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LI theaters are stuck in limbo amid COVID-19 crisis

The newly renovated historic Argyle Theatre on Main

The newly renovated historic Argyle Theatre on Main Street in the Village of Babylon. Credit: Newsday/Lorina Capitulo

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The Argyle Theatre in Babylon was just capping off its second season with a new production of “Cabaret” when New York state began seeing its first fatalities from the coronavirus. After just four shows, the venue closed its doors March 15. The full-time staff of roughly 10 were furloughed and the theater now sits dark.

“It’s a very bizarre feeling being in that big building with no lights on, no people, no energy,” said Dylan Perlman, who co-owns the Argyle with his father, Mark, and hopes to relaunch the production as soon as possible. “You walk in and you see this beautiful ‘Cabaret’ set, almost as if it’s waiting.”

The Argyle isn’t the only local entertainment venue stuck in limbo. Across Long Island, theaters, nightclubs and cinemas have been shuttered under state mandates designed to stem the spread of the pandemic. With their income streams shut off, some venues, such as the Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts, have let their employees go. And though no one can say when it will be safe to re-open, many venues are staying optimistic and making plans for a future that they hope will not be too far away.

“We don’t have a solid timeline,” Perlman said. “What will be the legal point in time when the local politicians and health officials say, ‘Okay, open back up?’ And will the appetite be there for that?”

At The Gateway in Bellport, executive artistic director Paul Allan said hewrapped up a production of “Murder on the Orient Express” in mid-March and closed his doors but kept his full-time staff of 11 (though some part-time employees have been let go). Most of his time has been spent rescheduling canceled productions, but Allen said he also applied for the federal payroll protection loan and recently marshalled his staff to apply at the last minute for a local grant.

“It was exciting having five people on my staff help put this grant proposal together in a fairly short amount of time,” Allen said. “If we get it, that’s an extra $20,000 we can certainly use.”

The stage is also dark at Port Jefferson’s Theatre Three, where the whole staff has been furloughed, according to executive artistic director Jeffrey Sanzel. “Everybody will come back when we re-open,” he said. “Whether that’s in a month or longer, we don’t know.” Sanzel also said he has told the cast of “Steel Magnolias,” which had been scheduled to open the first weekend of April, that their parts will be waiting for them if and when the show is relaunched.

Meantime, Sanzel, who is also an acting instructor, has been offering online monologue classes for free. “This is the first time in 30 years that I’m not in rehearsal,” Sanzel said. “This is just something I’m offering people to fill the time and to offer to the theater community.”

At Northport’s John W. Engeman Theater, producing artistic director Richard Dolce is still showing up to work. “Every day I come into the office and I just make schedules that say: Well, if we open May 1.. If we open June 1… If we open July 1,” he said. “We’re just figuring out what to do and how we have to do it.”

The Engeman’s last production, “Million Dollar Quartet,” closed March 8. Dolce said his full-time staff has been kept on at 50% pay, while many part-time employees have been furloughed. Like other performing arts venues, the Engeman is applying for federal payroll protection money, which Dolce hopes to put toward back pay for as many of his staff as possible.

“However many weeks they were at 50%, then we can retroactively make them whole,” Dolce said. As for part-timers, Dolce said he is putting together a spread sheet to figure out what they might have earned during a production of “Sister Act” that had to be canceled. “We’re concerned about them as well,” he said.

Laura Mogul, executive director of Port Washington’s Landmark on Main Street, said she has optimistically scheduled her first post-coronavirus concert for July 15 – the upbeat rock band Carbon Leaf. “We’re still actively booking shows into late August,” said Mogul, who has retained her staff of seven full-time and part-time employees. “We’re keeping everybody busy with the work that has to be done to prepare for the good things that are to come.”

Rock fans may not need to worry about My Father’s Place at the Roslyn Hotel, the Roslyn supper club run by Michael “Eppy” Epstein. Though he told his employees to collect unemployment, and he himself is not drawing any salary, “I’m probably in a better position than most,” Epstein said. Though he isn’t making money from concerts, he explained, he isn’t losing money either, since the venue is part of The Roslyn Hotel.

“It’s sitting there quietly waiting for us to turn it on. And if we don’t turn it on, it doesn’t cost anything,” Epstein said. “We’ll start booking July, August and Sept. And if this mess clears up before that, we’ll put some stuff in in June.”

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