Being caretaker of a century-old theater is a challenge in the best of times, but a pandemic turned the dial all the way up for Geoff Steele, executive director of the Gillioz Center for Arts and Entertainment.
Steele directs the 1,044-seat theater built in 1926 as a hybrid vaudeville and movie house. Today, the Gillioz is an event venue bringing national touring acts to its preserved Spanish colonial revival auditorium.
Steele says the mass gathering industry was the first to close and last to reopen from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Federal aid was slow, and lawmakers were honest in my interactions when they would say they don’t understand how our business works at all,” Steele says. “My response was simple: Because we’ve never asked you for anything before.”
Steele says the industry exemplifies supply and demand at the most fundamental level. If tickets don’t sell, the tour stops – but this time, touring stopped for the health and well-being of the public. “Jobs were lost; venues closed permanently,” he says. “It has been tragic.”
Steele says the Gillioz had a 91% loss in revenue in one year as a result of the shutdown.
“We had to make a conscious decision to ensure the theater not only survived but was prepared to address a new world when we came back,” he says.
Steele credits what he calls a courageous volunteer board of directors, a flexible staff and a supportive community for Gillioz making a comeback. He calls 2021 its best year to date. “It comes down to this community and the fact that they seem to be fully aware that it’s rare for a community the size of Springfield to have a national touring house of the pedigree the Gillioz has and have it functioning at the level that it’s functioning,” he says.
So far this year, visitors have come from 39 states and six countries.
Steele is back to dealing with the ordinary: extraordinary challenges of maintaining a historic theater whose August lineup includes 1990s sibling rock trio Hanson and comedian and rock parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic, as well as showings of classic film “The Birds” and other movies. A less welcome guest was a torrential microstorm on Aug. 5, which came through the roof and flooded the lobby with three inches of water in the carpet.
“It was pretty significant, but we’re working through it,” he says. “We’re in the dry, and we’re going to deal with long-term structural issues.”
Steele says in a hundred years, the Gillioz has experienced recessions, pandemics, the Great Depression, two World Wars and more – leading him to ponder, what’s a little rain?
“The community is keenly aware of the rare air that we have for a theater to be operating at this level,” he says. “I get the bonus of being in this chair right now during this chapter of a 100-year-old story. I’m determined that it will still be going strong 100 years from now.”
General aviation terminal expansion is set to wrap by August.