Johnson Hall, on April 16 in downtown Gardiner. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

In a couple of weeks, The Elm in Waterville will celebrate its first anniversary.

But the event center, the result of the redevelopment of the former Bourque-Lanigan American Legion Post No. 5 building on College Avenue, will host no party or performance or any other event through the winter.

Even as stores, lodging businesses, offices and schools have slowly opened across central Maine, theaters and event centers, including The Elm, have remained closed in deference to public health restrictions that now limit indoor gatherings to 50 attendees due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our next scheduled event is May 1, featuring No Shoes Nation, which is a tribute band to Kenny Chesney,” Bill Mitchell, who owns The Elm, said last week. “Then, we have a series of other shows scheduled after that — next summer.”

Across central Maine, theaters, performing arts centers and other arts and entertainment venues shut their doors in March and canceled summer seasons abruptly in the wake of the declaration of the global coronavirus pandemic.

On March 15, Gov. Janet Mills declared a state of civil emergency, after a dozen cases of coronavirus infection — both confirmed and suspected — were counted. In the wake of that declaration and subsequent stay-at-home order, businesses, schools and government offices across the state shut their doors and sent employees home.


The state of civil emergency is still in effect.

Under the multiphase Keep Maine Healthy Plan, the state is in its second month at Stage 3, which allows indoor gatherings of up to 50 with appropriate social distancing.

The starting date for Stage 4, when all businesses are open and operating with appropriate safety modifications, has not yet been announced. The timing of that decision is being determined by a range of factors including the rate of the virus’ spread in Maine, availability of testing and establishing safe ways of doing business.

The impact on the arts and entertainment industry nationwide has been tremendous.

Americans for the Arts, a national arts advocacy organization, has been conducting regular surveys on the impact of COVID-19 on the arts.

The most recent results available show the financial impact on arts and cultural organizations is estimated at $10.2 billion as of Aug. 3.


Since the start of the pandemic, 96% of organizations have canceled events, and some of those cancellations will extend into the summer of 2021. That has resulted in an estimated loss of $10.7 billion in spending at restaurants, retailers and other businesses and on lodging and parking.

“The whole situation is very challenging and very stressful on the entire entertainment industry,” Mitchell said.

In Maine, a number of mainstays of the summer entertainment season, including the Theater at Monmouth and the Maine State Music Theater, either canceled their summer seasons or rescheduled them for 2021. The Maine International Film Festival moved its annual festival from movie theaters to the Skowhegan Drive-In Theatre and offered some films online.

Others have adjusted. The Waterville Opera House has rescheduled many of its shows for this fall and later, and hosted the Rustic Overtones on Friday night as a livestream, ticketed event.

Mike Miclon opted early on to use technology to reach audiences at Gardiner’s Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center.

“We are one of the theaters that has not ceased,” Miclon, Johnson Hall’s artistic executive director, said last week.


In March, Johnson Hall was among the organizations to pull the plug on the remainder of its 2019-20 season, and eventually, it canceled its free, 10-week summer concert series at Waterfront Park.

Miclon put together a quarantine edition of The Early Evening Show, his long-running, live variety show. Viewers who bought tickets could tune in March 28 via a livestream carried on the internet. Based on the success of that show, Johnson Hall committed to holding one to two monthly livestream, ticketed events, an edition of The Early Evening Show for one, and live music for the other.

In August, Miclon conducted an informal Facebook poll to gauge interest in attending a live show with a limited audience. Based on the response, tickets for 50 were put on sale for the Sept. 5 performance of The Early Evening Show, which will also be offered as a ticketed, livestreamed show. Unlike the earlier livestreamed variety show, all the performers will be live.

The show will be put on in the upper theater, which has a capacity of about 400.

Since that first livestreamed show was aired, singers and performers have been starting their own livestreams, performing music from their homes, often for free or tips.

“We’re trying to determine what people want to watch,” Miclon said. “You know that people are kind of sick of watching from home.”


The goal is finding entertainment that people will be willing to tune in for because livestreaming is expensive. At the same time, Miclon said he has to find entertainers who are willing to perform live. Some performers are still reluctant to appear before live audiences, he said, and comedians will perform only if there is a live audience of 20 people.

After September, the shows will migrate to the smaller Studio Theater on the ground floor, with current public health restrictions. The historic theater is slated for renovation and the upper space is not currently heated.

“We have committed to do a 20-show season, starting in September,” Miclon said.

Details are expected in the next two weeks.

In Waterville, Mitchell said every organization must do what is best for it and its patrons. Whatever the new normal becomes, he said he hoped entertainment will work its way back to what it was before early 2020.

“From The Elm’s point of view, I think we’re just going to sit tight and ride this thing out,” Mitchell said. “Hopefully, we’ll come out on the other side of this hole and resume operations when it’s safe to bring people into a gathering inside and, hopefully, resume operations in a fun and effective way.”

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