The Heart of Newberry: Opera house ready to push in new directions after weathering COVID


This story was originally published in the Lake Murray edition of the Chronicle's Lakeside magazine for summer 2023.

It’s no secret that COVID-19 hit the live music industry hard.

In October 2020, which turned out to be early in the course of the pandemic, a survey of venue owners conducted by the National Independent Venue Association found that nearly 90 percent of those surveyed said they would have to close permanently within months if they didn’t get a boost from federal relief funding.

The live music industry ultimately did get some federal help, and while the toll was felt with venue closings nationwide, a look around the local entertainment landscape shows reasons to be hopeful as life settles into a new normal.

The White Mule, which tried to return an independent rock club to Columbia’s college-adjacent Five Points neighborhood, didn’t survive. But West Columbia’s long-standing rock dive New Brookland Tavern, the position of which in the city’s rapidly redeveloping River District has frequently felt precarious, is as busy as it’s ever been.

And one particularly beautiful Midlands venue is thankfully still with us, though the journey wasn’t easy. 

The city-owned Newberry Opera House, which rightly describes itself as the heart of the municipality’s downtown, wasn’t immune to the impacts of the pandemic.

The 400-capacity building has been around a while. Constructed in 1881, it’s been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1969. Operated in its current form by the Newberry Opera House Foundation, the cross-disciplinary performance space frequently gets bigger acts than you’d expect for a small room in a small town of about 10,000.

Paul Thorn, Ruben Studdard, Edwin McCain, Robert Earl Keen, and Sister Hazel have all played the room in recent years.

And entering March 2020, things were going pretty good.

“Our momentum was insane,” Executive Director Anne Pinckney Smith told Lakeside. “We were having our best year ever.”

The timing of COVID and the shuttering that it forced at venues across the country wasn’t disastrous for the Opera House. The venue was three-fourths through its season and had raked in a majority of the revenue budgeted for that fiscal year.

But the impacts of the pandemic weren’t short-lived, and the venue’s shutdown stretched through the summer.

“It was the saddest meeting ever,” Smith said of a staff meeting early during the pandemic as they eyed their options for reopening and when that would be able to happen. 

“We’re all about air and germs,” she added, reflecting on the nature of a space that depends on artists who frequently sing loudly in front of packed houses to make ends meet. “We’re the last industry that’s ever going to come back. ... We all sat down and everybody was so scared.”

But then the venue’s technical director slapped his hand down on the table.

“‘Guys, we are not going to fail,’” Smith said, recounting his proclamation. “‘We have been doing this for 23 years, we are not going to fail.’ And at that point, we turned — as an organization, we turned the corner.”

The Opera House had an advantage over many other venues in that the building is owned by the city, which wasn’t about to shutter the main attraction drawing people downtown unless it had no other choice.

“Its renovation and reopening led to the revitalization of Newberry,” Foster Senn, the city’s mayor said.

The venue embarked on its current run in 1998, following a substantial renovation.

“Newberry in the 90s was struggling with the decline of the textile industry and the Opera House, as it was set out to do, became that rallying point,” the mayor continued. “It opening and having all the shows brought lots of people to town, led to new restaurants, new businesses, and that just kind of grew gradually over time. And then, in addition, it brought a revitalization of the town, with new industry, which I would not have expected, but once the town had momentum, industry started paying a little bit more attention.”

But while getting kicked out of the space wasn’t a concern, the venue still needed an infusion of cash. Remaining shuttered through August 2020 and then having to weather days operating at a reduced capacity between 125 and 150, the Opera House couldn’t generate all of the revenue it required.

In this regard, Smith said one of the venue’s weaknesses at the moment the pandemic hit turned out to be a strength. 

Her predecessor as executive director, Molly Fortune, who had served in the position since 2015, left at the beginning of April 2020 for a position in Gov. Henry McMaster’s office. But while Smith, who filled the role in an interim capacity before getting the permanent promotion in January 2023, was inexperienced when it came to leading a nonprofit performance venue, her experience as the Opera House’s development director gave her keen insight into the organization’s financial needs.

“Nobody knew how long COVID was going to last, but I knew that we were going to have to cover the ticket sales that we were going to lose, which was March, April, May, which was a pretty significant time,” she said.

So the Opera House reached out to the community for donations, looking to build up an emergency fund of $125,000 to weather its halted season. Donors ended up giving $175,000.

The federal government kicking in with help buoyed the venue after that, with Paycheck Protection Program funds bolstering it during its second COVID-impacted year and a Shuttered Venues Protection Grant helping it through the third year.

The federal help along with being able to maintain its regular clip of selling out 25% of its shows after reopening kept the Opera House afloat.

Now largely on the other side of its pandemic hurdles, with regular capacity restored, Smith said the COVID difficulties were, in some ways, a blessing in disguise. 

“We’ve always done well and we had a script of how to make it work. And all of the sudden, we had to take that script and we had to throw it,” she said. “And we had time with nothing going on to think about it. To think, ‘Does this work for us? Is this a profitable thing that we do? Is having only one genre of shows, is that where we want to go?’”

So far coming out of the pandemic, the venue has largely maintained the same balance as before when it comes to programming, sprinkling in dance and theater among its touring musical acts. And the mix of musical genres has remained similarly steady, with familiar varieties of country and rock making up the majority of the schedule.

But the Opera House has previously shown a willingness to experiment (famed hip-hop hype man Flavor Flav, boundary-pushing classical outfit Black Violin, hip-hop-spiked bluegrass outfit Gangstagrass all played the room in the few years leading up to the pandemic). And Smith said patrons can look forward to more such swings now that things are opening back up.

And she feels that the venue is in a better position to make big things happen coming out of COVID. More than ever, artists are willing to be flexible on their contracts to come play the Opera House, realizing both the value of making shows happen and the difficulties that independent venues face.

“Before, we were always at the mercy of the talent,” Smith said. “But now, we will talk a little bit more, and they understand more. We're a small house with big plans. We've always been a little, small thing that really wants to be huge and impactful. And so we would call people, and they’d be like, ‘$50,000. This is how much.’ And now they realize, ‘OK, yeah, we can go play Newberry Opera House. We'll just do it in a different way.’ So they call us when they're routing this way. If they need to stop over, they'll say, ‘Hey, let's call Newberry Opera House,’ and then we'll negotiate a better deal for us. And they get paid to slow down their roll into the next location.”

Thus, with the venue set to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its ’90s reopening next season, optimism around the Opera House has been restored.

“It’s really amazing the impact the Newberry Opera House has had in the last 25 years,” Mayor Senn said. “I’m excited to see what’s next.”

newberry opera house, columbia concerts, midlands entertainment venue, sc historic structure


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