‘Essential for the community’

Featured Sliders / Food & Drink / Lifestyle / Stories / September 15, 2020

In the wake of COVID-19, local entertainment is finding ways to keep going

Story by Nina Todea
Photos by Liv Paggiarino

At 52 years old and with a battle with cancer under her belt, Jenny Babcock has learned to trust her gut. When coronavirus hit Missouri in mid-March, she knew her best decision was to close The Mission voluntarily.

“I always tell my children, ‘You roll with the waves or the ocean will take you under,'” she said.

She was right.

Across the United States, coronavirus hit the entertainment industry mercilessly and indiscriminately. A slew of artists canceled or postponed the North American legs of their tours. From Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish to Bon Jovi and Elton John, no genre was unaffected, with disappointed fans all over the country.

Cancellations just kept adding up.

Music festivals such as Coachella, Lollapalooza, South By Southwest and Bonnaroo made the difficult decision to cancel their 2020 shows — even after attempting to reschedule for the fall. Disney Theatrical Productions canceled the opening of “Frozen” on Broadway, and the League announced June 29 all shows would be suspended until Jan. 3, 2021.

If you ask health officials when the entertainment industry might be safe to reopen, you likely won’t get a definite answer.

But in Mid-Missouri, live entertainment has quietly and cautiously started to reemerge.

A cautious reopening

Babcock, owner of The Mission on High Street, hasn’t been secretive about her struggles.

Instead of hiding behind closed doors, she found a new level of transparency with the venue’s regulars on Facebook.

Roughly five months of no activity from mid-March had squeezed available funds out of the venue. Their reopen date had been set for May 1. Then it was pushed to July. Come June 30, the venue announced it would take a little extra time. Then a July 17 event was canceled after first being postponed, prompting the venue to declare on Facebook, “Unfortunately, COVID-19 wins this round.”

Eventually, The Mission reopened July 26, and for three days, things were starting to get back to normal.

Until COVID-19 came back to win another round.

CLOSED FOR TWO WEEKS!!!” A Facebook post announced Aug. 1.

Jenny Babcock sits on a couch at her music venue, The Mission. Babcock used the time off because of the pandemic to revamp venue’s space, which included finding furniture for the lounge area, refinishing the floors and hanging tons of posters.

Despite staff precautions to wear masks and take temperatures at the door, they had been exposed to the virus. A patron who had visited the venue twice the previous week tested positive for coronavirus, putting those who had visited, and Babcock and her staff, at risk of being carriers themselves.

It was back to square one.

The doors closed and the staff was tested. Though Babcock and her small staff’s results came back negative, it was recommended they quarantine. Babcock spoke over the phone Aug. 11 from a lake in Arkansas, where she and her family secluded themselves for an extended weekend.

We were open a whopping three days,” she lamented for a moment. But she kept her spirits up, looking forward to “trying again, with as many safety measures as we can” for a tentative Aug. 15 reopening date. That Saturday night, they reopened with a quiet handful of regulars, the colored neon reflecting onto the glossy floor where pairs of feet would have been.

It’s a tough reality venue owners like Babcock have come to expect.

But they just can’t afford to stay closed.

Too much is riding on The Mission’s small wooden sign sitting on the windowsill being flipped the right way.

Navigating a complex funding system

Babcock’s chuckle resonated through the static of the phone. She laughed when asked what the venue’s funds currently looked like.

As her chuckle died down, she offered an honest answer: “We need to be open.”

The Mission made it through months of inactivity, but it wasn’t easy.

There were — and are — still bills to pay. Babcock’s venue doesn’t have the backing of a national or regional entertainment company. Her staff wasn’t paid through relief funds. And no one’s going to pay her liquor licences for her.

She turned toward Jefferson Bank, and, thankfully, they guided her through the process of applying for and receiving small business loans. Examining just what financial help is available and how to receive it, Babcock said, has at times been “very, very confusing.”

The answers for all of that has kind of been a moving target,” she said.

With the bank’s financial guidance, she was able to apply and be approved for a Paycheck Protection Program loan through the Small Business Administration. The bad news? The loan amount is based off of the amount of employees under the business, and The Mission only has one full-time — Babcock and her husband, Tracy Blase, who run the place, don’t count.

The money was meager.

To complicate matters further, the advance grant of the Economic Injury Disaster Loan she applied for even before the PPP loan came weeks after the first loan had been received.

The emergency money that was supposed to be given to me in a week, that was the last thing I got,” Babcock said.

The EIDL payout was significantly larger than the PPP loan, but much of it went to making improvements to the physical location. The floor and bar were resurfaced, new bar stools were purchased and furniture was switched out all in an effort to better sanitize the place on the regular. More hand sanitizer was added, and alcohol wipes are now regularly used to wipe down the credit card pad, stools and more.

