At this time of year, there are always a few Scrooges grumbling about the holidays. But this year there’s no masking just about everyone’s contempt for 2020.
In Madison, music lovers got a chance to combine that ill will with goodwill at two of the city’s popular event venues. The Sylvee and the Majestic Theatre recently offered photoshoots that featured their marquees, giving people the chance to express their holiday cheer, or lack thereof, in lights.
People brought their dogs to pose with “It’s Been a Ruff Year” at the Majestic. Or maybe “Good Tidings & Cheer and to Hell With Next Year” at the Sylvee did the trick.
Most popular of all was two nights of a giant F-bomb lighting up Madison’s King Street as people cheerily posed with a Majestic marquee that said “F**K 2020.” As holy as the Three Wise Men might have been, even they would have been smart enough to understand the situation.
“We thought this would resonate with people, it would sum up the disdain people have this year,” said Lauren Toler, director of marketing for Frank Productions, which owns and manages the venues. “Someone said it was the most Lauren idea ever because I do swear a lot.”
The slots for the photo shoots, which cost between $30 and $100, filled up immediately once they were offered on social media. A second evening was added for “F**K 2020.” Frank Productions is selling prints of that image, ranging in price from $15 to $55.
In all, 104 photoshoot slots were filled.
“We don’t look at it as a moneymaker. It’s more to keep our brand out there and connect with people,” Toler said.
The venues, along with Frank Productions-owned High Noon Saloon and the Orpheum Theatre, shut down in mid-March because of the pandemic. As venues that offer shows, dance and movie parties all week long, hundreds of events have been lost to the COVID-19 shutdowns.
Most music fans have had to settle for streaming concerts by their favorite artists, and some artists earmark proceeds to venues. In September, Frank Productions hosted the Amplify Open, a sold-out event that combined live music and golf.
None of that can make up for canceled or postponed shows. In September, Frank Productions reported 39 employee layoffs or reductions to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, including technical, production, marketing, and box office staff.
Earlier this month, the Sylvee and the Majestic received $395,308 in grant money through the state’s COVID-19 Live Music and Entertainment Venue Grant Program. Gov. Tony Evers designated $15 million from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to live entertainment and large meeting venue operators impacted by the pandemic.
Helping the venues was a big reason to spring for the photo shoots, many of those who reserved slots said.
“We want to help in any way we can because they’ve lost all of their shows; it’s unbelievable,” said Andrea Wiltzius of Madison. “We’re musicians and we’re very worried about the future of music life in Madison. A lot of our friends are hurting.”
Wiltzius posed for a family photo with Christopher Pierce and their daughter August, 6, under the Sylvee marquee. The family posed with masks on and off, and hadn’t yet decided which to use for a print or Christmas cards.
“It would be nice to have documentation with the masks,” Pierce said. “That’s daily life and it will be for a long time.”
The F-bomb marquee was a perfect date night surprise from Rod Duff to his wife, Jeanne Pluemer, as they went for a walk near the Capitol. They’re regular concert-goers who miss live music, and the marquee’s sentiment summed up their thoughts for the year even though they weren’t yet sure what they would do with the image.
“You can’t send a Christmas card with F-U-C-K on it to just anybody,” Pluemer said. “Or maybe you can.”
Like Duff and Pluemer, many who wanted photos were avid concert-goers, music fans, and even people who got married at the Majestic.
“It’s nice to hear stories from people who say things like, ‘We had our first date here and we want to come support you,’” said Chris Lotten, a graphic designer at Frank Productions and the photographer for the project.
The photoshoots drew subjects of all ages, and that range in front of the ribald Majestic marquee surprised Toler. People popped open bottles of sparkling wine, flexed their muscles, jumped up and down, clenched their fists, and showed more than a few middle fingers.
“We saw an older gentleman jump up and that was entertaining,” Toler said. “We saw a 3-year-old flip off the camera, so we’ve seen it all.”
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