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Theater Reopenings Go In Slow Motion

Wendy McCain, executive director for the the Struthers Library Theater, talks about a recent show. P-J photo

WARREN, Pa. — For movie-goers south of the New York state border, the shows are starting to go on. As part of the reopening of Pennsylvania, lawmakers have given the green light for theaters to open with no more than 250 people in attendance.

For Wendy McCain, executive director of the Struthers Library Theater, this was a welcome and concerning development. Just how would patrons react? Would anyone attend?

After three shows at the location, the verdict is in: residents here are starting to get back to some normalcy — albeit slowly. That’s good news for this 54,000-square-foot venue that has seating for some 900 patrons.

No one, particularly at this time, wants standing-room only crowds or people cramped next to each other. Here in the northeast, we are watching almost in disbelief as the southern states are facing some trying times. Even the staunchest of governors regarding the reopening, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, are facing a firestorm as COVID-19 cases are taking off.

Warren County is quite the opposite. Just this week, the seventh known case was announced. For the most part, this area in the heart of the Allegheny National Forest, has been untouched.

Even so, there remains a great deal of caution. During a visit to the city on Tuesday, many were not wearing masks but were maintaining a safe distance.

McCain believes the theater, which opened last week with “The Sandlot” can operate. “People normally social distance when they go to a movie,” she said.

For the two presentations, about 50 residents showed up. An even more impressive turnout of 80 people happened for the Music in the Park event at the Struthers on June 19.

All performances brought a renewed sense of community. Even the theater’s bar, “Sally’s Encore,” had onlookers stopping by as the theater grilled hot dogs for the June 26 event.

In the meantime, things remain shuttered in Chautauqua County. Both the Reg Lenna Center for the Arts in Jamestown and the Fredonia Opera House are waiting for New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo to give the sites the approval to open. A lot like the gyms and fitness clubs, these locations remain on lockdown.

During a meeting with the Dunkirk-Fredonia Rotary on Zoom, Fredonia Opera House executive director Rick Davis said the closure is taking a toll on the facility. A best-case scenario. Davis noted, has the Opera House running a more than $40,000 deficit for 2020.

It’s tough to bring in revenue when shows are shut down.

But the Opera House continues its outreach. On Wednesday it debuted “The Friends of the Opera House Virtual Free Concert,” which is available for viewing on the Opera House’s YouTube channel. The concert was to remain on the channel for viewing anytime.

Davis remarked on the last movie showing at the facility, “1917” took place on March 14. “We had a little smaller than average sized crowd,” he said, noting some 80 people were in the 440-seat facility.

“Folks loved the movie and thanked us for still holding it.”

Since then, that theater — like all others in New York state has been in the dark. Attendees that evening had a feeling they would not be returning anytime soon.

“As people were leaving, they thanked us for having the movie,” Davis said. “Many people … said, ‘Don’t know when we’ll see you again, but we hope it’s not too long from now.’ ”

While some patrons wait, Struthers Library Theater keeps looking to the future. The historic and storied structure has been host to many high-profile acts including Houdini and Fay Wray from the 1940s to Loretta Lynn and LeAnn Rimes in recent years. Even the local Warren Players are attempting to get back to work.

This brings a sense of the theater’s mission and excitement for McCain. “This is really not about our revenues,” she said. “It is more about presenting a service to the community.”

John D’Agostino is the regional editor for the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 253.

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