With the first shutdown came panic.
"I know everybody is freaking out," Blues musician Marquise Knox said in March.
"A lot of people are already giving up, and we’ve just started. If it’s like this already, imagine what it’s gonna be like next week.”
Knox was right. The coronavirus pandemic had barely reached the Midwest, but concert tours were canceled. Theater productions dropped one by one, and libraries announced closings — for a week or two, they said.
Livestreaming, which is nothing new, has become the primary way artists are staying viable and visible these days.
Knox had practice with livestreaming music, and throughout 2020, other St. Louis artists, entertainers and institutions realized that transforming their platforms — their livelihoods — could be the only way to survive.
Restaurants were still in business in March, but by the end of December, more than 50 desperate local establishments had closed. The pandemic didn't just mean more curbside service — it meant loss. Real tragedy.
Yet some venues had adapted — or at least were less likely to freak out, as Knox said.
When St. Louis County officials again closed indoor dining in November, Katie Collier of Katie's Pizza & Pasta Osteria said that "we kind of sensed that this was coming. And so we were really ready this time.
"And we've also had eight months of doing this."
Eight months of trying to earn a living, stay healthy, reassure patrons that buying a pizza wouldn't send them to the hospital.
By the end of 2020, St. Louis' entertainment, dining and artistic venues had closed, opened and closed again — some for good (including the beloved Children's Zoo). Others thanked the community for support as they sold books by mail or FaceTime, performed online or set up yet another Zoom event.
As the new year arrived, along with vaccines to help beat the coronavirus, St. Louisans could hope that theater seasons might return, art museums again highlight traveling exhibitions and musicians return to stages before live audiences. The Muny optimistically released a summer schedule for the new year.
But it was still unknown for many whether the coronavirus and its ongoing months of death and disease would mean only temporary change for St. Louis institutions — or whether the pandemic had required transformation, even inflicted tragedy.
Here are some of the big headlines from the year of arts and entertainment in St. Louis.
The St. Louis Art Museum opened "Millet and Modern Art" in February after a decade of discussions and planning. With borrowed paintings by Van Gogh, Dali, Cezanne and others, many brought from Europe, the exhibition let St. Louisans view works that had never been seen here before. A decade of preparation was upended though when the museum shut down in March. But when it reopened, the exhibition was extended through the summer, in part because there was no good way to transport the masterpieces back to their homes. Meanwhile, two planned exhibitions were delayed until at least 2021, and curators scrambled to mount a dense exhibition in the fall featuring German works from the museum's extensive collection.
Likewise, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis and the Sheldon Concert Hall and Art Galleries delayed some of their plans, with CAM putting the Great Rivers Biennial artists' work on display a few months after originally scheduled. Also at CAM, a "shanty" built in January 2020 by artist Derek Fordjour later became the setting for visitors to discuss how the pandemic affected their perception of artwork.
In reaction to social justice protests after George Floyd's death in Minneapolis at the hands of police, a new group, PaintedBlack STL, sought donations to pay Black artists who created murals on boarded-up windows. Individual artists also continued their work but knew that with galleries shut down and buyers worried about the economy, sales could be slow. The Regional Arts Commission lost much of its funding, which comes from hotel taxes. But in August, it raised enough to help artists with more than $500,000 in grants. "Over 73% of the recipients lost more than 75% of their income due to COVID-19," RAC stated.
The literary world opened the year with a controversy over Oprah's Book Club pick "American Dirt" by Jeanine Cummins, a story about a Mexican woman and her son trying to escape a drug cartel by sneaking across the U.S. border. Chicano writers berated the publishing industry for giving them little support while paying a reported million bucks to a New York novelist with no Mexican background. Cummins' St. Louis visit, then her entire tour, was soon called off amid debates over whether racist publishers or cancel culture was at fault.
Just a few weeks later, virtually all book tours were canceled and book publication dates rescheduled as printing, distribution and marketing were all affected by the pandemic. Left Bank Books and others quickly pivoted to author talks on Facebook Live or Zoom. Most local library systems shut their doors in March, then had limited reopenings in June, only to close again in November as virus infections soared.
Book tours have gone virtual during pandemic, allowing for intimate connections and expanded reach.
Ironically, however, nationwide sales of books actually benefited from dismaying events: school closures, protests over racism and White House controversies. Titles that aided homeschooling parents, discussed Black history and dished dirt on President Donald Trump all climbed the bestseller lists. As Trump refused to acknowledge he'd been defeated by President-elect Joe Biden, New York publishers continued to buy manuscripts about the lame-duck president's final days.
