Entertainment

Holiday shows in Denver: High demand, sold-out shows cause behind-the-scenes challenges

Lonnie Hanzon is a creative guy, having helped pioneer digital animation during his time at Lucasfilm, and in the early days of immersive-art installations, which he’s still proudly creating.

But with masked “Nutcrackers” and proof-of-vaccination the new standard for holiday shows, Hanzon was forced to get even more creative with his six-acre “Camp Christmas” project in Lakewood this year.

“We could not find lumber, so we ended up contracting with a crew that was doing work for the state of Wyoming to buy the tops of their raw lodgepole pines,” Hanzon said last week of the cheeky, maximalist installation, which runs through Jan. 2 at Heritage Lakewood Belmar Park. “And we actually went up and got them — 350 tops, or the top 14 feet of what they were culling.”

That was his only option to finish the show on time, he said, and he’d already been working on it for the better part of a year, having abandoned the idea that Camp Christmas could return indoors.

While holiday shows are back in force for 2021, they’re landing with heavy baggage and lots of tags. Labor shortages, skyrocketing material costs, supply-chain breaks, and reluctant performers and audiences have pushed the shows onto shaky ground, even as they are desperately needed to firm up their company’s finances.

In some cases, the millions of dollars in loans, donations and government lifelines that have sustained these nonprofits are drying up — and at the worst time possible. A survey by the advocacy group Americans for the Arts found 99% of national nonprofit arts groups canceled events during the pandemic, amounting to 557 million lost ticketed admissions as of July, Kaiser Health News reported.

“In the arts it’s already hard enough because you’re trying to scrimp and save wherever you can,” said Dawn Fay, president of Denver contemporary ballet company Wonderbound. “Things you took for granted are really expensive or not available, and you’re paying attention to all these details you otherwise wouldn’t have.”

Wonderbound is one of only five U.S. dance companies that continued performing during 2020, Fay said, despite having its building burglarized and being forced to move to a new home. The company has set small, socially distanced shows that kept their dancers and choreographer Garrett Ammon busy.

Encouragingly, all two-dozen performances of its new holiday show, “Winterland: A Discotheque Cabaret,” are sold out, having premiered Dec. 2 and running through Dec. 19.

“We typically do five performances of a production,” Fay said. “But you’re talking about 500-seat houses. To make our numbers, we’re doing 90 performance overall this season, but for only 25 to 45 people at a time.”

With a high membership base of 757 subscribers, Wonderbound is seeing waves of pent-up demand after its quiet months.

For leaders of the Denver Gay Men’s Chorus, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this season as one of the state’s oldest LGBTQ organizations, adjusting expectations is key.

They’ve so far sold about 1,000 tickets to performances of their new show, “Holiday Follies! Classics, Caroles and Camp,” but that’s down nearly 40% from 2019. They’re OK with that.

“If somebody doesn’t have their children vaccinated, they’re not coming to the show,” said Michael Sattler, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Arts Association, which covers the Gay Men’s and Denver Women’s Choir. “But we did offer a livestreaming option on Saturday (Dec. 4), so we’re trying to provide alternatives to people who aren’t comfortable yet or haven’t been vaccinated.”

Singers have been wearing special masks — sort of like duck bills, managing and artistic director James Knapp said — and leaders have been stringent about the testing and vaccination of members. That shaved down the performing group, but only a little.

“We were hoping to have 70 to 80 singers for these shows, but we’ll actually have 95 in concert,” Knapp said last week. “We normally sing with about 105 to 110, so it’s really not down that much. We’ve been making recordings each week to make the adjustments because of the masks. Usually you just trust your ears.”

The singers have gathered with windows open and air purifiers running in their rehearsal spaces. As with other stage shows locally and nationally, performances have been shortened to remove intermissions and lobby meet-and-greets.

Researchers from the University of Colorado-Boulder and the University of Maryland recently advised that “while masks reduce the flow of droplets for both singers and instrumentalists, the quality of the filtering material and fit are key components of effectiveness,” according to Kaiser Health News. They recommend taking breaks every half-hour if rehearsing or performing indoors.

Touring holiday shows visiting Denver this season have faced the same issues, but with the added complication of rescheduling postponed shows at venues with full calendars.

“Our expectations were in the basement after a year and a half,” said BenDeLaCreme, whose holiday drag-queen show with fellow “RuPaul’s Drag Race” veteran Jinkx Monsoon returns to the Paramount Theatre Dec. 14. “And cities have been wildly different in terms of reactions to our mask requirements. As a producer you’re always gambling with your money. But we’re sold-out or close to selling out in all of our U.S. dates, so it was worth taking that chance.”

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