This has been a rough year for just about everyone in the music industry. El Chapultepec just closed. 3 Kings Tavern is gone. Bowman's Vinyl & Lounge, Tooey's Off Colfax, Live @ Jack's and more have called it quits. And the venues that are still afloat are struggling.
Cervantes' Masterpiece Ballroom is no exception to the pains of the pandemic. Like all indoor venues in Denver, it's not allowed to host live music because of the government-mandated shutdown designed to slow the rise of COVID-19. Unlike most venues, however, it's not currently at risk of closing, says co-owner and operations manager Duncan Goodman.
Cervantes' is co-owned by Goodman, Diana Azab, and Scott Morrill and Adam Stroul, who were recruited to become AEG Presents Rocky Mountains talent buyers in 2017 after years of operating the club. The venue was first forced to close in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. It reopened in August and operated successfully for about ten weeks before a second shutdown in November, when Denver moved to Level Red COVID-19 restrictions.
“It’s unknown when we will be able to operate again,” says Goodman.
The building, located at 2637 Welton Street, dates to the 1930s and was a longtime jazz venue that hosted greats like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman. Grateful Dead-themed venue operators the Bianchi brothers opened Cervantes' in 2003, and the current owners, who just signed a long-term lease on the building, bought the business in 2009.
When they were allowed to reopen in August, COVID restrictions forced the owners to do a complete 180 on how they operate. Goodman says the venue’s capacity was reduced to fifty people, and groups of show-goers had to arrive and leave together and stay together throughout a performance. He says the New Mastersounds' Eddie Roberts joked that the restrictions transformed Cervantes' back into “quite the jazz club.”
“Gone are the days of standing room only,” Goodman says. “During this new normal, anyone attending a show at Cervantes' will liken the experience to dining out at their favorite restaurant.”
He says that the venue has kept shows limited to the ballroom, and that plans to expand to the building’s other space, Cervantes' Other Side, in December are now dependent on government timelines.
“It was on purpose that we waited to do this,” he says. “We wanted to ensure the systems and protocols that we had in place for the Ballroom worked and could be scaled up to accommodate shows in both rooms. It’s still the plan moving forward to host shows in both rooms as soon as we’re able to reopen.”
He considers the shows they were able to pull off while they were open a success, however, and the venue made the safety of concert-goers a priority. That meant upgrades to the ventilation system and creating contact-tracing protocols, among other measures.
“We’re going above and beyond at Cervantes' in order to keep everyone safe,” he says. “The feedback that we’ve received from patrons, performers and staff has been almost overwhelmingly positive. People sincerely feel safe while they’re on site, as they should.”
Fortunately, no employees of Cervantes' have tested positive for COVID-19, but the financial impact of being closed most of the year has been quite severe, Goodman says. “We were shut down for a full five and a half months, where zero revenue was generated. Operating at a reduced capacity the last couple months has helped to put a dent in our monthly overhead costs, but it’s not sustainable. We’ve accumulated substantial debt that we’ll be paying off for years to come.”
He says all staff members at the venues have been impacted by the closures and restrictions, though Goodman says the owners kept workers on the payroll as long as they could. They were only able to sustain that practice for a few months, however.
“Luckily, a lot of our staff were able to earn unemployment and take advantage of the weekly additional pay that the first federal stimulus package provided,” he says. “That additional stimulus ended on July 31, but it’s the hope that a new stimulus bill will be passed soon.”
Goodman adds that the pandemic has been especially tough on self-employed gig workers — contract workers — associated with the venues. Cervantes' wasn’t able to include wages paid to gig employees when it applied for its Paycheck Protection Program loan, so contract workers were hit particularly hard. Goodman says the PPP loan and Economic Injury Disaster Loan have served as “Band-Aids” for the venue’s finances.
“At the end of the day, there’s no way to downplay it. The pandemic has been absolutely devastating to our finances,” he says. “With that said, I am proud to proclaim that Cervantes' will outlast the pandemic. However long it takes, however long we’re unable to operate, we’re not going anywhere.”
Cervantes' ran a GoFundMe campaign in March and April that raised more than $30,000 that went to gig workers associated with the venue.
“It was amazing to see how generous the Cervantes’ network of people was in our time of need,” he says. “I’m still blown away that we were able to raise so much in such a short amount of time.”
Cervantes' held a contest with local artists to design merch as a way to offset the loss of revenue as well.
“There were close to forty submissions that we had to choose from, and in the end we utilized what we determined to be the top ten designs,” he says. “The contest was a catalyst for us to roll out our newly revamped online merch store, where items showcasing these new designs are featured.”
Goodman says that Cervantes' will continue to follow the guidelines mandated by the government. As more of the population gets vaccinated against COVID-19, things could start to return to normal.
“I only know as much as I read and hear about in the news, but according to medical professionals, we could be back to what resembles normal by next summer,” Goodman says. “I really hope that’s the case.”
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.