NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — The State Theatre New Jersey sparkles on nights when a show, a concert or some other performance draws 1,000 or more patrons, her marquee casting a white glow across Livingston Avenue.
She is a timeless beauty, so demure and classy. A woman never tells her age, but if you must know, The State Theatre is 99.
These days, though, she is lonely and quiet.
Sarah Chaplin, The State Theater's president and CEO, said they keep the lights off to lower the electric bill.
“I actually enjoy going into an empty theater when we’re not in operation just because I kind of get inspired by everything that’s happened in that theater and thinking about that, but right now, I take on a totally different feeling, and it’s actually kind of haunting to me,” she said.
For The State Theatre, the familiar refrain of the show must go on has taken on new meaning since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the theater to shut its doors last month. The nonprofit, whose stage has been graced by legends such as Bob Hope, Bela Lugosi and Houdini, has been faced with mounting financial challenges.
There have been layoffs and cuts to expenditures, but it's been hard to recoup the lost revenue of thousands of unsold tickets.
Since closing its doors March 14, The State Theatre has canceled 33 performances and postponed 13 more through June.
With an expected crowd turnout of 15,000 people attending performances during that time span, an estimated total of $650,000 worth of tickets is being refunded, put on account or donated to The State Theatre upon customers’ preferences and wishes, Chaplin said.
“About 20% of the people so far have taken advantage of one of those options, primarily keeping it on account, but that’s always a positive thing because we want them to want to come back to the theater once this is all over,” she said.
Compounding the ticket sales situation is the fact that the generosity of its patrons has been diverted to other causes during this health crisis.
“Donations have definitely slowed down,” Chaplin said. “There are a lot of very worthwhile organizations and causes during this time particularly focused on health and human services, and it’s understandable that those organizations are going to get funding or dollars or attention from donors, and rightly so. They should get the attention.”
To help offset losses, The State Theaters' foundation and corporation donor restrictions are being lifted temporarily, allowing it to use funds once dedicated to a certain program to other operating costs that hold more importance at the moment, she said.
It has been forced to lay off some members of the production crew, ushers, front-of-house managers, concessions team members, box office workers, marketing staff and others.
The remaining staff has taken a 20% pay cut and a cut to its hours, Chaplin said.
“I tried understanding that I was asking a lot of them. I tried to give a little bit at the same time I was taking,” Chaplin said. “So basically, they are still making the same amount of money that they would make on a per-hour basis, but they’re working less hours, which saves us money and also takes into account that we don’t always all have as much to do as we used to have.”
There's no telling what this all means to the plans to give the ol' lady a facelift for her 100th birthday.
Chaplin said there were renovations planned and an upgrade certain parts of the building that would improve accessibility, such as an elevator to better meet the American with Disabilities Act, as well as improve audience experience overall.
When or if that's still going to happen is unclear.
“Part of it is weighing what is the impact on our ongoing operations once we can reopen and will we have recovered enough to then move forward with another shutdown, but the shutdown related to construction and renovation,” Chaplin said. “How do we rethink that plan and figure out a better way to do it that limits the impact on the facility and on the organization? We’re working on that.”
Hard times aside, The State Theatre continues to look for ways to connect with the community stuck at home.
It has incorporated an online culture fix consisting of videos to watch, podcasts to listen to, games and trivia to play and other forms of distraction.
A singing contest was also announced where participants can record themselves singing any Broadway show tune, post their video on YouTube, submit their link and post their submission to social media tagging #StateTheatreNJ.
The winner receives two tickets to all five of The State Theatre’s main Broadway Series shows in the 2020-21 Broadway Series.
Additionally, it is offering Flex Tickets to give patrons the ability to buy a ticket now, get 20% added value from what they usually pay and get a special presale period for future shows sold through the theatre.
There is also an online auction for autographed, going on until May 1 at 3 p.m., to help raise funds.
“The most interesting thing about this is that we could have never predicted this world,” Chaplin said. “Everything has changed so dramatically within the last month and everything that was true in early March is no longer true … I don’t think we’ve hit the point where things have normalized. I don’t know what the new normal is going to be."