OCEANSIDE — One of the hardest-hit sectors during the pandemic is on its way to making a comeback as more people step out of their homes to once again enjoy the arts and entertainment.
For more than a year, the city’s museums, theaters and music venues shifted operations to a virtual setting in an effort to continue producing content. In the meantime, physical venues stayed closed and unused due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions preventing audiences from filling up halls and seats.
When staff finally returned to the historic Sunshine Brooks Theater earlier this summer, sets from the March 2020 hit “Sweet Charity” were still left on stage, almost like there had been a performance recently. The musical had just opened and sold out for its first weekend when a few days later the theater received news that they had to close due to the lockdown.
“It was very crushing for everybody,” said Leann Garms, a board member of the Oceanside Theatre Company (OTC), a resident theater group at the Brooks.
After restrictions lifted in June, the theater was able to reopen its doors after a year’s hiatus for its annual Youth Theater Arts Camp. The camp invites children between 7 and 17 years of age to participate in a several-week-long camp that teaches theater skills like singing, dancing, acting, poetry and choral reading.
Typically the camp lasts four weeks and puts on a full-scale musical, but with the uncertainty around COVID-19 restrictions returning and previous setbacks, OTC held two two-week camps called “Broadway by the Beach.”
The first camp was themed after Broadway heroes and villains and wrapped up in early July. The second camp, which showcased Broadway hits from the 1930s to today, completed its course with performances this past weekend.
“The kids were excited to get back to camp,” said Carol Naegele, OTC Youth Outreach Director. “They were so, so ready.”
Theater patrons have also been eager to begin watching plays and musicals in the theater once again.
“They have just been waiting and clamoring for art,” Garms said.
The Brooks Theater is just one of several art institutions in Oceanside that was heavily impacted by the COVID-19 lockdown. As one of California’s only 14 designated cultural districts, downtown Oceanside is home to various performing and visual arts, diverse cultural backgrounds, cuisine and other handcrafted, artisan goods.
The arts offer a variety of benefits including improved quality of life and opportunities for local residents as well as attractive experiences for visitors.
“Arts and entertainment contribute to Oceanside’s economy by attracting visitors from outside the city who then spend nights in our hotels, eat in our restaurants and shop in our stores,” said Michelle Geller, Economic Development Manager for the city, via email. “Not only does the industry attract visitors from outside, it also provides amenities, activities and a sense of place for locals.”
Visit Oceanside, the city’s destination marketing and management agency, leverages the arts to draw in more tourists as well as businesses and corporations that would want to stay in Oceanside and provide jobs during the travel off-season.
“Our arts and cultural resources really help us tell many more interesting stories about our destination as well as provide richer, more meaningful experiences for our visitors,” said Leslee Gaul, president of Visit Oceanside.
Gaul said 16% of visitor spending was on the arts, entertainment and recreation in Oceanside in 2019.
After receiving the cultural district designation in 2017, the city’s various tourism, arts and economic development agencies came together to promote the arts. An executive committee comprised of the Oceanside Public Library, the Oceanside Museum of Art, Mainstreet Oceanside and Visit Oceanside was formed to oversee the district and a steering committee with 15 members including Garms was formed to direct the district’s work.
According to many of the people involved in the cultural district, the arts are woven into the very fabric of Oceanside.
“When we put in the bid for the cultural district designation, we did so because we saw all of the amazing art assets here and those organizations working so hard to create opportunities for the rest of us,” said CJ DiMento, library division manager who also serves as a liaison on the city’s Arts Commission and sits on the cultural district’s executive committee. “We were looking for a way to really shine a light on those organizations and help them to be successful.”
The Arts Commission also passed the city’s first cultural plan, which places special emphasis on the arts.
“One of the initiatives of that plan is to support the success of the cultural district,” DiMento said.
During the pandemic, the city offered a grant program administered through MainStreet Oceanside to help support businesses impacted by the pandemic. According to Geller, arts-related businesses and non-profits were also able to qualify for up to $7,000 in grants.
“The city also relaxed permitting requirements for outdoor operations, which provided alternatives to arts-related businesses and non-profits,” Geller said.
While last year hit the arts hard, things are looking up. The Brooks Theater can return with a full season after receiving generous donations from the community and grants from both the city, county and federal resources.
The theater recently received a Small Business Administration Shuttered Venue grant that returned 45% percent of the overall 97% of earned revenue the theater lost in the last year, which allowed the theater to reopen this summer. Last year alone, the theater saw a $158,000 decrease in ticket, concessions, tuition and rental revenues.
Garms is excited to have a good season ahead for the theater.
“Everybody needs it,” she said.
She is also excited about the theater’s music series, which will be headed by local musician Shane Hall, who has some big plans for the Brooks.
“I want to make the Brooks a focal point for the community, not just for theater but music, spoken work, comedy and art itself,” Hall said.
Though it is too soon to tell using standard data based on transient occupancy and sales tax revenues, Geller said there is a marked uptick in activity all over the city, especially downtown.
“On any given night there are tons of people downtown eating at restaurants, listening to live music, strolling around, enjoying the pier and beach,” Geller said. “Things definitely appear to be bustling.”
Going forward, the community can continue to help the arts make a comeback by supporting their work, whether it’s buying a piece, buying tickets to a show, streaming music or simply spreading the word about the arts.
“I would really encourage people to be cognizant and look for ways they can support artists,” DiMento said. “Be really intentional about supporting art in your community because it’s needed and now is the time to do it.”