Tommy Stephens knew that COVID-19 would change the course of his business. The owner of the Raven Lounge & Restaurant had been observing the spread of the novel coronavirus as it steamrolled its way through coastal states and inward to the Midwest, raising fears and uncertainty about what could come next. On March 10, 2020, the day Michigan’s first positive cases were confirmed, he preemptively closed down the 54-year-old Poletown blues club. And the Raven stayed closed, through three months of dine-in shutdowns, through the summer of socially distanced service, and now going into the unknown fall.
In fact, Stephens is overseeing the longest closure of the historic venue since it opened in 1966. Even during some of Detroit’s toughest years, like the early 1980s, when the city population was in steep decline and part of the Poletown neighborhood was flattened for a GM plant, the Raven Lounge soldiered on, just with limited hours. As he tinkers around the building, getting quotes for repairs and repainting the exterior, people often stop by and ask when the Raven will reopen, and he replies: “We have put her to sleep,” he says. “Miss Raven is sleeping now.”
Even before it was explicitly said by state leaders, Stephens knew it was necessary for venues like his to act quickly. Given how many traveling artists perform in his space, the possibility of the virus entering the bar was not a question of if, but when. “I have musicians in the Raven, and those musicians are [all] over everywhere. They might be in Spain next week, they might be in New York the following week,” he says. “And since New York was having a difficult time, I knew that it wouldn’t be long before Michigan would be greatly affected.” Unfortunately, Stephens turned out to be right. Over the following weeks, Detroit grew into a national hot spot for COVID-19 infections, and the state has since recorded 1,543 confirmed deaths in Detroit, plus another 117 probable deaths from the virus. At least two musicians who’ve performed at the Raven Lounge have died due to the pandemic. “We will not reopen until there is a cure for this virus,” Stephens says.
As the pandemic stretches on, fueling discordant responses from U.S. leaders and regular citizens, restaurants in Detroit have, to a certain extent, returned to some strange version of normal service. Bars are slightly more behind, now closed for indoor service entirely — at least up until Friday, October 10, when the rules were adjusted to allow limited indoor service. However, bars that exist in the in-between — spaces where a visit wasn’t just about the drinks, but also about the atmosphere and the entertainers who made them come alive — are having an even tougher time navigating the crisis. What is a blues bar or a jazz club if there are no performers? And what do you do when the thing that helped you express yourself is essentially canceled indefinitely?
While Stephens’s establishment has been hurt by the extended closure, he’s relatively fortunate. As a retired Detroit Public Schools educator and administrator, he owns the bar outright and doesn’t necessarily rely on the club to generate income. At the same time, the Raven has relatively low overhead costs. He estimates that he spends between $60 and $70 each month on utilities after canceling garbage collection and the club’s account with the credit card company. Occasionally, it also generates income spontaneously, like when Canadian liquor brand Crown Royal shot an advertisement in the bar as part of a campaign offering monetary donations to bars, clubs, and music venues in need. Other establishments are not so lucky.
Bars that double as concert venues were hit hard early on by mass event cancellations before closing certain spaces altogether. Earlier this month, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer offered some respite by allowing concert halls, theaters, and other entertainment destinations to reopen at limited capacity. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued a similar order, after the Michigan Supreme Court struck down the governor’s state of emergency. Still, the announcement came too late to save iconic spots like the Majestic Theatre Center in Cass Corridor, whose owners listed the complex for sale in late September in part due to the financial impact of the pandemic.
Sid Gold’s Request Room, which was founded in New York before expanding to Detroit, is known for its lively, intimate atmosphere. The bar’s main draw is its dinner-party feel where patrons belt out songs accompanied by a live pianist. Occasionally, the venue hosts burlesque performers. But since March, Sid Gold’s has gone quiet, with the exception of periodic musician-led livestreams on Facebook. “Our business thrives when the place is full of people. The energy is there,” says owner Paul Devitt. “Having a half-empty bar and nobody singing — it kind of goes against what we do.”
Devitt contemplated reopening his Detroit location, which is tucked between the Siren Hotel and the Element, but notes that the alley next to their space isn’t well equipped for outdoor service. “Karaoke, in general, is really not exactly the best thing right now,” Devitt says, referencing a widespread concern that passing mics between people and singing into a crowd increases the risk of spreading germs.
