CVIndependent

Thu11262020

Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

Ron Celona looked weary as patrons entered the CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City for the Saturday, March 14, matinee performance of The City of Conversation.

This was supposed to be a bustling, packed weekend of theater in the Coachella Valley. At least four theaters were opening new productions, while two more companies continued successful shows.

But as of that Saturday afternoon, The City of Conversation was the only show still open. Before we entered the theater—not even one-third full—Celona confided that after the Sunday show, CVRep, too, would be going dark.

Barring a miracle, we were watching the last play to be performed in the Coachella Valley by our fantastic theater companies in quite some time.

The production of The City of Conversation was a fantastic. Thanks to a great cast, led by Martha Hackett as old-school liberal activist/socialite Hester Ferris, the play showed how political differences can rip a family apart. It was compelling and riveting—so much so that it managed to make at least some theater-goers temporarily forget the unprecedented weirdness going on outside.

That is, until one of the characters made a joke about an expired toilet-paper coupon.

Celona’s angst over whether or not to let the show go on encapsulates the dilemma our valley’s producers faced heading into the weekend: On one hand, out of an abundance of caution, they could do societal good by closing the theater doors and having people staying home. On the other, they could take precautions and let the amazing, expensive work they’d rehearsed, built sets for and toiled over for weeks and months be seen and enjoyed by people who badly needed a distraction from the outside world.

As of Thursday, March 12, when the Independent started reaching out to local theater professionals, all six shows were slated to go on as scheduled—with the aforementioned precautions.

“We are offering hand sanitizer to people who have bought tickets,” said Chuck Yates, whose Coyote StageWorks was set to open The Velocity of Autumn the next night in the company’s new home at the Palm Springs Cultural Center. “For those who haven’t bought tickets yet, we don’t know if they will come.

“It’s a huge financial impact. Theater is never easy, and this is particularly hard. … There are a lot of people who don’t know what to do. All of the small theaters here, like us—nobody is in a financial situation to handle this, so we are opening The Velocity of Autumn. … It’s got heart; it’s funny; it’s beautifully written. It’s perfect for our community.”

The play—about an 80-year-old artist who’s barricaded herself in her Brooklyn brownstone with Molotov cocktails (!) to keep her family from removing her—would have been a lovely distraction for people who needed it. But these are unprecedented times.

Yates called back later in the day on Thursday to let us know he’d changed his mind.

“Of course I’m disappointed,” he said. “But we will try to figure out alternative dates. Right now, we’re biding time, waiting to see what the news brings. Maybe we can do it in a few weeks or months, or maybe next season.”

Robbie Wayne, the producing artistic director at the LGBT-themed Desert Rose Playhouse, told us on Thursday he intended to continue the run of Beautiful Thing, which had opened to rave reviews the weekend before.

“You’re not given a class on how to do this. Nobody knows how to handle this, so we are learning as we go,” he said. “I’m trying to be as informed as possible about this—everyone’s trying to figure it out. We haven’t had a large number of refund requests, but we are trying to figure out how to do this—it’s a dilemma. We don’t want it to be about the money, but that has to be taken into consideration for the venue. As of right now, we are removing snacks; we offer hand sanitizers; we are scrubbing the place down; and we are telling people stay home if you don’t feel well. But we also want to keep some normalcy in our lives.

“We want to be responsible for helping to curb this outbreak … It’s a hard place to be in. I have the TV on all the time. I go with whatever my gut tells me at the end of the day, because 24 hours can change everything. It is minute by minute now, because there is so much to consider.”

Wayne’s words were spot-on: The next day, he made the decision to suspend the weekend’s shows.

“We have staff members and patrons with compromised immune systems, so I went with my conscience. There are no winners in a situation like this, unfortunately,” Wayne said.

Over at Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, the same dilemma played out: After announcing on Wednesday that the “curtain will go up!” on the weekend’s opening of—yes, really—How to Survive an Apocalypse, the next day, executive director Shawn Abramowitz and artistic director Jerome Elliott announced the show would not go on, at least for opening weekend.

“We are so proud of our team for their magnificent work on this play,” they said. “This was a hard decision, but we feel it is the right call during this unsettled and confusing time.

That meant that as of Friday night, three of the six shows were still open: Palm Canyon Theatre’s The Pajama Game, and the opening night for Desert Theatreworks’ The Producers went on as scheduled, along with CVRep’s The City of Conversation.

“We have scrubbed the theater down,” Celona said on Thursday, March 12. “We have a cleaning crew coming in after every performance. We have purchased professional wall-mounted sanitizing dispensers for the lobby and the theater area. Our theater is 208 seats, so we are less than the 250-seat gatherings that are being cancelled, and we are about 50 to 60 percent of capacity. The bottom line is, when our accountants say we have to close, we close, and when the county of Riverside says we have to close, we close.”

The morning after those Friday-night shows, both Palm Canyon Theatre and Desert Theatreworks announced they would go dark. CVRep followed two days later.

“I hope if someone has a ticket to a live theater event, and the show is closed due to the virus, that they would consider donating the money to the theater instead of asking for a refund,” Coyote StageWorks’ Yates said. “This is the kind of thing that kills arts organizations.”

Published in Theater and Dance

It was less than a week before the best tennis players in the world were to gather for the start of the 2020 BNP Paribas Open on Monday, March 9. I’d connected with Sheri Pierattoni, owner of Piero’s PizzaVino in Palm Desert, to hear about the challenges she and her team faced as they prepared, for the seventh year, to operate a satellite restaurant at Indian Wells Tennis Garden—alongside world-famous eateries like Spago’s and Nobu.