Overall book sales didn't mean local bookstores were comfortably in the black, even as they worked hard to fill online orders and offer curbside pickup. "Staff is exhausted, and we feel as if we are working five times harder for every dollar," Holland Saltsman, owner of the Novel Neighbor, said by email. But like many, she remained grateful for community support.
Fairs and festivals
Most annual festivals that draw big crowds were canceled, from the Mother's Day art fair at Laumeier Sculpture Park and the St. Louis Art Fair in Clayton to St. Louis PrideFest downtown and Cinco de Mayo on Cherokee Street. Many organizers made alternate plans for virtual events or livestreams.
The Fourth of July was quieter in 2020, as the usual list of fireworks displays and parties dwindled to just a few. Fair St. Louis at Gateway Arch National Park was canceled, but musicians including Jake's Leg and Chingy performed as part of a virtual "Fair St. Louis @ Home" event.
The Greater St. Louis Book Fair canceled its April event, initially rescheduling for June. The new date, too, would be canceled. The St. Louis Jewish Book Festival cut back some of its author lineup but continued with a one-week schedule of talks online.
The St. Louis International Film Festival, St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase, Classic French Film Festival and St. Louis Jewish Film Festival were presented virtually, allowing viewers to stream featured movies from home — a familiar pandemic pastime.
The St. Louis Zoo announced in August that it would close its Children's Zoo, home of nibbling goats, energetic naked mole rats and squeaking guinea pigs. The children's area had survived for more than 50 years, but social distancing required by the pandemic contributed to its closure. Zoo president Jeffrey Bonner called it a "heart-wrenching decision." A temporary dinosaur exhibit was scheduled to take its place in spring.
Another, smaller landmark met a quieter demise. The Christopher Columbus statue, unveiled in Tower Grove Park in 1886, was carted off in mid-June before the park reopened to vehicle traffic. It was one of many monuments across the country — criticized as symbols of exploitation — removed from public view as social justice protesters filled streets. Later in June, demonstrators clashed outside the St. Louis Art Museum over an iconic statue of King Louis IX, the city's namesake.
The Missouri Botanical Garden broke ground in February on a $92 million visitor center, just before the pandemic shutdown. By the end of the year, a temporary visitor center was opened, and the garden even held its popular Garden Glow holiday event. A new project was announced in Forest Park, which plans to open a 17-acre nature playscape in spring 2021.
The Missouri History Museum delayed "Beyond the Ballot" until August but extended the suffrage exhibit until March 2022.
It might have been the Rolling Stones' last visit to St. Louis. But when the band's June concert was postponed, fans were left holding $200 tickets and wondering whether the show would be rescheduled. Likewise for other big events, from Rage Against the Machine to Justin Bieber.
Some tours were on hold for months. Billie Eilish, who was supposed to be at Enterprise Center on March 28, finally announced in December that her tour wouldn't happen and ticketholders would receive refunds.
Many musicians had decided to livestream performances, transforming them into intimate shows. “It’s about exposure and momentum,” Cara Louise said. Like some musicians and other performers realized, Facebook may not bring ticket sales, but it wasn't limited only to viewers in St. Louis.
Some bands did set up in parking lots, and by December, the Pageant offered a pared-down series of its annual El Monstero holiday shows, many of which sold out.
Rapper Nelly, whose "Country Grammar" album celebrated its 20th anniversary, surprised fans with his game performances on "Dancing With the Stars," achieving a respectable third-place finish.
Classical musicians and singers also had to cancel live performances, with St. Louis Symphony Orchestra music director Stéphane Denève’s planned woman-centric season put on hold. But driveway and pop-up concerts brought music to eager audiences. Smaller, distanced concerts returned in October, briefly, to Powell Hall.
For the holiday season, the Bach Society of St. Louis sold tickets to its virtual concert, the SLSO offered free video performances and Winter Opera St. Louis performed at Dominic's on the Hill.
The goal for most area restaurants was just to stay afloat. Elegant mainstays such as Sidney Street Café decided in April to forgo rabbit porchetta and instead offer pot roast for curbside pickup.
Mission Taco Joint also offered pickup and delivery but early on furloughed several hundred employees at six locations. Later, it created taco kits and the makings for margaritas to go.
Stone Soup Cottage in Cottleville delivered three-course dinners, candle and linens included. “I think that hard times spur creativity in a lot of people,” owner Carl McConnell said.