Sean Patrick, the owner of Willis Show Bar in Cass Corridor, faces a similar problem. Willis, an Art Moderne reconstruction of a 1940s Detroit jazz venue, features a relatively narrow floor plan with a curved bar that puts customers right in front of the nightly entertainment — usually a mix of live musicians and burlesque dancers who glide through the crowds cheekily interacting with customers. It, too, has been dark since March 14. Patrick says that even as bars and restaurants began to reopen in June, the situation remained unchanged for Willis due to limited-occupancy requirements. “We physically can’t pull off 50 percent occupancy and have safe social distance in that place,” Patrick says. “Because of how intimate our floor plan is, we could maybe do 30 percent [occupancy].” However, 30 percent occupancy is still financially unfeasible for Willis, especially if the aim is to offer the same level of service and entertainment as it had before and continue to pay staff and performers. “Our venue, probably more than most, has a pretty high overhead,” he says.
Willis’s location isn’t conducive to hosting live music outdoors either, given the bar’s close proximity to residential streets in Cass Corridor. For now, Patrick is holding tight and working with the landlord from his home in California to make sure the lease is in good standing, while focusing on building out a kitchen to potentially bring Willis back with a dining component, something he had been considering before COVID-19. That would potentially give the bar an alternative source of revenue and a reason to host customers beyond entertainment and stiff drinks.
The cost of doing business is also preventing one of Michigan’s most popular traveling drag brunch shows from resuming touring. Despite public interest, Grand Rapids-based Michigan Drag Brunch organizer Trevor Straub has been reluctant to schedule performances. “What gets us is the capacity limit, because we have to hit a certain number of people attending to make it financially beneficial for both sides of the agreement,” Straub says. “I have to pay out the entertainers, I have to pay out the DJ, marketing, and, of course, we pay the restaurant for the food and drink that’s included with the audience’s ticket. So it’s just a number game, really.”
Prior to the pandemic, Michigan Drag Brunch was doing four appearances a month with two showtimes per appearance at establishments like Bobcat Bonnie’s and Bigalora Wood Fired Cucina. “We very rarely did not sell out,” Straub says. “We were always constantly looking for ways to add to the quantity of seating.” The troupe’s last official show was March 8, just prior to the Michigan presidential primary and the subsequent announcement of the state’s first two confirmed COVID-19 cases. For a beat, Straub tried to keep the group’s upcoming performance dates on the schedule, hoping the virus wouldn’t interfere. But as more information was released over the course of the week, he became concerned about how hosting such a large live event might endanger everyone involved. “What it boiled down to was the fact that we have this following and these fans and these audiences that come from all over the place, really,” he says. Straub canceled his remaining bookings and hasn’t put anything on the schedule since.
In the meantime, he and his performers are making do in other ways. Many of them already had second or third jobs as makeup artists and cosmetologists. Straub, whose other work involved modeling and musical theater, has started picking up hours at J.Crew part time to make ends meet. Some of the performers have taken more jobs performing at private birthday and bachelorette parties, and occasionally doing Instagram takeovers and Monday night Facebook Live events. “We talk all the time, and we reminisce on the good laughs and what it was like to wake up at 7 a.m. in the morning on Sunday and get ready to go to brunch,” he says. But until a vaccine or additional guidance from the government arrives, Straub and his team are getting by however they can.
For many of Detroit’s bar entertainers, COVID-19 has been a time of mourning the loss of connection to a community of fans and service industry workers. “I remember the dates so clearly in this really eerie way,” Hannah the Hatchet, a Detroit burlesque performer and producer, says, recalling her last show, Nicolas Uncaged, at Planet Ant in Hamtramck on March 8. “It was really a ball, actually,” she says, but she didn’t realize at the time that it would be her last show for a very long time.
Hannah has been well acquainted with burlesque since she was in high school. Her mother is a member of a troupe in her hometown in New York called Whiskey Tango Sideshow, and when she returned home from college she started performing herself. After moving to Detroit in 2018 for grad school, Hannah grew into one of the more successful burlesque performers in the local scene, booking a monthly residency, Golden Hour Glamour, at Sid Gold’s; weekly performances at Willis Show Bar; and regular guest performances at Miss Hollyhock’s Speakeasy Sundays at Cliff Bell’s in downtown Detroit. Performing burlesque is, in many ways, a lifestyle for the dancers who participate. What viewers see is a short, choreographed striptease that belies the hours of planning, practicing, and intricate costuming that go into putting on that show. Although it wasn’t a full-time career, Hannah says that burlesque was her main source of income pre-pandemic, and the mass cancellations of events came at one of the worst times for her annual calendar. “Financially, [it] put me out in a big way,” she says, noting that she was scheduled to make several out-of-state trips to Toronto, Canada, and then to Ithaca for the Empire Burlesque Festival right around the onset of cancellations and border closures.
