On March 13, 2020, ticket holders to “Lucha Libre and Laughs” at the 800-person capacity Oriental Theater were sent a message that many other Denver entertainment-goers had received that week: the event had been cancelled.
The COVID-19 pandemic was just days away from being recognized as a public health crisis, and news reports about quarantines, closures, infections, and deaths were swirling around the nation. Oriental Theater co-owner Scott Happel said he was on his way back from Santa Fe, NM when he and his team realized that COVID-19 was here to stay.
“We made the call Friday morning (the 13th) to shut down, so we didn’t have any shows that weekend,” he said. “And then Monday is when everything was shut down by the State.”
Come July, music venue restrictions were eased, and by August the Oriental was holding smaller weekly shows as part of their “Safe Sound Series.” While these 50-person, socially-distanced seated shows were a far cry from the multiple full capacity shows they were hosting on a near-daily basis in years past, it was just enough to keep their doors relatively open. “What I’ve taken to saying a lot over the past year is, ‘It’s not about making money, it’s about losing less money,’” said Happel.
After music venues were shut down again in October, Happel launched a “Friend of the O” fundraiser, which raised $50,000 through the sale of branded t-shirts, buttons, stickers, and general donations. This helped them get through November, December, and most of January.
Despite it all, the Oriental is not going away anytime soon. In January, the City once again eased restrictions on the beloved music venue, which is now legally allowed to have 100-person socially-distanced seated shows based on the City’s Social Distancing Calculator.
The Oriental is filling up their event calendar with local musicians who are thrilled to be back on the stage. Happel also expects the City’s social distancing rule to be removed this summer, for the venue to increase to 50 percent capacity, and for national touring acts to take the stage as soon as this Fall.
The Oriental may have gotten lucky due to its sheer size, name recognition, and diehard community support. But other venues, such Tennyson’s Local 46, have taken a different approach to navigating the pandemic. Instead of looking outward, Local 46 co-owner Niya Gingerich decided to look inward.
Equipped with one of the largest beer gardens in the city, the venue shut its doors in March and stayed closed for nearly an entire year. During this time, their landlord was under contract with a real estate developer who wanted to buy Local 46’s property, as well as some adjacent lots. However, Local 46’s lease was about to expire and Gingerich felt that the development deal, coupled with the pandemic, created an ideal moment to rethink the business.
“Our original ten-year lease would have been expiring this year anyway,” she said. “The timing all lined up” to live out what she called Local 46’s “final season” before moving the entire operation from 4586 Tennyson Street to 3890 W 38th Avenue under a new name, Local 38.
While Local 46 has remained closed, her current landlord has allowed them to keep all of their equipment onsite and even approved them for a short-term lease, from April to October, to do a “popup reopening” for the summer.
Local 46 recently applied with the City for an outdoor cabaret license so they can do as many live performances as possible before moving into their new location in November. “That gives us a little more time to build out Local 38, which we are in the beginning process of permitting and planning and all of that,” said Gingerich. “We really want to recreate everything we had going at Local 46.”
There will be some changes though. Unlike Local 46, Local 38 will not have any outdoor shows due to the conditions of the Board of Adjustment’s approval for the new build-out. Gingerich cited the City’s concern for the new venue’s residential neighbors. They will still have a beer garden, but no outdoor live music.
If everything goes according to plan, Gingerich plans on hosting five nights of live music at Local 38 starting this November. The indoor shows will be capped at 70 with current social distancing guidelines. In the meantime, Local 46 fans can enjoy the venue’s final outdoor shows all summer.
“I think that music will be back on a larger scale in the Fall […] but I think that even in the Summer you’ll see some shows come back under local guidelines,” said Brandy Sachen, the city director of Sofar Sounds, a popup concert community in Denver with a global presence.
Known for throwing unconventional concerts in living rooms, cafes, and rooftops, Sofar Sounds has halted all live shows in Denver for nearly a year. But Sachen thinks outdoor spaces, even in the colder months, will be key for keeping the music alive.
“One thing that I’ve really enjoyed is watching venues and watching business get creative. Like really having to adapt to keeping business running in winter in outdoor spaces,” she said, continuing that heated tents and chic igloos are likely here to stay since “they aren’t scaring people off.”
Prior to the pandemic, Sofar Sounds was hosting more than 25 shows per month around Denver. They have not yet announced when live, in-person shows would return, but they have dedicated many resources to live-streamed concerts, as well as cash grants to Denver musicians whose livelihoods have been jeopardized by the concert restrictions.
The pandemic, however, has created new opportunities for emerging Denver artists. Platt Park resident Micki Balder used her time during the pandemic to lean into her musical aspirations and record and release her first single, “Land to Build a Home On.”
“Debuting as an artist during COVID has been fun and weird and hard,” said Balder. “I feel like all this free time has allowed me to really dive into recording, and given me the brain space to start thinking a little more seriously about my music and where I want to go with it.”
Balder would like to have an album release show once she finishes her full EP, but there is no certainty around the timing as she, and music lovers, wait to see what happens later this year.
“I’ve been so impressed by how our scene has banded together to support each other, to support our venues, to keep music going in whatever way we can, and my hope is that we all come out of this even more appreciative of what great local music we have here in Denver.”
Jon Amar, a North Denver resident, covers music for The Denver North Star. His career has taken him from the halls of the U.S. House of Representatives as a speechwriter to the local startup scene as a technology entrepreneur. He was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and graduated cum laude from California State University, Long Beach with a B.S. in Political Science.
Editor’s Note: Thanks for reading our new column focused on music and entertainment in North Denver. As venues begin to open again, we’ll expand our coverage to keep you in the know!