The shows must go on: How the Vail Valley’s entertainment scene stayed vibrant during a pandemic
Musicians, venues, restaurants, movie theaters, art centers and more quick on their feet to continue to provide arts during COVID-19
In between the day-to-day, black-and-white parts of our lives, the arts are there to fill in the color. When the pandemic forced music venues and movie theaters to shut down, and wiped big gatherings off the calendar, many promoters and organizations across the country simply threw up their hands, saying protocols and the entire effort is just not worth the hassle.
Not here in Eagle County.
The Vilar Performing Arts Center at Beaver Creek was the first indoor venue in the state to reopen its doors to a live audience when the local Rocky Mountain Grateful Dead Revue performed in front of a crowd of 50 people in early June.
The outdoor venue at Avon’s Nottingham Park also was one of the first to reopen to live music. The Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater in Vail made the pivot to open with movie nights on the lawn, as well as live music over the summer.
Local wedding planners changed from working on large-scale weddings to smaller, intimate gatherings with great success. Together, wedding planners in the valley launched a group chat immediately when the pandemic hit to help keep each other up to date on protocols, venue changes as well as possible clients to pick up.
Bravo! Vail, Vail Jazz and other regular favorites around the valley all jumped on the online opportunities. The Vail Jazz Interludes series brought performances online where episodes are still available to watch.
Restaurants were quick to offer carry out, and even create new trends, such as Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard’s finish-at-home meals. Grand Avenue Grill was quick to set up a drive-through window (and also walk-through). And both Vail and Beaver Creek opened public consumption areas around the villages.
Alpine Arts Center went virtual and was teaching art across the world online.
The Riverwalk Theater in Edwards adapted to allow moviegoers to bring in their own films to watch as a small group, as well as expanded its food menu to offer more robust items. The local theater, “on the brink of shutting down,“ has been able to stay open.
Across the valley, there was no giving up. The shows had to go on, and thankfully in this valley, they did — and are looking to open up more this summer with the GoPro Mountain Games, Vail Craft Beer Classic, Gypsum Daze and other events starting to fill out the schedule.
While people in the food, arts and entertainment industry realize that hospital workers and other front-line workers should deserve the praise for helping get us through the COVID-19 pandemic, it has still been a very tough year for restaurants, venues, musicians and other businesses that make this valley special.
But it’s worth it.
“The arts are working to heal people, that is emphasized more so than ever right now,” said Owen Hutchinson, executive director of the Vilar Center at Beaver Creek. “We need the arts to be an integral part of our valley’s and our community’s healing process, and it feels natural for the arts to serve the community in that way.”
“It gives perspective,” said Tom Boyd, director of the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater in Vail. “What is art, what is gathering? Why are concerts popular? Why does everyone like to come to Bravo! Vail and Dance Festival and Hot Summer Nights and our concerts, and it’s because that’s where community is made, that’s where our bonds are strengthened as a community.”
Boyd added that with more and more people out and about exploring parts of Vail they might not have before, places like The Amp, Betty Ford Alpine Gardens and others benefited from increased foot traffic.
Collaboration is key in Eagle County during COVID-19, as local nonprofits, businesses and health professionals have maintained constant communication to be able to open doors and offer things to do outside of our homes this past year, and leading into the summer.
When it all shut down
As businesses and venues, and the ski resorts, shut down in March of 2020, it was a difficult task for local venues like the Vilar Center and Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater to shut down — emails had to go out, artists had to be contacted, the venue itself had to be closed. But as hard as it was to shut down, it was even harder to start opening back up.
For musical venues, musicians and others in the industry, it was constant planning, replanning and then planning again from scratch trying to stay on top of the most current health protocols. Some outdoor venues took advantage of the squared-seating arrangements, allowing for social distancing with each group in their own square.
There were also financial questions around opening things back up, whether it was viable or even sustainable. Many local businesses and venues were of the mindset of the Vail Valley Foundation and its venues, the amphitheater in Vail and Vilar Center at Beaver Creek.
“We took a huge risk, and we basically jumped off a cliff into the void thinking this is the right thing to do, and we’ll figure out the money later, and we have,” Boyd said.
State and federal funding also helped some Eagle County arts and entertainment businesses. The Vail Valley Foundation, Cascade Village Theatre Inc., Valley Events Inc. and The Art Base received state relief totaling $242,000 in February. The Turn up the Amp fundraising effort raised $60,000 for the amphitheater in Vail as well.
At the Alpine Arts Center, the lockdown came right after the local business celebrated its 10-year anniversary.
“It was a rollercoaster of ups and downs that month, but we worked quickly to transition our programs and our art store for the shutdown,” owner Lauren Merrill said via email. “We created to-go kits and virtual classes so our community had a creative outlet while we were closed.”
The Vilar Center hosts a variety of performances throughout a given year, but March is usually one of the busiest months.
“I remember that week so clearly because we were in the height of our busy March season at the VPAC,” Hutchinson recalls. “We had everything from dance companies to rock ‘n’ roll concerts happening that week.”
Blue Moose Pizza in Beaver Creek was one of many restaurants that made adjustments on the fly.
“Well, we found out the exact same time the rest of our valley did,” owner Brian Nolan said in an email about the shutdown. “Initially the first few days it was a little crazy as there is no Game Book for this thing.”