Lottie Ellington, another respected burlesque performer and instructor in the Detroit area, was also caught off guard by the pandemic. “It was a bit of a free fall,” she says. A regular at the Tangent Gallery, an art space in Milwaukee Junction, Ellington was scheduled to perform at both weekends of the Dirty Show, a major erotic art event that takes place every year in February. But Ellington had to call off three appearances during the second weekend after coming down with what she describes as a “really bad flu.” Ellington was sick for more than two weeks and required a doctor’s note to get out of work, and by the time she was healthy enough to begin performing again, everything was suddenly canceled. During that period, many people within the tight-knit burlesque scene turned to each other for support, buying and selling costumes out of their closets, making soap, and advertising merchandise. “You’re kind of doing collective economics,” she says.
And in the vacuum of closed stages and limited-capacity bars and restaurants, some artists turned to the internet, organizing livestream concerts and shows for people staying safe at home.
Ben Sharkey, a visual artist and singer, has been performing live around Detroit for close to a decade now. Sharkey got his start by recording videos of songs and posting them to YouTube, and eventually made the leap to singing with live bands at venues like the MGM Grand Casino and Willis Show Bar. “[I] went from working four or five nights a week to nothing,” he says.
While he was able to support himself with the non-performance aspects of his artwork, Sharkey has tried to maintain his place in the music scene by hosting livestreams through Facebook and YouTube — a kind of full-circle shift in his career. While the livestreams don’t pay as well as the corporate events he used to book, he has found that he can make a decent amount — the equivalent of a small live show at a local venue — from donation-based online performances, and has experimented with ticketed streaming shows. He’s also considering producing music for a vinyl-only album release and is working on writing a Christmas song for a company overseas. “There’s ways to still make money; you just have to go out and hustle,” he says.
Céleste Vé Dette is among a wider group of local burlesque performers who’ve made the transition to online events during the pandemic. Still in the process of growing her audience, Vé Dette had been taking time during the first three months of 2020 to plan her transition to a more full-time burlesque act. Since March, many of the festivals she had planned to participate in, including REO Town Thrift Store Gala in Lansing and Burlypicks Michigan, have made the leap to online shows. “It is a completely different experience, and it is, unfortunately, not as fulfilling as performing for a live audience,” she says. “You’re not able to engage with the crowd and kind of build off of their energy.”
There are some obvious barriers to working on the internet. Both Ellington and Vé Dette point out that online performance requires a very different skillset than stage performance, not to mention the technology to make it work. Ellington notes that if a performer doesn’t have a strong enough internet connection, they might get kicked out of their Zoom event or lose the flow of their act. “There’s been a lot more conversation on video-editing software, and how to make money through not only digital performances but other online methods,” she says. “Even though online shows are happening, they’re not happening as frequently as live performances were happening. And also, the money has not been as great as doing a live show.”
Vé Dette says that many performers, including herself, are also experimenting with membership platforms like Patreon and Onlyfans. Still, the burlesque community in particular faces barriers as they promote their projects on social media due to the nature of their work. “Myself and fellow performers are using those platforms for making money, but that has also been a challenge because, as burlesque performers, we do face a lot of censorship on Facebook and Instagram,” she says.
Brittany King, who goes by Eartha Kitten, is an Ypsilanti-based burlesque performer and was among the dancers who appeared at Ant Hall on March 8 alongside Hannah the Hatchet. For her, digital performance just doesn’t do it. “I applaud my peers that have gotten into the virtual shows and have been able to set up and do things like that, but for me, that’s not where my head was,” she says. “I like audience feedback. I like energy exchanged with audiences.” But online streaming doesn’t have that. There are no whoops, hollers, or laughs from the crowd. No person to fling your long satin glove at. No stage kittens to collect that glove. It’s just dancing into a void.
