Jamie Grant, the president and CEO of the McCallum Theatre, has Dec. 3, 2021, circled on his figurative calendar in bright-red ink.
After being dark for 632 days, the Palm Desert theater will welcome back full live audiences on that date for the start of a three-day run of Hairspray.
“Although Hairspray is set in 1962, I get a feeling that there are a few messages that we could still hold on to in 2021 that remind us that we haven’t gone as far as we thought, and remind us that we have made some movement in some places,” Grant said during a recent interview. “Hairspray still holds up—and I can’t wait. Just that experience of sitting down, and that moment when the houselights go to half, and you know that something special is about to begin. It’s hearing that first downbeat from the maestro’s baton.
“I’ve worked at this theater since Sept. 14, (2020), and it’s going to be over a year before I get to see a performance here. And if you do what I do, that simply never, ever, ever happens.”
Tickets for the 2021-2022 season at the McCallum will go on sale at www.mccallumtheatre.com this Thursday, May 13, at 6 p.m.—and Grant said he can’t wait for the new season. He came to the McCallum after a four-year stint as the president and CEO at the Ordway Center in Saint Paul, Minn. He also worked as the president and CEO of the Long Center for the Performing Arts in Austin, Texas, among various other theater-leadership gigs.
“I’ve had lots of opening nights in my career. I don’t think I’ve had any that are quite as impactful and important as this one,” he said.
After the McCallum lost a month of the 2019-2020 season, and then the entire 2020-2021 season, Grant said he asked artistic director Mitch Gershenfeld—the longtime McCallum president and CEO who still books the shows—to focus on longtime audience favorites for the post-COVID-closure return.
“I went to Mitch and said, ‘I want a greatest-hits season. I want it to be about 80% of the dates that we normally do. I want you to focus those dates into the winter/spring slot and away from the fall,’ which he’s done,” Grant said. “And I feel very confident that Dec. 3 is going to be fine. In fact, if you ask me today, it is likely that we’re going to add a few more shows between now and that start date, so that we have a few more performances as a soft opening to get ready.”
Indeed, the McCallum schedule is packed with names audiences know and love. Grant said he’s particularly excited to see Pink Martini (March 25-28, 2022) and The Ten Tenors (Feb. 9-14, 2022) on the McCallum stage. He then rattled off a list of highlights.
“I think Wynton Marsalis (Jan. 23, 2022) hasn’t been here in too long of a time, and he’s one of the finest jazz musicians in the world,” Grant said. “I’m a theater guy, and if you love theater, you can’t go wrong with Patti LuPone (Jan. 18, 2022) or Kristin Chenoweth (Feb. 18 and 19, 2022) or Vanessa Williams (Jan. 22, 2022). … It’ll be interesting to see Fiddler on the Roof in this space (Jan. 28-30, 2022), because this is the new production of Fiddler that was on Broadway when it closed, and it’s a really wonderful artistic team. Chris Botti’s a star (April 9, 2022). Linda Eder is a star (March 18, 2022). Steve Tyrell is a star (Feb. 24, 2022). There’s nobody funnier alive than Jay Leno (Feb. 20, 2022). … Voctave is spectacular (March 10, 2022). I’m a huge fan of Straight No Chaser (Feb. 23, 2022); they’re wonderful.”
In a different vein, the McCallum will be welcoming back the National Geographic Live series for the third consecutive (non-cancelled) season, this time with four programs: Secret Lives of Bears, featuring carnivore ecologist Rae Wynn-Grant (Jan. 24, 2022); A View From Above, with former International Space Station Commander Terry Virts (Feb. 28, 2022); Nature Roars Back, with wildlife filmmaker Bob Poole (March 14, 2022); and Skiing the Dream Line, with mountaineer Hilaree Nelson (April 4, 2022).
“We have to remember that (being in a theater) is a shared experience,” Grant said. “Yes, it’s a shared experience between an audience member and an artist, but the part that’s actually stronger is the shared experience with whomever you’re with: ‘Do you remember that night we went to see’ whatever? … NatGeo is a hugely successful franchise in virtually every market, and it’s successful because people can share it with their kids and their grandkids.”
The McCallum schedule includes a new show that is of particular significance to the theater’s history: A Tribute to Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé. Back in April 2019, we wrote: “Gormé passed away in 2013, and Lawrence has retired from performing; this show will feature their son, David Lawrence, and Tony Award-winner Debbie Gravitte, along with a 32-piece orchestra and vintage video clips.”
“We have all of their original music charts,” Gershenfeld told us at the time. “… This is the first place this show is going to play. There’s no place (Steve Lawrence) would want to do the first show other than (here).”
Well … that show was scheduled for April 4, 2020. When the pandemic forced it to be cancelled, Gershenfeld scheduled the show for the 2020-2021 season—which was wiped out entirely. So, keep your fingers crossed that the third time is the charm for the Jan. 21, 2022, date.
“Mitch came to me and said, ‘We just simply have to do this show. The show has to play at the McCallum. It has to play in the Coachella Valley, and it has to play now,’” Grant said.
While California is certainly trending in the right direction regarding a recovery from the pandemic, the last 14 months have proven that nothing is certain, and Grant said that people can buy tickets knowing that if anything (or, heaven forbid, everything) is cancelled again, they’ll be issued a full refund.
Grant said he knew of just one colleague in the performing-arts world who had prepared for something like COVID-19—and even that preparation was somewhat accidental.
“He runs a repertory theater, and he had a problem in his first year there, which was two seasons ago, where a flu bug ran through the company—and he actually got insurance,” Grant said. “As a result, his actors all got paid last year by insurance. He would love to tell you that he was a savant when it came to the pandemic, but he was lucky. So, the fact of the matter is, I haven’t met anybody whose crystal ball is particularly clear on how this all works. What we have done is stayed on top of the information as it’s current. What we have been given, through our board of directors, is a commitment to make the necessary investments to ensure not only that the facility is safe, but that people feel safe.”
Those preparations include a 125-page report on upgrades to the theater’s HVAC system; the addition of an entrance, recommended by Eisenhower Health after the theater asked for guidance; and making surfaces, doors and other things as touch-free as possible.
“I have the commitment and the resources that whatever exceeds the standards of health that are required at the time—not just meets, but exceeds—that’s what we’re going to do,” Grant said. “We’ve signed contracts, for example, on touring shows coming in next season that require that everybody who works backstage is vaccinated. We have set a staff policy now that says being vaccinated for COVID-19 is part of your requirement for employment, unless you have a medical reason or a religious reason.”
The McCallum recently did an online survey of ticket-buyers—and received a whopping 3,100 responses, which, as Grant points out, “is a larger number than required for a national survey in the U.S.” That survey, Grant said, gives him confidence that audiences will be ready to return to the McCallum on Dec. 3—and that the McCallum will be ready for them.
“Ninety-three percent of the people said that they were vaccinated or planning to be vaccinated,” Grant said. “So, we knew that that was a good sign; 78% said that coming back to the theater by December felt safe; 18% said coming back by January felt safe. Zero percent said they’re not coming back to the theater.”
Tickets will go on sale for the McCallum Theatre’s 2021-2022 season at www.mccallumtheatre.com this Thursday, May 13, at 6 p.m.; members can purchase tickets starting Monday, May 10. There will be no walk-up sales; the theater’s box office is closed at this time. To view the full schedule, visit www.mccallumtheatre.com/index.php/shows/2021-2022-season.