Lights back on at Montrose, Heights-area theater and music venues

HOUSTON, Texas -- Rudi Bunch, owner of Numbers, the Montrose nightlife staple that has operated on Westheimer Road since 1978, managed to keep his club alive over the 14 tumultuous months of the coronavirus pandemic - but only just barely.

"I knew that I couldn't last years, so I had to wrap my mind around the fact that I may lose the business I've worked at for almost 40 years," he said. "There were days where I didn't want to get out of bed, but the encouragement we got from some of our loyal customers meant the world to us."

Bunch first closed Numbers in March. More than one year later in mid-May, he was able to open the doors again to a crowd of loyal supporters eager to get back out on the dance floor.

Numbers is one of many music, theater and entertainment venues in the Heights and Montrose areas that had to shut down live operations during the pandemic. Some owners, including Bunch, found ways to host events online. Some venues, such as the iconic River Oaks Theatre on West Gray Street, have been closed indefinitely. However, a vigorous movement has since been organized pressuring owners to revive the theater.

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As venues start to reopen, optimism is returning, thanks in part to the efficacy of the coronavirus vaccines and guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that allow for vaccinated people to return to life as usual.

However, some venue operators said they are still waiting on federal grant funding that is meant to help recoup pandemic losses.



Shuttered venues

Philip Lehl, co-artistic director with the 4th Wall Theatre Co. in the Washington Avenue corridor, said his team applied for a grant as soon as the online portal opened in April. Two months later, Lehl said he got notice that his application was received but has not heard anything back on whether it has been approved.

The grant would cover about 10% of his company's annual budget, Lehl said, or one year's worth of rent.

Filling the gap somewhat, he said 4th Wall patrons and donors have left the group on steady financial ground as they prepare to launch an in-person season this fall.

"Because we didn't spend very much to produce anything and because our donors and our people supported us, we're actually in excellent shape to begin a season," Lehl said. "It would be a huge disappointment if we don't get that shuttered-venue grant, but it would not kill us."

As of June 28, the U.S. Small Business Administration has given out about $720 million in shuttered-venue grants of the $16 billion that was set aside in the Economic Aid to Hard-Hit Small Businesses, Nonprofits and Venues Act, which was passed into law in December, according to SBA records. About $91.2 million has been given out in Texas, but Abigail Gonzalez, an economic development specialist with the SBA's Houston office, said she could not confirm how much went to venues in the Houston area.

"The SBA realizes the critical need to increase processing speed for shuttered-venues applicants-the current pace of awards is not reflective of the high standards that we strive to meet," she said in an email statement.

Lehl, who said he is close with theater venues throughout Houston, said he was not aware of any venues that had been awarded funding yet.

"I'm pretty sure that when those funds start flowing, we'll all know about it," he said.

At Montrose-area theater company Stages, the first live performance in 15 months started in June and runs through July 18. Lise Bohn, development and communications director, said the Shuttered Venues grant would help Stages regain momentum, but the group's fall season, which starts Oct. 1, will take place regardless of the outcome. At the time the company applied for the grant, Bohn said she knew the funding likely would not be awarded before the 2021-22 season.

"If the pandemic taught us anything, it was how to be ready for any number of possible scenarios," she said.



Ongoing needs

As a talent booker with Heights Theatre, Mark Austin said he knows the challenges musicians and music industry professionals can face outside of global pandemics. However, it was the coronavirus that spurred him and his wife, Rachel Austin, to launch the Houston Music Foundation in 2020 with the goal of raising money for microgrants for industry workers.

At the start of the pandemic, Mark Austin said he had to cancel around 100 performances. Since then, he said he has been able to raise around $100,000, which was used to help about 700 people in the Greater Houston area.

"I knew immediately from years of working with these folks that there was going to be a financial crunch, and I also knew there wasn't really a foundation of support already in place for this community," he said. "Maybe it's not earth shattering, but it can get folks a bag of groceries or a couple of bills paid."

Now that restrictions are being lifted and events are being scheduled again, Mark Austin said he is looking to continue to evolve his foundation into something that can help industry professionals during future tough times. He said he was taking cues from several Austin organizations, such as the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians and the SIMS Foundation.

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"We want to be in a place where, when something happens, there is already an organization that knows how to help this community the most without starting over each time there is a catastrophe," Mark Austin said.

Bohn said the pandemic highlighted the role the arts and humanities plan in connecting people to one another.

"If we learned anything over the last year it was how deeply, vitally important personal connections and personal relationships are in our lives and how those experiences are not peripheral but actually central to our humanity and to the quality of our lives," she said. "Even those who were already arts lovers are letting us know that they are experiencing that and feeling that in a new way."

Bunch said he feels fortunate to have made it through the pandemic, noting many venues did not. The survival of venues such as Numbers is crucial to maintaining the vibrancy of the community it serves, he said.

"People from all different walks of life come, and everybody gets along and has a great time, no judgment," Bunch said. "I think it's a pretty important part of what Montrose has always been about."

This story comes from our ABC13 partners at Community Impact Newspaper.

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