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COVID & the Arts: Circa Reopening Delayed

Circa 21 Dinner Playhouse

Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse will stay closed until this fall.

Owner and Producer Denny Hitchcock has announced Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse in Rock Island will remain closed until this fall, since it cannot financially absorb losses due to the latest Illinois re-opening guidelines. On June 26, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced the new guidelines for indoor theaters would allow for reopening at a 50-percent capacity, or 50 guests, whichever is lesser. Hitchcock said recently that despite the fact his table seating in the 334-seat theater is clearly that of a restaurant rather than traditional theater seating, Circa was informed that all theaters in Illinois would be treated the same.

Credit Circa 21 Dinner Playhouse
Denny Hitchcock

Canceling their planned productions of “Saturday Night Fever,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Guys & Dolls” was the most difficult decision the owner has had to make in Circa’s 43-year history. “Guys & Dolls” is expected to be rescheduled for next year. 

The theater has been closed since mid-March, reopening only June 21st for an outdoor “Music on the Marquee” event that sold out 142 seats within 24 hours. Circa plans to reopen with the comedy “Savannah Sipping Society” – which has just four actors and originally planned for this summer. 
The Circa ’21 Speakeasy next door, which has a 125-seat capacity, will be able to re-open with a 50-person maximum.

Brett Hitchcock, director of audience development, says Circa has talked with Rock Island Mayor Mike Thoms and State Rep. Mike Halpin to help the theater get re-classified as a restaurant with the state.

“The fact that we did not get re-classified does not mean we’re going to stop trying to get re-
classified. We’re still working with Mike Thoms on the city level, and we’re gonna get back with Halpin and possibly Neil Anderson as well on the state level and try to continue to work on getting us re-classified. “Cause it really is an unfair situation for us.”

The dinner theater had aimed to reopen July 7, with a comprehensive health and safety plan in place they worked on for months – to protect the actors, guests and staff. Circa expected to come back with plated table service and no more buffet style dinners.

“We were set to go; we had everything situated with the food. We had everything worked out. We had gone beyond what the CDC wanted and the state wanted, again feeling really good that we were gonna be able to reopen. We got a big slap in the face on Friday morning (June 26), when they called in and said you’ve been denied and the governor’s office said they’re going to keep all theaters in the state the same, which is not fair at all – because we’re being lumped in with everyone else, like around here the Adler, which brings in big touring shows.”

Hitchcock says in 1977, when Circa opened, the state treasurer said that half of the ticket price would be taxed at rates for food and beverage, and half from the show. And it's  been taxed that way for 43 years, but not classified as a restaurant. And he's frustrated that Jumer’s Casino in Rock Island was able to open July 1 at 50-percent capacity, but not nearly as low a patron maximum.

Brett Hitchcock says they’ve contacted their 2,000 season-ticket holders and have had an amazingly supportive response from many, noting many would not ask for a refund. Those who had a reservation for “Saturday Night Fever,” “Beauty and The Beast,” “Guys and Dolls,” upcoming concerts, or spring and summer children’s shows, the amount they paid has been applied to a Circa’21 credit memo in their customer file. This credit will never expire and can be used on any future reservation.

“The big thing we want people to know is, we are still here and we will still be here. Their
investment in Circa ’21 is a solid investment, and we’re not going anywhere.”

Formerly the arts and entertainment reporter for The Dispatch/Rock Island Argus and Quad-City Times, Jonathan Turner now writes freelance for WVIK and QuadCities.com. He has experience writing for daily newspapers for 32 years and has expertise across a wide range of subject areas, including government, politics, education, the arts, economic development, historic preservation, business, and tourism. He loves writing about music and the arts, as well as a multitude of other topics including features on interesting people, places, and organizations. He has a passion for accompanying musicals, singers, choirs, and instrumentalists. He even wrote his own musical based on The Book of Job, which premiered at Playcrafters in 2010. He wrote a 175-page history book about downtown Davenport, which was published by The History Press in 2016. Turner was honored in 2009 to be among 24 arts journalists nationwide to take part in a 10-day fellowship offered by the National Endowment for the Arts in New York City on classical music and opera, based at Columbia University’s journalism school.