“There’s just something different when you’re performing in front of people versus to a camera,” Will Daniels, a musician and entrepreneur behind @Will Enterprises LLC, says. “You can’t really yell out to a camera and have anything come back.” Prior to March, Daniels was part of the house band at Willis Show Bar and about to embark on a tour with singer Sara Barron. But as shows got canceled and the bar closed, he found himself briefly working for Instacart due to the fact that independent contractors, freelancers, self-employed people, and gig workers were unable to collect unemployment. Only after the CARES Act was passed in late March did workers like Daniels qualify for unemployment. “Being able to meet new people every single week was such a blessing that I definitely took for granted and definitely miss now,” he says.
As for King, when the pandemic hit she didn’t truly realize that it would last this long. But as three weeks turned into a month and Broadway in New York shut down, it started to sink in that she might not be performing for quite some time. “That was when it got difficult,” she says. “That was when it was, ‘Okay, so what do I do with my creativity? What do I do with this art form that I’ve invested a lot of time and money into that I can’t do the way that I like to do it?’” King chose to throw her efforts into supporting her peers, sending them tips through Venmo and Cashapp and buying tickets to streaming events.
Willa Rae went through a mourning period after she was disconnected from public performance during the pandemic. Rae was just weeks away from an out-of-state tour with her band Valerie the Vulture when things rapidly started shutting down. Her tour happened to be tied to South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, a major event that was abruptly canceled this year due to COVID-19, throwing the city’s entertainment industry into financial turmoil. “So much time and effort goes into booking your own tour,” Rae says. “It was really heartbreaking.”
In that moment, Rae says she realized how much of her identity was tied to work as a performer. “I hustle, and that’s a part of the lifestyle of a musician and an artist ... just always hustling and, like, spinning a million plates,” she says. “And the part of the pandemic that’s been craziness is that you move at a certain pace for 10 years, and then it suddenly stopped.”
The sudden pause in her hectic artist life helped her to refocus. “I definitely realized how much of my self-worth and self-esteem is constructed around music and performing. It’s like your job, and your hobby, and your baby, and your husband or wife or lover... It’s like all that rolled into one,” she says. “And for that to just kind of come to a big fat stop has been — it’s been a trip.”
Rae received unemployment through the state, and she had her part-time bartending job at PJ’s Lager House in Corktown to fall back on when the pub reopened for dine-in service. Even with the limited capacity, she’s been able to continue to support herself in a time when many people in the service and music industries are struggling. She says she tried doing a livestream at one point during the spring stay-at-home order, but didn’t find the same fulfillment that she gets from performing in front of an audience at a venue. “It was awesome and people enjoyed it, but it didn’t quite scratch the itch like performing live does for me,” she says. “It’s that connection with other people. That’s part of what I love.”
Over the summer, as mandates on different types of public gatherings were loosened and restaurants and bars resumed some in-person dining, Detroit’s performing artists also found ways to adjust to the new rules of the pandemic.
Stefan Kukurugya, a professional musician with 40 years of experience performing at events and playing piano at venues like Sid Gold’s Request Room, became sick in March as venues were being shut down across the state. He’s not sure if it was COVID-19, due to the fact that tests were being rationed at the time of his illness, but says it took two weeks to go away, during which time he lost 15 pounds, and another three weeks before he felt like he had recovered. For a time after that, all the work dried up, but now he says gigs are “bubbling up” for performances at outdoor events such as weddings. “That’s really weird doing gigs now, because it’s hard to connect with people because you’re physically, literally away [from them],” Kukurugya says.
During one recent performance, he joined Jive Colossus, for a socially distanced, streamed concert and fundraiser at a farm. Kukurugya notes that the band’s bassist has a compromised immune system that puts him at higher risk for COVID-19, which made it necessary to spread out not only the people watching but also the performers themselves. As a result, there was a delay for the musicians hearing each other which made it more challenging to play in unison.
Despite the sometimes strange circumstances, Kukurugya is grateful to be playing for an audience. “Now that I’m gigging again, it’s interesting to me that even the little bit of gigging I’m doing is healing. It’s part of who I am.” People, he says, are learning how to show their appreciation and communicate with performers in different ways. “I do these tricks to engage them — to let them know I’m paying attention to them — and then they figure that out, and that animates them more because they realize I am paying attention to them,” he says. “So it’s sort of a symbiosis that raises the rapport.”
Burlesque performers find it a bit trickier, but not impossible, to produce shows in an open-air space. “Burlesque isn’t something that you can always do outside because you have blue laws,” King notes. “There’s all these things that go along with just performing burlesque that you are so much more protected once you have a venue to do it in.”
