Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island, will remain closed until this fall, since it can’t financially absorb losses due to the latest Illinois reopening guidelines, owner/producer Denny Hitchcock announced Wednesday.

On Friday, 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.

“In working with several state officials over the previous weeks, we had been very optimistic that the Phase 4 guidelines for the state of Illinois would put our dinner theatre in the same classification as restaurants and casinos, which would have allowed us to bring you most of the shows remaining in our 43rd season,” Hitchcock posted on Facebook on July 1, the same day Jumer’s Casino in Rock Island reopened.

Circa ’21 during better times, with a capacity crowd.

Casinos were allowed to reopen at 50-percent capacity, with tables at least six feet apart. Seating is reduced at gaming tables and there will be fewer slot machines under the new regulations. Face coverings and health screenings are required for all employees and guests.

There is no set capacity cap for restaurants and bars based on percentage of occupancy or number of people during Phase 4. Seated area capacity of restaurants and bars should be determined by arranging seating with a minimum of six feet between tables or other designated patron service areas.

“Despite the fact the seating of our theater is clearly that of a restaurant, rather than traditional theatre seating, unfortunately, we were informed all theaters would be treated the same,” Hitchcock said. “We cannot tell you how devastated we are that we are unable to open under these current guidelines for Phase 4.

“We are so disappointed that casinos, restaurants, riverboats and fitness centers have all been allowed to reopen with social distancing, but we are not given the same opportunity,” he said. Circa has about 5,000 square feet of patron space to seat 334 guests, separated by tables, “so there is plenty of room for social distancing,” Hitchcock said.

“It was the most difficult decision I have had to make in our 43-year history when I notified the ‘Saturday Night Fever’ cast — which had remained ready since March 16 to bring you a wonderful show — and the cast members of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ along with the entire staff, that those shows have been canceled, and we would not be able to reopen as hoped,” he said.

The decision to remain closed at this time was made all that more difficult since Circa has already been shut since mid-March, reopening only June 21 for an outdoor “Music on the Marquee” event that sold out 142 seats within 24 hours.

Hitchcock said it would be fiscally impossible to do either of the planned large musicals with a restriction of just 50 guests. “We are all eager to get back to work, and it is still our plan to present ‘Savannah Sipping Society’ this fall,” he said. That comedy (originally planned for July 22-Sept. 12) has a cast of only four actors.

Denny Hitchcock

The classic musical “Guys and Dolls” (originally scheduled to open Sept. 16) will be postponed to 2021, and Circa is considering what shows it can do, ideally with smaller casts.

The Circa ’21 Speakeasy next door, which has a 125-seat capacity, will be able to reopen with a 50-person maximum, and its first show will be a drag show July 17, which is nearly sold out, said Brett Hitchcock, director of audience development.

“In the meantime, we will continue to work with our city officials, state officials and state representatives in an effort to get our classification changed or to have the guidelines made equal for all indoor businesses,” Denny Hitchcock wrote.

“We have shared our new seating plan and all the safeguards we have implemented to protect you, our staff and the actors— guidelines that have exceeded the recommendations of the CDC and state regulations — and are still working diligently to get the current arbitrary number of 50 overturned. It is our absolute priority to entertain you in a safe environment.”

Circa has contacted its 2,000 season-ticket holders and they have had an amazingly supportive response from many, Brett Hitchcock said.

Those who had a reservation for “Saturday Night Fever,” “Beauty & The Beast,” “Guys & Dolls,” upcoming concerts or spring and summer children’s shows, the amount you paid has been applied to a Circa’21 credit memo in your customer file. This credit memo will never expire and can be used on any future reservation.

“Please understand, since we will have had no income for five months, asking for refunds at this time will be financially disastrous and would likely cause us to close our doors forever,” Denny Hitchcock wrote. “I’m sure you know how heartbreaking that would be for everyone concerned. So, at this point, we implore you to be patient a little longer and do nothing for now in order for us to recover from this unexpected and disastrous pandemic.”

Working to change the state’s rules

Brett Hitchcock said Circa has talked with Rock Island Mayor Mike Thoms and State Rep. Mike Halpin to help the theater get re-classified as a restaurant.

“The fact that we did not get re-classified does not mean we’re going to stop trying to get re-classified,” Brett said. “It really is an unfair situation for us.”

Last week, he thought there was positive momentum, and Circa planned to reopen July 7, with a comprehensive plan in place they worked on for months – to protect the actors, guests and staff.

“We were set to go; we had everything situated with the food,” Brett said of offering plated table service, and no more buffets. “We had gone beyond what the CDC wanted and the state wanted, feeling really good that we were gonna be able to reopen. We got a big slap in the face Friday morning (June 26), when we got a call that 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.”

Denny and Brett Hitchcock

“We’re not the same, with the food aspect of that, we’re completely different,” he said. 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. “We’ve been taxed that way for 43 years, but we’re not being classified as a restaurant.”

“Saturday Night Fever” and “Beauty and the Beast” have casts of 20 people each, and there’s no way they could pay everyone if they’re only able to seat 50 patrons, Brett said.

“The actors felt really good we were doing everything we could to take care of everyone as much as possible,” he said. “We felt really good about that. From the customer aspect, we had everything in place, a really good plan for that. We were just kind of blindsided, really disappointed.”

He said Illinois casinos able to open at 50-percent capacity “is really frustrating for us.”

