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'People need art': Phoenix's historic Celebrity Theatre looks to the future of concerts

Rebuilding America: The historic Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix has been closed for two months due to the coronavirus. Here's what it will take to reopen in September.

Julie Dougherty, venue manager at Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix, poses for a picture outside the theater on May 13, 2020. (Photo: Rob Schumacher/The Republic)

For Rich Hazelwood, the Celebrity Theatre is more than an important part of Phoenix music history.

Since the music venue opened as the Star Theatre in 1964 with "South Pacific," the 2,650-capacity theater in the round has hosted such iconic artists as Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Van Halen and Janelle Monae. In 2019, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

"The theater is very special to me," Hazelwood said. "I watched it being built on my paper route and thought, 'One day I’m going to own that.'"

That dream came true in 2002 when he bought the Celebrity, perhaps best known for its rotating stage.

"My hope is to keep that up and preserve the legend of the Celebrity for many years to come," he said. But he's not in a rush to reopen after shuttering due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Why reopening is so complicated

The concert venue has been closed for months because of health concerns related to the spread of COVID-19.

Rich Hazelwood, owner of the Celebrity Theatre (Photo: Nick Oza/The Republic)

Hazelwood wants to reopen and financially support his staff. But it's more complicated than that.

"We have to balance that with the overall safety of that same staff, our patrons, performing artists and the community," he said.

Danny Zelisko, a Valley concert promoter who recently celebrated 45 years in the business, has booked shows at the Celebrity for decades.

He was a fan of the venue long before that. His saw his first concert in Phoenix on the Celebrity's rotating stage as a 17-year-old Chicago kid on Easter break.

"I walked in this theater the first time and it blew my mind," he said.

He'd love to see that stage back up and rotating as soon as possible.

"If I don't sell tickets, I don't make money," Zelisko said. "I can't pay my employees. I can't pay bills. But this coronavirus isn't over."

MORE VENUES: Indie music venues are uniting across the country. Here's how Phoenix will play a key role

'Things started escalating very quickly'

Celebrity Theatre's manager Julie Dougherty was paying close attention to the new coronavirus situation when, she said, "things started escalating very quickly."

The South By Southwest Music Festival in Texas was canceled March 6. A week later, Pancho Barrazza played the final show before the Celebrity closed its doors for social distancing.

"The following week, we furloughed the staff and decided we're just gonna have to put everything on hold for now and wait and see what happens," Dougherty said. 

Now, the Celebrity has nothing on the books for the next few months. Shows previously booked though early September were rescheduled or postponed with one exception. The Hollies' U.S. tour was canceled.

Management is focused on rescheduling the shows already on the books. They can't book new tours until the industry at large reopens.

"So what if Phoenix opens and Texas opens and Kansas opens?" Dougherty said. "If the rest of the country hasn't yet, that doesn't make an economically feasible way to tour."

Another issue is that the venue often features legacy acts who tend to draw older crowds. Many Celebrity customers called expressing worry in the days leading up to the first show the venue rescheduled â€" Gladys Knight.

"That crowd was very, very concerned," Dougherty said. "They're telling us, 'We're older,' 'We're not supposed to go out,' or 'We're immunocompromised.'"

Then there are the artists themselves. "Are any of them gonna decide, you know what, I've done my last tour?"

CONCERTS: These metro Phoenix concerts are postponed or canceled due to coronavirus

What concerts could look like in the future

Besides postponing and rescheduling concerts, Hazelwood said they're working to determine what it would look like to reopen safely.

They've looked at rescaling the theater and determining what the capacity would look like for socially distanced concerts. The 6-foot rule would drastically reduce capacity to what Dougherty figures is 20%.

"We could do it where you put a couple people on the end of each aisle with empty seats in between them, and a couple empty rows between each of the seated rows," she said. "The concern then would be getting people into the building and out of the building with that social distancing."

Then there's the challenge of getting concertgoers to cooperate. 

"There's a lot of people that absolutely take this seriously," Dougherty said. "But all it takes is a couple people who don't take it seriously and they want to sit where they want to sit. Then, you've gotta have the staff to handle that."

With regard to face masks, Dougherty said staff would be required to wear them and any other necessary personal protective equipment, like gloves, depending on the person's job.

Celebrity Theatre was recently placed on the National Register of Historic Places. (Photo: Provided by Celebrity Theatre)

She's not sure they could require masks on guests. "But we would certainly recommend it to all patrons as we navigate opening up again."

For now, the plan is to reopen with Morris Day & the Time on Sept. 4.

"I guess the only thing that would stop that," Dougherty said, "is if the state doesn't open up to large events by that time. Or we would have to really kind of rework how we would manage the event if they say it's open but you've got to maintain the social distancing."

If they'll need to maintain social distance at a show that has already sold out, they're not yet sure how that will work. 

"We're looking at whether we could have two performances on one date or two performances on back-to-back dates and reallocate tickets based on safe, socially distanced seating," Dougherty said.

Here are the big concerns going forward

One thing the Celebrity has going for itself in that respect is that Hazelwood owns the building and the property outright.

"And as you know, Rich loves that venue," Dougherty said.

But there are two main concerns going forward.

First and foremost, is reopening safe?

And how will the recession caused by shutting down the country impact ticket sales?

"There's some people that took an economic hit through this whole thing," Dougherty said. "Are they going to have disposable income? And of any disposable income they do have, are they going to want to be buying concert tickets?"

Dougherty believes people will work out a way to see the shows they want to see, the same way people budgeted for concerts before the pandemic.

"People miss that," she said. "It's fun. It brings people together. It's something exciting."

Hazelwood said they're eager to meet his goal of having the Celebrity reopen in September.

"I feel that people need art and performances and to gather together for community," he said. "But I will not do that until we can do it safely and with the approval of government and health department guidelines."

Reach the reporter at ed.masley@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4495. Follow him on Twitter @EdMasley.

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