Picture yourself in a car on a parking lot. With a tasty beverage and real, live music in the air.
That was the scene on Wilmington’s Riverfront Friday evening as hundreds gathered for the state’s first-ever large-scale car concert – a live performance of some of The Beatles’ greatest hits.
“This man hasn’t stepped out of the house in four months, but he came out here for The Beatles,” said Sonali Pandit, pointing to her husband, Mohan, as he swayed to a rendition of the legendary British Pop group’s “Yellow Submarine.”
With the coronavirus pandemic halting large public gatherings – especially events like concerts, where people traditionally pack into crowded venue – this is what the new normal looks like for now.
Around 200 cars packed into a lot outside Frawley Stadium, spread in distanced rows with one or two parking spaces in between vehicles and all facing a stage where a local band jammed to The Beatles greatest hits.
Some sat listening to the performance on the radio in the cool of their air conditioned cars. Others sat on sunroofs, tailgates or in folding chairs outside their vehicles.
“I feel normal, well, as normal as it can get right now,” said Maria Sawczak of New Castle.
She took in the concert in a red Mustang convertible with her girlfriends. They had made an evening out of it with dinner on the Riverfront nearby, something rare these days.
“It is just a joy,” she said. “I feel it is something approaching normalcy.”
Some swayed and danced in public for the first time in what they said felt like ages. Some gathered in small groups, but mostly people stayed apart.
“We liked the idea it was going to be safe,” said Nette Stejskal of Pike Creek.
The 500 to 600 people that paid $25 a head to attend were treated to more than an hour of music by The Rock Orchestra, a Delaware-based band that plays tributes to different groups.
“The fact that I was playing to cars was the oddest thing,” said Joe Trainor, the group’s music director.
Instead of the crowd singing along and holding their lighters or phones aloft, those attending interacted with the musicians with a series of hi-beam flashes and horn honks.
With some people outside their cars, Trainor said the band was still able to hear the applause and interact face-to-face with the crowd. Like most musicians, it was the first time Trainor had performed in months. The emotion of that hit him, he said.
“To sit at that piano and play music with my friends, I just miss those people and I miss playing,” he said. “It was a special night.”
It is the first of what could be several such events hosted by The Grand Opera House, a Wilmington arts nonprofit that runs the namesake opera house on Market Street and other venues downtown.
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“This is why we exist and we haven’t been able to do it for a long time,” said Mark Fields, executive director of The Grand Opera House.
The group also runs the Baby Grand venue and the Playhouse on Rodney Square downtown.
Fields said they’ve been working toward what they billed as “The Grand’s Concert by Car” for about two months since it became clear the pandemic was not near an end.
Otherwise, they’ve ramped up their social media presence, rebroadcast old concerts and interviews, and introduced new programming to reflect the times, but the pandemic has been a challenge for the organization, Fields said.
“It is incredibly frustrating for a performing arts organization to not be able to perform,” he said in an interview ahead of the concert.
There was an awareness of that among the crowd. Some said they attended to get out of the house and help the organization along.
“This is supporting the area,” said Chris Hesseck as he sat in a folding chair inside the bed of his pickup.
Like most arts and entertainment venues, The Grand has been hit hard financially by the pandemic.
Tickets, merchandise, concessions and rental fees account for some 65 to 70 percent of the organizations $7 million annual budget, Fields said. The rest is derived from contributions, he said.
Since the start of the pandemic, they’ve had to cancel 60 of their own events and about 40 rental events, he said.
Delaware is still in phase two of its reopening plan related to coronavirus. That means The Grand could technically operate at 60 percent capacity.
But with other social distancing requirements, that number limits attendance to about 350 people in Copeland Hall, the organization’s 1,200-capacity venue inside The Grand Opera House.
“It’s hard to do that economically,” Fields said.
He said they hope to hold such concerts through the summer and potentially fall. Tickets for the next such concert, featuring a Pink Floyd tribute planned for July 17, will go on sale next week, he told the crowd at Friday’s concert.
But even if the event becomes a fixture, it won’t solve the money issue.
“It is a lot more expensive to put on a concert in a parking lot than it is one of our theaters,” he said. “This is not something we are doing to make money.”
Rather, he said the organization seeks to fulfill its mission to entertain and stay on people’s minds.
Given that packing people into rooms to take in live music will likely be one of the last pieces of normalcy to return, he said the organization’s future is not entirely clear.
“Our fervent hope is people understand and appreciate the value of The Grand to the community economically, in terms of quality of life and artistic expression and make sure we are going to be alright in the long term,” he said.
He said The Grand plans to survey those who came to improve on car concert setup.
Those attending said there is room to grow the concept.
Some, who were parked hundreds of yards from the stage, said the sound was fine, but wanted larger screens to see the band. The event also didn’t feature refreshments for sale or restrooms, which Fields said is logistically difficult at this time.
“A bathroom would be good,” said Juliana Forbes of Wilmington.
She watched the concert from the cab of her vehicle with Claude Forbes.
“It is different,” Claude Forbes said. “But it is what we need to do right now.”
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