“People come from all over the world to watch this tennis tournament,” Pierattoni me excitedly. “It’s one of the biggest events in tennis in the world—and it’s a beautiful place with the best dining options anywhere. It’s what sets this event apart from all others. (Tourney owner Larry Ellison) has brought a ton of money into this valley, and everybody is grateful to him for that. A lot of local businesses are sustained by this event.”

Then came the pandemic, and the cancellation of the tournament on the eve of its start.

Pierattoni was stunned.

“At 7 p.m. (on Sunday, March 8), I got a call from Jeff Dunn,” the director of operations for Levy Restaurants at Indian Wells Tennis Garden, “to say they cancelled it. It was devastating—pretty devastating,” Pierattoni told me during a subsequent chat.

How did she handle this terrible turn of events? “Well, you go into shock,” Pierattoni said. “But I had planned a fun night for friends and neighbors to come over, and—because it was kind of a cool night, and I have a fire pit at my house—we drank nice wine and ate s’mores. We sat around talking about (the cancellation), and there was a collective agreement that this (coronavirus threat) is blown way out of proportion. So why everybody is panicking so much is just crazy. But that’s what people do. It’s going to cost the desert economy millions and millions and millions of dollars.”

According to a variety of sources, the cost to the local economy of the tennis-tournament cancellation alone could be more than $300 million. With the cancellation or postponement of Coachella, Stagecoach and all of the other festivals and events, the financial pain in our communities will be devastating. Local governments will lose significant taxes and fees, and small businesses like restaurants, taxi companies, ride-share vendors, local entertainment venues and personal-service providers will feel the devastation, too.

“The desert business owners make the bulk of their money in just four months out of the year,” Pierattoni said. “Then you have the shoulder season where you won’t lose money, and you might make a little money. But now is when you make the big money, and that’s what carries you through the summer. Now, with PizzaVino, I’m very lucky, because we have a great local following, so we don’t lose money in the summer. We don’t make money, but we don’t lose money. We’re going to be OK.”

Since the postponement, the Piero’s PizzaVino team has been focused on recovery and damage control.

“We can’t just turn the key and walk away,” Pierattoni said. “We’re in the process of getting all of our wine vendors out there. They’ve all been extremely gracious in this situation, and they’re taking back our wine and liquor. And the BNP has said that we can use the restaurant to store our frozen and refrigerated goods as long as we need to. We’ll assimilate gradually what (frozen-food items) we can use at our El Paseo restaurant. Also, we’ve been calling some of our friendly restaurateurs to see if they want to purchase some of the perishables from us, just to help out and cut down on the loss we could have.

“It’s been amazing how many people have come out of nowhere to give us support. And that part of it has been beautiful, just beautiful. People ask if I need help, and what they can do. These are restaurateurs and fellow valley people in general doing this.”

As of our post-cancellation chat, Pierattoni had not heard much from BNP Paribas Open staffers regarding any help they may provide to the disenfranchised vendors.

“It’s too early for them,” she said. “Look, they’re still licking their wounds, too. Trust me: They’re still in their decision-making process. When I got the phone call, they said I should send them an email with all my questions, and they’d get back to me as soon as they can.

“Everybody is overwhelmed, and honestly, everybody is still trying to wrap their heads around this and unwind, and hopefully, they’re thinking about how to make it right. Personally, I can’t imagine that we’re all going to take this hit. Maybe we won’t be reimbursed for everything we’ve lost, but hopefully something.

“My biggest heartache in all of this is the money that my employees are going to lose. They count on this money. It helps get them through their summer. We had people who came from outside the state and had taken time away from their regular employment to come here and work the tennis weeks. They do that because they love working for us; they love the tennis tournament, and they know they make good money. So, it’s worth it to them. Now they have to go home, and they won’t have their job until they get back on the schedule, because their position has been filled (temporarily). So I’m really hoping that there’s some compensation for my employees.”

Pierattoni emphasized that it’s her employees—her team, as she calls them—who have made this annual opportunity a reality for the local favorite.

“I’d like to emphasize that it’s a huge team effort,” she said. “I couldn’t do it without my staff, and I have an incredible staff. Here’s an example: Last year, we lost one of our main cooks who comes in (from out of town) just to work this event. He couldn’t make it because his daughter became seriously ill. But it was amazing that, within 24 hours, we had a solution, because the rest of the staff just pulled together and said, ‘We’re going to make it happen.’

“I don’t want to be cocky, but we’re in a class of our own,” Pierattoni added. “You know that we were the only all-girl team out there. We’re a mother-daughter team, and I did take a lot of satisfaction and pride from that.”

Pierattoni’s daughter, Lea Tubberville, is an integral part of the family business operations. Her husband, Piero, passed away less than two years ago.

“I run my restaurant with heart,” she said. “Even though I think we run a great business, the people I hire have heart, and everybody who works (with us) loves it.”

Before the tournament’s cancellation, Pierattoni expressed joy about her restaurant’s participation in the BNP Paribas Open.

“We serve like 10,000 people in the two weeks. It’s nuts!” Pierattoni said. “There’s a vibe out there that’s contagious. It’s exciting. It’s like being in a circus tent. I’ve never put on a circus, but I bet it’s kind of like the same thing, where everybody’s working together to make the show happen. I feel very honored and proud that we can be a part of it. We make good money out there, and not all places do. I think (the tournament) is happy to partner with us, and we’re happy to make it happen.”

Here’s hoping Pierattoni and her team are allowed to make it happen again next year.

Published in Local Issues

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