, have found a silver lining in being able to expand those funds and do some remarkable work putting our house in order. Normally, we’re too busy with so many activities under our roof, so scheduling these construction projects was a bit of a challenge.”

The Kahilu had a robust spring season of shows planned when the pandemic silenced the music following a pair of shows featuring slack-key guitar wizard Makana on March 7 and 8.

“It took our spring away, literally and figuratively,” Goodwin said. “Our ticket revenues certainly came to a screeching halt so we canceled events in mid-March, and our tickets are a third of our revenue as an organization. We did get some generous gifts from patrons and sponsors who reached out because of their love and support of our theater and we have been applying for grants, most of them the COVID-19 response grants.”

Goodwin said the theater has rescheduled almost all the artists whose shows were canceled for next season.

“But the biggest thing is uncertainty of knowing not only when the directives (allowing opening) will come, but when people will feel safe enough to come into a theater,” she said.

The Niaulani Campus of Volcano Art Center had a “soft opening” of its Volcano village facility on June 1. Also, it was announced Friday that VAC Gallery and other businesses inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park will be allowed to reopen today with limited services.

Emily Catey Weiss, VAC’s director of development and galleries, said the performance space in the Niaulani facility, which has hosted its popular “Jazz in the Forest” series, will remain closed until further notice, but some of Niaulani’s campus more popular programs are open, although enrollment is limited.

“We’ve limited it to a number of six here in the gallery. We have lots of space, it’s just that we have to monitor,” Catey Weiss said. “We do ask that people socially distance. Our Niaulani trail, which is just a quarter-mile loop trail, has been open to the public throughout the shutdown. However, we have been asking that people socially distance.”

They’re also asking that patrons wear masks and informing them that hand sanitizer is available.

Much of their revenues come from sales of art from their galleries and that March sales were down 75%.

“In March, when we closed, we had a lot of things in process — layaways and orders we hadn’t fulfilled, etc. So our first month during the pandemic wasn’t as tragic as it could’ve been.”

Catey Weiss said all employees were furloughed early on, but were taken off furlough on June 8, as VAC also secured a second-round PPP loan.

“That will help us tremendously in bringing people back confidently,” she said.


The Tribune-Herald was unsuccessful in reaching representatives of the University of Hawaii at Hilo Performing Arts Center and Aloha Theatre in Kona for this story.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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