Babcock called it a remodel, “just because that’s the best way to call it.” Though it was a necessary update, it was one of the bright spots of their temporary closure.

It’s kind of hard to sanitize a building that was built in the 1800s,” she said. 

Patrons stand outside of The Mission on the night of its reopening in August.

Now, as funds from those sources run dry, she’s wearily looking toward a second possible stimulus package that may or may not make its way to her. There’s one project for an outdoor space The Mission could take on that would allow them to host artists and larger crowds in an open air, socially-distanced environment. Babcock estimated it could cost roughly $30,000 — money she doesn’t have.

An extension of PPP or other federal assistance could put the project into COVID-19 spending requirement territory and push The Mission forward to a more stable future. But if nothing progresses, the project would likely turn to fundraising. The SBA stopped accepting applications for PPP loans Aug. 8, and as of mid-August, Congress had not reached an agreement on a second stimulus package, though there is bipartisan support to extend PPP. The question now isn’t if it’s needed, but how.

The SBA loans also haven’t extended as far as some might think. For Scene One Theatre in Jefferson City, loans were pursued and promptly dropped. As a nonprofit, Scene One would likely have qualified, but it also would have likely been required to pay the loan back in full, as the loans are first intended to be used for employee payroll.

“Scene One is not set up that way,” said Artistic Director Mark Wegman. “We don’t pay anyone.”

They had to turn toward alternative funding opportunities.

Loan payback has brought questions to light for The Mission, too. While Babcock is anticipating loan forgiveness on the PPP loan (the smaller payout of the bunch), the EIDL comes with an interest rate and some confusion.

And now with things on hold with Congress, we don’t know,” Babcock said Aug. 11. “We don’t know what’s going to happen going forward.”

Faith in something larger

If there’s one thing homegrown venues have over bigger names, it’s personal, close ties to their communities.

That community support is what’s kept Scene One Theatre afloat.

Luckily, their seasons run summer to summer. The last show they performed before reopening in late July was in early February. A March show was canceled, and actors weren’t rehearsing again for the most recent run of Short Attention Span Theatre until July.

For the theater’s 15th anniversary, temporarily closing was completely unexpected.

Wegman noted there’s typically a slump in the money during late winter and early spring — and that’s where they found themselves come March. But as the new season started, sans performances, Scene One found people flocking to pay their dues.

“We have some very, very generous patrons who have been with us since day one with yearly sponsorships who are not comfortable getting out yet and attending the show, but they still sent in their money, and we’re so grateful for that,” Wegman said. “So, we’re staying afloat there. And right now, it’s just to continue on that path.”

As of Aug. 18, Scene One, through an outpouring of community support, was up to date on their bills. They’ve been blessed and uplifted by the support, Wegman said. Now, as they’ve reopened their doors with social distancing measures in place, Wegman hopes the profit from upcoming shows and a few various funding opportunities can carry them through.

A restricted seating chart isn’t as profitable, but it will have to do for the time being.

“I definitely think the physical distancing thing is here to stay for right now. And so we just keep our fingers crossed and hope we continue to do well,” Wegman said.

It’d be difficult to not notice the similarities in success stories.

Just a few days after announcing their closure in March, The Mission announced sales from online merchandise and community donations had covered one pay period for staff, paid the insurance and remaining vendors for March and made the mortgage payment for April.

A Facebook fundraiser March 25 for Babcock’s bar manager, Paige Dow, raised more than $3,000. Her first salary pay period was already paid for in full — the fundraiser also calculated and included tips for the next. It took only 70 people to reach the goal.

A second fundraiser for The Mission’s expenses a little more than a week later raised double that amount, bringing in $7,285, more than $500 over the threshold goal of $6,700.

With the community backing her business, her staff has not missed a single paycheck.

Jenny Babcock, left, socializes with patrons at her music venue, The Mission, on its reopening night Aug. 15.

Babcock is more than thankful for the outpouring of support, but she cautioned against making anyone feel they were obligated to help. It simply comes down to what the community finds value in, she said.

Everybody’s strapped. That’s what is also hard, is to tell anybody that they should be giving us money when I don’t even know if they’ve been working. The economy affects everybody,” she said. “They also may be eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. So, who am I? Who am I to tell somebody that we should be their priority?”

Not all small music venues have had that same luck, though.

A survey published in June by the National Independent Venue Association found 90 percent of independent venue owners, promoters and bookers believed they would have to close permanently within the next few months.

Judging by that time frame, The Mission’s red string should be ending soon.

But if her fight through the previous months is any indication, Babcock is aiming to be in the 10 percent making it through.