“We have the same audience,” Brett said. “I know they have plans in place as well for social distancing. I know the Gaming Board has given them a long list of things they have to do. But it’s really frustrating when we were so set and we had things set as well as we possibly could, in a situation no one’s really been through before, and you’ve got the ‘essential’ businesses like the home-improvement stores, grocery stores, casinos, where social distancing is going to be hard.”

He said many people in stores don’t wear mask, or practice distancing.

“I would argue at this point, entertainment is essential for mind and body,” he said. “with as crazy as things are and as many things are going on in the country, a good evening of entertainment is very important and I think is essential for people. They’re ready to get out and do something, after being stuck in their house.”

An example of that was Circa’s “Music on the Marquee,” which served patrons at tables on 3rd Avenue, and sold out within 24 hours, he said. “We know the audience is there and it’s just heartbreaking that we got basically slapped in the face here and got classified in a way we shouldn’t be classified.”

“The big thing we want people to know is, we are still here and we will still be here,” Brett said. “We’re not going anywhere. Really, from a financial standpoint, we had no choice but to cancel those two shows.”

Many season-ticket holders called Wednesday to say they would forgo seeing half this season’s shows, and not seek refunds, he said.

The actor’s perspective

Circa veteran performer Tristan Tapscott, who was cast in both “Saturday Night Fever” and “Beauty and the Beast” (and organized the performance on the marquee), said Wednesday the Covid pandemic has affected this entire industry at every level. Broadway theaters announced Monday they would not reopen until January 2021 at the earliest.

“From community theater to Broadway… it’s devastating,” Tapscott, who has a young daughter, said. “I know so many lost opportunities in the QCA this summer and I feel for everyone. This hits a little different than a lost summer at other area theatres because it’s how I make my living. This is my livelihood. And it’s gone.

Tristan Tapscott

“And I can’t tell you the next time I’ll be on stage again,” he said. “It’s weird and it’s something I wish I would’ve known back in March when this all began. We thought it would be a few weeks, then a few a months… there were always stage lights at the end of that tunnel… and now?

“Who knows? Even the holiday job I had at another theater has been canceled,” he said. “My life is all about storytelling and I really don’t know when I can be a storyteller again. Sure, I have other gigs: I recently worked on a TV pilot, have some short films coming down the pike… but live storytelling? There is nothing like that high-wire act and who knows when I can return to that?

“It’s an odd thing to be in this moment. As I keep saying… it’s a weird time. This was my REAL job and my reality,” Tapscott said. “Covid has taken that away and I’m not positive what’s next.”

To quote the movie “Armageddon,” ‘I got that excited/scared’ feeling” he said. “Like 98% excited, 2% scared. Or maybe it’s more. It could be, it could be 98% scared, 2% excited but that’s what makes it so intense, it’s so confused. I can’t really figure it out.”

Tapscott also was to play Cogsworth in the beloved Disney musical at Circa, and lost his job as Fred in the Old Creamery Theatre holiday production of “Miracle on 34th Street,” since that also got canceled among the entire 2020 season. “I had a damn good year set,” he said. “But I won’t be on stage again for a long time.”

Circa gift certificate extensions

Circa’s regular Dinner and Show for One or Dinner and Show for Two gift certificate expiration dates will be extended for the length of time the theater is closed. For those guests with Holiday Gift Certificates that were valid for “Saturday Night Fever” or “Beauty and the Beast,” there are three options available:

  • You can exchange it for this year’s Holiday Gift Certificate.
  • You can use it for the mainstage show of your choice.
  • You can exchange the gift certificate for a credit memo in the amount you paid. That credit can be used toward concerts, Speakeasy shows or children’s shows.

For those with children’s gift certificates, “Seussical” and “Grace for President” will be rolled into the 44th season, so you can use them for the show you intended or exchange it for this year’s gift certificate.

Circa ’21 in Rock Island is still waiting to open after several months closed.

“Our goal is to get back to doing what we love and do best — producing Broadway musicals and comedies; presenting special attractions and concerts; and serving delicious meals, drinks and desserts in a beautiful, historic theatre with a friendly and attentive staff — as quickly as possible,” Denny Hitchcock said.

“We can all agree that in our current climate, an evening of good entertainment is essential for mind and body. We will continue to look for alternate ways to bring you the entertainment we so desperately want to provide for you. Another Music on the Marquee event, video cabarets, etc. are all ideas we’ve been brainstorming.”

The Speakeasy will be able to resume with a variety of programming options.

“We’re gonna have to look at some smaller shows for next year,” Brett said of Circa, noting they haven’t firmed up a holiday-season show. “This has been a pretty disastrous year for the company, financially. Not knowing what’s happening, that’s the whole thing with Covid. It’s the great unknown. You don’t know what’s gonna happen.”

“We’re throwing things out there and thinking outside the box again,” he said. “what can we do to stay in front of our guests? Whether it was those viral cabarets we posted on Facebook, or updates as much as we could. We’re back to square one.”

Another marquee show outdoors may happen this summer, Brett added.

Illinois’ last stage of reopening (with safety precautions) will only happen with a vaccine or highly effective treatment widely available, or the elimination of any new cases over a sustained period.

“We can’t thank you enough for your tremendous support in Circa ’21,” Denny said. “Thank you for your time, your patience, and your loyalty. We promise we will be back better than ever…We miss you and are just as anxious as you are to get back to entertaining you, our guests!”

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Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.