It’s Friday night at the Clocktower Cabaret, and Jefferson Arca is making sure his venue is ready for a night of burlesque and comedy. It’s just the second weekend he’s been allowed to put on a show in his space beneath the 16th Street Mall since March, when Denver shut everything down to stem the spread of COVID-19.
Everyone, from the bartenders to the emcee, who’s Arca’s wife, Selene, are masked and ready. He’s arranged stuffed animals to fill seats in between distanced tables. A former Cabaret dancer booked most of the tickets for her friends, so tonight will be a full house. The audience will max out around 30 guests.
“We used to seat, like, 150 people in here, crammed in like a subway. That’s not going to happen any time soon,” he said. “Last night was rough: Only 10 people showed up.”
Like many business owners in town, Arca is waiting to see if his operation will make it to 2021. He’s run the show for 15 years. It’s where he met Selene and, together, they’ve poured their souls into providing Denver with their racy, kinetic performances. They have a lot on the line.
“I do love this place,” Arca said. “It is my full-time gig. It is my wife’s full-time gig. She does marketing. I’m also the GM. We also get on stage. We’ve always had our house as collateral with the bank.”
But the Cabaret’s future is no longer just in their hands. Arca has until September, when his federal PPP loan runs dry, to wait and see if the pandemic will abate to the point where he can sell more than 30 tickets each show. That, he believes, depends on Coloradans’ willingness to wear masks and do their part to keep infections from lasting into the holiday season.
Earlier that day, he saw an older couple getting into an elevator without face coverings. He pointed to his mask — “It’s a law now,” he told them — but the couple brushed him off. They’d be fine, the man told him.
“I’m not worried about you,” he thought to himself. “I’m worried about us!”
Arca said some of the club owners he knows are holding off opening until the pandemic cools off.
Clubs without kitchens still aren’t allowed to open. Even when they do, owners are waiting to see if customers are even comfortable returning. Some folks Arca knows will wait and try to spend as little as possible until they can fill their seats.
“But a lot of people don’t have the pockets to get that far,” he said.
Others have already had to face the music. He’s seen a couple improv clubs shut down already. The 3 Kings Tavern, which is about the Cabaret’s size, shut down in May.
“Fortunately someone local bought them,” he said.
In this recession’s worst case scenario, a lot of locally owned businesses like Arca’s could close and be replaced by bigger companies that could scoop up clubs at “rock-bottom prices.”
It could be “an investor’s dream,” Arca said. “It could be giant corporations swooping in and grabbing them. Hopefully it’s not.”
If the Arcas face the possibility of losing their home, they won’t mind a bailout from a company like Live Nation if they can get it. But they’d rather keep the show going the way it has for so many years.
“We put some money down, and the question is how long can you keep doing that before the reasonable expectation of paying it back runs out,” Arca said. “We really want everyone to be smart and safe and wear masks and be able to open again in the holiday season, halfway at least.”
COVID-19 has changed the Cabaret, but everyone is happy to be back.
“We want to thank you guys for being our audience,” Selene boomed from the stage during their 7:30 show on Friday. “I used to make a joke about how stupid we would look if none of you were here, and we got to find out how true that was!”
Masks now join pasties as part of performers’ new uniforms. Guests at tables can take theirs off, but they must cover their faces if they need to use the bathroom.
Selene said the Cabaret is one of the few theaters open at all right now in Colorado.
“If you get up out of your seat, please have a mask on! It’s one of the ways we get to stay open,” she told the crowd, “so please help us out.”
Backstage before the show, Ande Sailer, a Boylesque dancer who goes by Bender Flame, said his last live performance before the Cabaret reopened was a show in March. He was glad to be back, though that first performance still felt different.
“It wasn’t a bad thing, but you have this expectation of what it was,” he said. “And then you come back to it and you’re like, whoa.”
Khadijah, a belly dancer who declined to give her last name, said the change has to do with the smaller audience.
“It’s very strange, the energy here is very different,” she said.
The masks also make it hard to smile, but it means her pre-show makeup routine is a little easier.
“I’m not going to put on any lipstick,” she said.
“The plus is I can mouth-breathe or mouth the words to my songs,” Kimberly Parker – AKA Parker Go Peep – added.
“You cant put anything in your mouth anymore,” Sailer complained.
But despite the strangeness of it all, everyone said they were glad to be back doing the things they love. The audience seems to be relieved, too.
“They are just as happy to be at a show as we are to be in a show,” Parker said.
On the way to work for their first re-opened show, Selene said, she saw two men on street corners screaming into the sky.
“I was like: I feel that,” she said. “Everyone really just needs a place to feel something. And we’ve always been that, and I feel like we get to be that again, however carefully.”
After the audience regaled each act with applause and shouts, Selene thanked attendees once more and told them how to exit up some stairs through a back door.
“Go up there and spread the joy wherever you go,” she shouted. “But wear a mask when you do it!”