We’re never gonna close permanently. I’m too stubborn for that,” she said. “This virus is not gonna beat us. We will find a way. I don’t think the community’s going to let us fail. I just have that much faith in the community. I really do.”

‘We are essential’

Being the first hit and labeled as non-essential wasn’t just a hit to the pocketbooks of the entertainment industry. It was a hit to the gut, too.

At first, Wegman said he viewed his theater as purely entertainment — a pleasure and a luxury. To some extent, he said, he still does. It’s not a life or death situation.

Then he started listening to those around him.

“I start talking and getting feedback from people,” he said. “And I know what an outlet it provides for all of the writers that we have as part of our rough writers group. They were contacting me like, ‘Can we have a meeting through Zoom?’”

He realized how eager his writers and regular patrons were to keep Scene One above the waters.

“You hear all of those people, and then it makes you think, ‘Well, I guess this is pretty neat,'” Wegman said. “I don’t know if needed is the right word, but you just hear all of those people and what they’re saying to you, that it means so much to them.”

Babcock didn’t shy away from her definitive stance.

We are essential for the community. That’s where people come together to breathe together,” Babcock said. “And it’s hard. Bringing people together is what my staff lives on.”

The arts give people the chance to connect on a different level than just communicating through words. It gives people the chance to look inside their humanity, she said.

And in this time of such polar contradiction, and every time somebody says something, somebody wants to contradict it, I think the part about music and arts is it’s not a time of contradiction,” she said. “It’s a time of reflection. It’s a time of celebration. It’s a time of dance. It’s a time of all of that to just connect, rather than disconnect. And we really need that right now.”

For The Mission, going virtual just wouldn’t be the same. She described the live music scene as a “symbiotic relationship,” one that

Patrons sit at the bar at The Mission on the night of its reopening in August.

gives and receives in tandem. Babcock was hesitant to jump on the virtual train as much of the national music industry has done. It’s simply not paying the bills long-term, she pointed out.

And if it’s not paying the bills for the artist, from the feedback I’ve gotten, if it’s not going to be worth their time, then I think that our efforts need to be focused on other things,” she said.

For Scene One, going virtual would come with complications. How do you secure the rights to livestream a performance, and how can you keep that intimacy crafted through in-person experiences?

For “Constellations,” an upcoming September play, they’ve been told they can livestream it, having already paid for the rights to perform. But one of Wegman’s concerns is Scene One isn’t tech savvy. The theater still only accepts cash or check. And he worries the final product wouldn’t have the same impact — lighting and mood included.

“We just didn’t think the product that we would present (over livestream) would be a very good quality,” he said.

There’s one outcome that could work in their favor, however. If Scene One needs to cut costs in the future, they’ll likely turn more to original plays written by local residents. There’s no extensive rights to worry about, and it could put small writers on the map.

It’s a thrill to look forward to that could make the challenges seem a little less prominent.

Pushing forward through, and with, a level of uncertainty

As The Mission and Scene One navigate their businesses through uncertainty, they’ve given themselves honest pep talks. There’s a level of change that’s simply out of their hands.

Wegman remembered Scene One’s first shows back.

“We were very nervous wondering how it would go,” he said. And if anything happens to jeopardize the health of his actors or patrons, Wegman said, they’ll be quick to cancel and postpone again if needed.

Babcock still fights the moral dilemma she was presented with at the beginning. A breast cancer survivor herself, she holds the safety of her patrons, staff and family in high regard. She hasn’t quite come to terms with bringing in bands from across the region — and potential hotspots — to perform, but that’s what The Mission does. If they stop bringing those bands in, Babcock said, then The Mission stops being what they are.

From one side of the field, she had people urging her to open. From the other, she had people supporting her on her own timeline. And as a business owner in a county and city that didn’t have a mask ordinance as of Aug. 18, Babcock can only do so much to keep safe, and open, through all of it. Put all of that together, and therein lies her complex moral dilemma.

For me, this is not political at all. This is very human,” Babcock said. “And we don’t know the answers, and I don’t claim to have the answers.”

Scene One and The Mission may have lost a few battles to the coronavirus, but they’re determined to win the war.

They’re pushing forward, finding answers along the way. They’ve certainly made it this far, and they haven’t done it alone.

Babcock’s goals have been the same from the start: Find a way to make it 1) safe, 2) entertaining, and 3) profitable. Making the model work will be a challenge as the coronavirus pandemic continues to evolve.

There’s a quote she holds on to from a good friend of the Minnesota-based duo Ilika Ward: “‘In the end, it’ll be OK. And if it isn’t, then it’s not the end.’”

That’s what keeps me going,” she said.

Because at the end of the day, the mission is to bring people together.

And someday soon, we’ll do that again,” she said.

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