When reopening, all venues, restaurants and other entertainment businesses put a priority on safety — and still do.
As a pioneer in the state for venues reopening, the Vilar Center’s protocols include limited capacity in its already-intimate 535-seat theater, a temperature check at the door as well as other guidelines to follow.
Dean Davis has been working at the Vilar Center for almost 15 years and is in charge of the cleaning. He also was the one to figure out the seating arrangements for the venue with COVID-19 distancing protocols. Davis worked on that while at home in quarantine, since he had all of the building drawings on his computer at home. He started drawing circles working off the 6 feet social distancing standard. He made charts for groups of one, two and four to be prepared for whatever protocols came.
Davis is also looking into upgrading the venue’s ventilator system, a requirement of the 5 Star state program. He’d been looking into it for years, but the financial restraints hindered his hope. But with COVID-19 and a push for public health, he has an extra card in his hand when pushing for the new ventilators.
“I like to call myself one of the shoemaker’s elves — one of the people in the background, no one sees what we do,” Davis said.
Davis himself sprays down the venue with a new and improved electro-sprayer backpack — with a Ghostbusters sticker stuck on to complete the image. He goes through the auditorium, lobby area, bathrooms and anywhere someone might touch — walking backwards to avoid the spray.
“We’re all very aware of the fact that if someone gets sick, we have to shut down,” Davis said of attendees or the Vilar Center’s limited staff. “And we really don’t want to do that.”
Kristen Ruthemeyer Hammer also helped the Vilar Center navigate returning to live performances. She has been with the Vilar Center for almost four years and is the production manager — hiring and managing crews, coordinating equipment in the building, in charge of the spending budget and anything regarding production.
In addition to all she does behind the scenes, Ruthemeyer Hammer is also a backup violinist just in case a musician gets stuck in a snowstorm and can’t make it to town.
Classic Albums Live was doing a Beatles show at the Vilar Center, and one of the two violinists didn’t make it out from Denver because of a snowstorm.
“They were freaking out about this violinist, so I said, ‘Well, how hard is the music?’ They just kind of looked at me and I told them I haven’t practiced in a while but I play the violin. If the music’s not hard I could probably do it.”
They gave her the music, she practiced for a couple of hours that day and then went on stage that night.
“That’s the only time that’s happened,” she said with a laugh. “I’m definitely more comfortable backstage and I definitely find my complicated production management job to be much easier than sitting on stage with a violin.”
Ruthemeyer Hammer, like many others in the valley, was diligent and used her attention to detail to help stay on top of reopening in a safe manner — and staying open.
In Vail, the town partnered with musicians and venues like Vail Jazz, Shakedown Bar and others to provide live music outdoors over the summer.
With some restaurants, entertainment groups, movie theaters and other local business shutting down due to COVID-19, it hasn’t been all good news. However, many local entertainment businesses not only survived but thrived through the past year.
One of the positives for musicians and music venues over the past year was the focus on local and regional. Bands like The Runaway Grooms and other small-town bands with big sounds took to the premier stages like the Vilar Center and the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater in Vail.
“One of the things that I love so much about music is that it gets to take us away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life,” Tierro Lee said during a performing at the Vilar Center in July. “Tonight, I really hope we’re all going to go on a journey together and kind of escape these COVID times for a minute and remember that there are good times to come.”
The Vilar Center’s Ghost Light Series was a popular hit.
“There are all sorts of traditions and superstitions in theater, such as not bringing mirrors on stage, no whistling from back stage, saying ‘break a leg’ and never mentioning The Scottish Play,” said Duncan Horner, the former executive director of theVilar Center. “Another is to make sure to turn on an exposed incandescent bulb center stage known as ‘the ghost light’ before turning off other lights and vacating the theater. I like to think of it as providing an eternal flame that remains on between shows, providing a baseline of energy that allows us to look forward to the next wave of entertainment.”
The Runaway Grooms, who put on a drive-by concert series across the valley in September, are one of many bands banking up some new music while the world was shut down.
“We’re just kind of preparing for when the world opens back up to have a good arsenal of new music that captures the five-piece evolution of the band,” Grooms member Zach Gilliam said.
Another trend that appears to be sticking is the livestream of performances online, opening musicians and venues up to a wider, more global audience. Also, with people eagerly looking for things to do, and safely, new businesses have hit the scene, like Wood & Steel Axe Company offering mobile axe-throwing events as well as at its location in Vail.
Also, another collaborative effort, Magic of Lights organizers are planning a return next winter, with more time to plan and prepare the lights spectacle.
“It was crazy popular, people loved it,” Boyd said. “And we had to put the whole thing together in two months.”
Magic of Lights came together thanks to the town of Vail, Vail Valley Foundation Events and Fun Guys Events.
“Basically, we just figured it out,” Boyd said.
Which seems to be a common thread in this valley of resiliency. As that fateful mid-March day was known as the day the music died elsewhere around the country, and the world, Eagle County refused to let the music die and will push forward — as a community.
The Vail Daily’s Tricia Swenson and Casey Russell contributed reporting to this story. Assistant Editor Ross Leonhart can be reached at 970-748-2984 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Instagram at colorado_livin_on_the_hill.