Although diners were often eager to book outdoor tables, especially on patios with heaters, bouts of cold weather frightened off those unwilling to brave 30-degree evenings. At Olio, owner Ben Poremba set up greenhouses on the patio so diners can eat outside during colder months.
Many restaurants could not survive shutdowns or limits on the number of patrons allowed indoors. Although not all closures were attributed to the pandemic, many were, including the 80-year-plus run of Cousin Hugo's Bar & Grill in Maplewood.
Restaurant critic Ian Froeb counted more than 50 locally owned establishments that closed in 2020, including Mangia Italiano on South Grand Boulevard. It had served the neighborhood for more than four decades, but posted on Facebook: “While we have fought hard to weather this storm that is affecting us all, unfortunately we are unable to go on."
Any accounting of this year's restaurant closures must begin and end with the coronavirus pandemic. Since March, the pandemic has forced resta…
Television and movies
Bare-chested, beer-drinking bros provided some distraction when a goofy reality series, "The Busch Family Brewed," began airing on MTV in early March. Set on the 700-acre estate of Billy and Christi Busch near St. Louis, shenanigans including bar dancing and potato sack races suddenly seemed as odd as leaving the house without a fresh face mask.
Initial pandemic shutdowns closed movie theaters, with national chains AMC and Marcus reopening multiplex locations starting in the fall. Locally owned theaters such as the Chase Park Plaza Cinemas and MX Movies remain closed until further notice. The quirky Moolah Theatre, known for its comfy, leather couches, closed its doors permanently.
Streaming services were among the pandemic's beneficiaries. Netflix was a big winner, adding 28 million subscribers through the first nine months of the year, the Associated Press reported. One movie that ended up there (although not to the St. Louis-born filmmaker's surprise) was an indie project made in St. Louis, "The Ghost Who Walks." Director Cody Stokes said, “I wanted to make something that is not for my city, but with my city.”
Later in the year, the Emmy Awards adapted to pandemic-era broadcast requirements with the help of East St. Louis native Reginald Hudlin, the show's executive producer. His crew sent cameras to every nominee's location around the world to catch them when a winner was announced: “The scope of what we are doing is insane,” Hudlin said. He also directed "Safety," a Disney+ movie released in December that features St. Louis native Hunter Sansone.
“The plague shut down the London theaters at least three times while Shakespeare was writing,” Tom Ridgely, producing artistic director of the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, said in April. The Bard responded once by writing an epic poem and having it published.
The festival's own Shakespearian pivot was to broadcast short, original plays on Zoom and offer on Facebook a weekly review show of Shakespeare-inspired movies. Its major live production of "Much Ado About Nothing" in Forest Park was postponed until August, then rescheduled again for 2021.
The pandemic devastated every local theater's schedule and season, inflicting financial losses for an art form meant to be communal. Across the country, more actors, dancers and musicians were out of work than servers or cooks, said the New York Times, citing the National Endowment for the Arts.
"In many areas, arts venues — theaters, clubs, performance spaces, concert halls, festivals — were the first businesses to close, and they are likely to be among the last to reopen," the Times reported.
Nationally, the U.S. arts economy contributed $877 billion in 2017 to the country's GDP (more than sports, construction or transportation). This includes not just major publishers and filmmakers, but all local arts organizations in myriad towns and cities.
In St. Louis, theaters were among the hardest hit arts groups. The Muny canceled its full 2020 season — a first in the 102-year-old theater's history — but presented a successful series of livestreams featuring special performances and archive footage of previous shows.
The annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis transformed itself with radio performances and conversations.
Opera Theatre of St. Louis also called off its festival season and instead presented virtual Tent Talks, an Opera Movie Club and Spotlight on Opera programs. “This has forced us to embrace new technologies in a way that we had never done before,” general director Andrew Jorgensen said in July. In May, OTSL worked with other local arts organizations to support the Regional Arts Commission with "Arts United," a virtual benefit.
Overall, the outlook for 2021 varied, with the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis planning to return to the stage in May, at COCA's new Catherine B. Berges Theatre. The Muny tentatively plans to begin its 103rd season in July, presenting the seven postponed musicals from 2020.
But Stray Dog Theatre artistic director Gary F. Bell didn't expect to put on live shows until fall, posing the question all were probably thinking:
Do virtual productions have a future once COVID-19 is a thing of the past? Or will artists be only too happy to refocus their energies on the stage?