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COVID & the Arts: Circa Closed for Holidays

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Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse in Rock Island planned to open its new holiday show on November 11th, but like many things this year, that’s canceled until 2021.

For the first time in its history, Circa will be closed during the holiday season (until mid-January) to comply with Illinois’ ban on indoor dining, which took effect Nov. 4, because of rising Covid-19 cases. It’s a crushing blow to the theater staff and patrons, according to Circa owner and producer Denny Hitchcock.

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Credit Circa 21 Dinner Playhouse
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Circa owner and producer Denny Hitchcock

"It’s a terrific script and perfect for this time. That’s why it was so difficult for all of us to shut down, because we got it to the Friday before we would have gone into a performance the following Wednesday. It was not only the perfect show, but the perfect sized show under the circumstance. It was a cast of 8 as opposed to 17 or 18.”

Before the pandemic hit, they planned to do “A Christmas Story,” which had a much bigger cast and would be expensive to obtain rights, so Hitchcock asked head Bootlegger Brad Hauskins to adapt his smaller “Winter Wonderland,” which Circa did in 2000.The dinner theater appealed the state’s decision to deny re-classifying Circa as a restaurant, with the support of several state lawmakers, as well as Congresswoman Cheri Bustos. Unlike restaurants, theaters in Illinois must limit patron capacity to 50 percent or 50 people, whichever is less. Circa could have avoided the dining ban by discontinuing food service, but that’s not what they do, Hitchcock says. There isn’t any dinner theater category.

“Our business doesn’t exist in the guidelines for Covid-19 in the state of Illinois. We are a bar, we are a restaurant, we are a theater. But we are not a bar, a restaurant, or a theater. Theater is the only category in the state of Illinois where the number of people who can attend or be in your business, is dictated by a number – an arbitrary number of 50, as opposed to a percentage. It is partially a percentage – it’s 50 people or 50 percent, whichever is less.”

For restaurants, the tables have to be six feet apart. And Hitchcock doesn’t understand why casinos are able to stay open, other than the tax revenue generated for the state. Circa was closed from March 16 to Sept. 9, when the four-person play “Savannah Sipping Society” opened, and closed Nov. 7.
In other states, several dinner theaters have been classified as restaurants, he says, noting Rock Island Mayor Mike Thoms changed Circa’s liquor license to that of a restaurant.

"We’ve got about 5,200 square feet in the theater and when it opened as a movie theater-vaudeville house in 1921, it could seat 864 people in the space where we can seat 50. We just want to be treated fairly – like restaurants and bars have distances and percentages. They don’t have a raw number.”

He says they looked into doing “Winter Wonderland” virtually, but it didn’t make sense financially.

“It would have cost a few more thousand dollars just to get the show ready. The set wasn’t completed yet. The load-out of ‘Savannah Sipping Society’ would have to be done; the load-in, plus getting the lights designed.”

There would also be costs of getting it filmed and online, and they didn’t think that there was a potential of making back the extra money they’d have to spend. It’s frustrating not to be open for the holiday season for the first time in theater history.

“Our first holiday season was in 1977 and we haven’t missed any. Of course, we missed a few performances here and there because of weather. We missed a month because of a fire. But we’ve never missed an entire season, and this is gonna end up being about seven or eight months total out of the 12 that we’ll be shut down.“We’re lucky that we got in ‘Savannah Sipping Society,’ so our subscribers had the opportunity to see three of the six shows.”“Winter Wonderland” will be done at the same time next year.Hitchcock is happy that many ticket-holders and subscribers asked for credit (toward future shows, with no expiration date) than refunds.

“It’s frustrating for us, because this will be our 44th Christmas, and we know lots of people have a tradition, that they bring their families here for the holidays. We love to see that, the same people coming back every year. It’s really disappointing not to have that here and not be able to perform and serve those people.”For more information, call Circa at 309-786-7733, ext. 2 or visit circa21.com.

A native of Detroit, Herb Trix began his radio career as a country-western disc jockey in Roswell, New Mexico (“KRSY, your superkicker in the Pecos Valley”), in 1978. After a stint at an oldies station in Topeka, Kansas (imagine getting paid to play “Louie Louie” and “Great Balls of Fire”), he wormed his way into news, first in Topeka, and then in Freeport Illinois.