October 30, 2020 | By Eric Snider
The Palladium Theater is presenting live shows in new ways
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The Palladium is back in the game. After months of planning and a couple of postponements, the downtown St. Pete venue resumed programming with three shows in October. Six concerts are scheduled for November.
The Palladium staff managed this feat through astute planning and a uniquely suited venue. Essentially, shows by locally-based acts that would ordinarily have played the Side Door — the building’s small, cabaret-style room that’s set up with tables — are now playing Hough Hall, the main, theater-style room. “We took the 181 tickets that we can sell at the Side Door and moved it to a space with 831 seats,” explains Paul Wilborn, the Palladium’s executive director. “We spread people out and put six feet between groups.”
Hough Hall has not been reconfigured with tables. Instead, concertgoers sit in fixed seats in groups, which are cordoned off for social distancing. Masks are required. Wilborn says he prefers that people purchase group tickets, but Hough Hall has enough room and seats to accommodate couples and even singles. It’s probably the only venue that can do so, and do so safely.
The Palladium’s last concert was a swing dance gig on March 7. In late May, Wilborn and his braintrust started batting around ways to open. They weren’t alone. Other concert presenters were wrestling with how to re-introduce programming in a safe, socially distanced way. They were tired of being idle, frustrated at venues being dark. As the pandemic slowed down a bit, and state and local coronavirus rules eased, promoters got busy. The logistics were tricky. How to configure the venue for social distancing? With potential audience numbers drastically reduced, how could they make the numbers work?
Ruth Eckerd Hall scheduled 38 Special for July 24 but ultimately canceled. The show has been rescheduled for December 9. Jannus Live booked The Wailers for July 25 but ultimately thought better of it and pulled the concert. One independent promoter even explored booking shows in some Central Florida drive-in theaters, with audiences in and around their cars, but found the production costs so high that he didn’t bother.
The Palladium was better positioned. Because the venue is owned by St. Petersburg College, the monetary stakes for each show are not as high as for an independent promoter. Wilborn says the venue gets no subsidies from the college and routinely turns an annual profit, but he has the advantage of not paying rent and a lot of other expenses.
The venue’s primary edge in reopening was its programming model. “We’ve built an audience around presenting great local performers,” Wilborn says. That means paying smaller performance fees, not having to set up overnight accommodations, meals and transportation for artists, and other ad hoc expenses. (The Palladium mixes in shows by touring acts, but none are slated or expected to be booked for quite some time.)
Wilborn says he can stage a concert by a local act for a total cost of under $3,000. He pays the acts more than fairly — in the $1,600 to $2,000 range. That’s downright generous when compared to other presenters, especially clubs. It’s gratifying for him to be able to hire musicians again. “We’re using our regular group of performers who we consider to be part of our family,” Wilborn says. “But they are not on the payroll, and it’s great to be able to pay them. They need the money.”
Jazz guitarist Nate Najar played one of the October shows. “It was my first time on a real stage with an audience since the pandemic,” he says. “I savored every minute of it. And I’m so glad we were in Hough Hall. There’s a feeling of reverence being on that big stage. I spent most of my adult life on stages like that and to not do it feels like part of you is missing.”
Najar said he was initially aware of the reconfigured seating in the auditorium, but it ultimately didn’t matter. “You can really only see for the first five rows, and the sound of the applause was not diminished by the size of the audience,” he says. “Plus, my guitar — I play a classical guitar — sounds huge in Hough Hall. Warm, enveloping, like an alpaca-lined bomber jacket.”
Back in May, Wilborn had originally hoped to resume programming in August. “I went away for a week, came back and Florida had gone crazy,” he says, referring to a spike in pandemic cases. “Pinellas County got really serious with mask ordinances. In September, the positivity rate was very low, under 5 percent, which is kind of my magic number. So we booked shows in October based on ‘let’s do three and see what we learn.’”
Wilborn discovered that the public had an appetite for live music and was willing to attend under proper safety protocols. “We were pleased with the sales,” he says, adding that Najar sold out and the other two shows moved around 150 tickets. “Only one couple didn’t feel safe and asked for a refund. We got a lot of good feedback about the experience.”
The current Palladium concerts don’t have intermissions and patrons are escorted directly to their seats, which tempers pre-show crowds in the lobby. Concessions and restrooms are open but customers do not have to wait in long lines. “These are much tougher productions than we’ve done before,” Wilborn says. “Under these conditions, doing five, six shows a month is harder than the five or six shows a week we were doing before — but we’re glad to have the opportunity.”
Wilborn is keeping a close eye on pandemic trends. “If the numbers get really hot we’ll have to pull back,” he says. “We’re doing one month at a time. I’ve only issued [performance] contracts for November.”
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Find The Palladium’s event schedule here.
The Palladium offered a series of livestreamed concerts in October.
Read about that project here.
Jazz concerts recorded at The Palladium now air monthly on WUSF 89.7 FM.
Find the schedule and recordings here.