Music streaming platforms like Apple Music, Spotify and YouTube have become a part of our everyday lives. We’ve grown accustomed to having music at our fingertips, but hearing our favorite tunes through a speaker cannot replace the experience of live music. Opportunities to listen to music in real-time have been all but crushed under the weight of the pandemic, and local music venues have suffered as a result. “It’s been rough,” Scott Happel, an owner of the Oriental Theater, said. “We’re just cruisin’ along day-by-day trying to stay alive.”
The Oriental Theater first opened its doors on Christmas Eve of 1927 as a silent movie theater. The theater has been through many changes since and even fell dormant for various periods of time. Today, the Oriental operates as an independent, locally owned music and entertainment venue in the Berkeley neighborhood. Although it’s been going steady for the last 15 years, the Oriental has had to struggle for survival during the COVID-19 pandemic. The venue closed on March 13, 2020, but reopened Aug 1. The 800-person-capacity venue was initially allowed to have 50 people when it reopened, but eventually went up to 90 for small shows. The venue was also able to secure some federal money back in May and June. The money and its “safe sound series” has helped the venue survive, according to Happel. The small shows continued into early November until Denver went to Level-Red restrictions.
“We wouldn’t still be open today if we could’ve never done anything,” Happel said. “But being able to do those shows for three and half months helped extend the life of the money that we had and the grants that we have received.” Happel added, “I think we can make it until February or March as we stand right now,” Happel said. “But we’re not gonna be able to make it any longer than that unless we can start having shows again or more money and help comes from the government or something like that.”
Fans of the theater from near and far have come to the Oriental’s aid, but love for the Oriental remains strongest close to home starting with the owners themselves — all four of whom live in Denver. “We live in the community, we operate a business in the community — we’re proud of that,” Happel said. “We love serving the community, and we have every intention of surviving this.”
Glenn Vigil lives just north of Denver, and is part of the Oriental’s loyal fanbase. A member of four bands, Vigil knows the theater as both a performer and an audience member. Both his Dokken tribute band, Mr. Scary, and his Bob Seger tribute band, Still the Same, had gigs planned for 2020 that were cancelled because of COVID-19.
“I love the place,” Glenn Vigil said. “That’s probably one of the best music venues in Denver — you can ask about any musician, and they love it there.” Vigil said the venue was so special because of its historic nature and the way it fit so well into the Berkeley neighborhood. “It still has that old look,” Vigil said. “And I like old things, I’m kind of an old thing myself.”
Brian Coleman of Lakewood is another musician who can speak to the charm and importance of the Oriental. The Substitutes, his tribute band to The Who, performed back in January just before the pandemic took hold of the United States. He said the Oriental was crucial to the community for providing a place for bands to play in a smaller city like Denver. “Places like the Oriental are crucial for the sense of an artistic and musical community because we’ve already lost some venues,” Coleman said. “It’s hard enough as a tribute band to try to get gigs in a bit of a smaller city like Denver, but if places like the Oriental or the Gothic started closing, literally it would shut down a lot of the sense of a common musical community and artistic community in Denver.”
He also said the Oriental gave local acts a big stage to shoot for. The reputation of the Oriental precedes itself, according to Coleman, and getting to play there is an accomplishment for acts both local and travelling through. “If you’re playing smaller venues in town, you need venues like the Oriental as kind of the goal,” Coleman said. “If those places disappeared then you’d be doing kind of a little circuit, but there wouldn’t be a sense of like, ‘Hey, what’s the next step after this?’”
The Oriental’s biggest fundraising endeavor has been their Friend of the Oriental campaign, and Happel urges people to donate whatever they can. “We set an initial goal of $50,000 as being kind of what we thought we needed to make it through the winter,” Happel said. “Anything that can move us closer to that goal would be greatly appreciated.”
When asked if there were other ways to help besides donations, Happel’s answer was plain and simple. “The only thing that is useful to us at this point is money,” Happel said. “I wish there were nicer, fuzzier things that I could ask for, but anyone that’s hoping to support us or to see us survive, that’s really what it comes down to right now.”