In August, King made an appearance at a rare outdoor show in Michigan alongside Port Huron’s Black River Revue burlesque troupe. “There was a salon up there that gave them enough space to give us a socially distant dressing room. They built an entire platform stage outside and made sure everybody wore masks and socially distanced, and, thankfully, nobody got sick from that event,” she says. While it wasn’t required of the performers while they were on stage, some of the participants even worked masks into their acts. For her, the experience was both positive and strange, like flexing a muscle that hadn’t been used for a long time. “You don’t do something for six months and then you all of a sudden just throw yourself into it and you’re like, ‘I don’t know if I remember how to do this’ and it doesn’t feel natural anymore,” she says. “Now, I just feel like, ‘Okay, so we’re basically starting over again, but you get to start over with better costumes.’”
Looking to the future, one where performers are hopefully back in the same room as their audiences, workers see opportunities to address problematic aspects of the community as they rebuild the industry. First and foremost, that means getting paid. Will Daniels notes that as a talent broker, he’s responsible for making sure local musicians are receiving appropriate compensation and is concerned that those negotiations might become much tougher if venues are hurting financially. “It’s definitely a concern because if there’s not money in the pot, then obviously you can’t pay the musicians, but the musicians definitely need to get paid,” he says. “I would encourage people who are fans of the local music scene to keep showing love to those musicians who are posting online, and doing the livestreams, and honestly, working for free. It’s a craft, and art. So it does take a lot for us to do what we do.”
“I hope that the rates go up,” Hannah says. “People are like, ‘Oh, we’re in an economic depression. We’re going to end up coming back and these venues aren’t going to have money to pay entertainers, so we’re going to be basically getting pennies,’” she says. “And I’m like, ‘No, there’s no way in hell I’m going to take any less than what I was making.’ In fact, I’d rather be pushing for more.”
Several performers in the burlesque community also pointed to the larger conversations around race happening in the country during the pandemic and how those could impact the local cabaret community going forward. Despite Detroit being a majority Black city, many local burlesque revues favored white performers, with only a few people of color included in shows. This led to a feeling of tokenization within the community, and concerns that Detroit’s long history of Black burlesque dancers was being whitewashed during the recent resurgence of venues hosting burlesque shows.
“Racism and beauty standards go hand in hand often, so who’s getting hired often has to do with what you look like, and that crosses over into burlesque in a big way,” Hannah says, “even though burlesque is really about body positivity and inclusivity of all people, all genders, and all races.”
Some of the work already being done to change that perception was derailed by the pandemic as well. “People were starting to notice, like, there’s kind of a lack of POC, Black performers. What’s the deal with that? How do we make this art form more prevalent in the city, so that more people that populate the city want to be involved in it?” King says. Now, her goal of establishing a more inclusive community and starting to produce her own shows has been put on hold. “I hope that people are going to their predominantly white production teams or predominantly white sponsors and saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t working, and if we want to be better, if we’re paying attention to the trends of what’s happening, we need to be better and we need to be more inclusive,’” she says.
Almost every artist Eater spoke to agreed that what the bar entertainment industry needs more than anything is some sort of financial support through another stimulus package (currently on hold), but also potentially through the DAWN Act. That bill proposes authorizing $43.85 billion in grants to operators, employees, and artists of live venues, recording venues, cultural spaces, and related businesses that have been impacted by the pandemic, as well as health care subsidies. “It’s really important for the federal government and for states to be really considering the economic impacts that artists do have on our economy,” Hannah the Hatchet says. “People love entertainment and love live performance. … We bring a lot to these cities.”
Céleste Vé Dette is also apprehensive of how the arts community will be impacted if it continues to be left out of stimulus packages. “I’m really worried about not only music and dance performers, but the whole arts and culture sector. I foresee, unfortunately, the venues closing down who didn’t receive any funding assistance and have had to keep their doors closed throughout this entire shutdown,” she says. She also predicts that the financial strains of the economic downturn may prevent some from returning to their craft. “I think we are going to see a shift in the community. I don’t know if everybody who did burlesque pre-pandemic can come back to it.”
For now, people working in the hospitality and entertainment industries are waiting for the day when they’ll be able to return fully to what they love doing. “I’ll be happy when we can see people again,” Lottie Ellington says. “My boobs miss the applause.”
Correction, October 15, 2020: This story has been corrected to reflect that bars are now permitted to open for indoor service.