Baby Steps: Zanzabar Opens Its Stage

Louisville’s stages have gone dark. Once the locus of mass rejoicing, elation and sometimes the collective place to release the frustrations of living, few Louisville venues have found a way to host live performances amidst the frighteningly rapid spread of COVID-19. Music halls, bar stages and arenas are gathering dust with many months of only echoes filling the walls. 

One bar, a Louisville music staple over the last 12 years, hangs on the edge of a wet cliff in the midst of a rainstorm. Fighting against the deluge, Zanzabar announced two concerts. On Friday and Saturday, Jan. 22-23, Mama Said String Band will perform at Zanzabar, the venues first shows since March. Both nights are currently sold out.  

While it doesn’t truly mark the reopening of the stage in a large capacity, it is a necessary step to help save the business, event promoter for Zanzabar Mark Evans, told LEO: “It’s a weird time to be having a show.” 

“I really feel like, unfortunately, Zanzabar’s in a position where it has to have events or it’s just not going to survive.”

On a typical night, Zanzabar can host up to 400 guests. Right now, they are allowing around 60 people in the door.  

“We’ve found a pretty safe format,” Evans said. “We did a test run in October with a burlesque show.”

Zanzabar is selling tickets by the table instead of per person. Evans believes this encourages people to come in pods or households, preventing strangers from congregating together and bolstering the spread of the COVID-19 virus. 

“This first show is a bluegrass show which is a little easier on the production spectrum,” said Evans. “We’re just easing into this and making sure we follow all CDC guidelines and LOVS guidelines.”

LOVS is a local initiative to provide support and guidance for local venues to reopen and host events safely. The Louisville Operating Venues Safely  (LOVS) group wants “to provide the safest and healthiest music-going experience.” 

LOVS founding member, Scotty Haulter, told LEO in October that his goal with the organization is for the customer to feel safe and informed about visiting local venues. “We want to be transparent with the public on what the LOVS venues are doing and offer them some comfort in attending events at these spaces,” he said.   

LOVS guidelines include that customers must wear masks unless sitting at a table, eating or drinking; visiting artists and staff will get temperature checks; the audience will be required to social distance; and all high-touch surfaces will be sanitized, including band equipment and merchandise. 

Safety precautions were also important to Mama Said String Band.  

“We wanted to bring our audience together for live music in an environment where they can feel safe,” said Mama Said String Band member Katie Didit. “Zanzabar created a floor plan which only allows for 58 guests, socially-distant sitting tables and mask requirements, which we feel confident in.”

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For most bands, live performance is the bread and butter of their careers. The connections built with fans and merchandising help keep the bills paid. 

“Live performance has been our livelihood since the formation of this band,” said Didit. “Our hope for the upcoming year is to see decreasing numbers in COVID cases following the first few rollouts of the vaccine so that we may return to doing what we love most, making music and bringing our fans together.”

Without open venues and with the closure of so many that couldn’t make it through the pandemic, the list of COVID casualties certainly extends beyond the human toll. 

A national organization, the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), took the fight to Congress, asking them to pass the Save Our Stages Act. The bill provides a $15 billion dollar lifeline for a struggling industry.

The money has yet to be distributed but it is coming and has reenergized some venues to find ways to hang on until it comes through. 

The Act provides grant money “to eligible live venue operators, producers, promoters, or talent representatives to address the economic effects of the COVID-19 (i.e., coronavirus disease 2019) pandemic on certain live venues.”

Until those funds are available, venues like Zanzabar have to find ways to stay afloat. The Mama Said String Band show is a baby step in that direction. 

“It’s hard to predict how things are going to go,” Evans said, recounting the fact that Zanzabar has experienced almost a year of what he calls, “dead air.”

“The Wettig brothers have put a lot of time and money over the last 12 years into that property.” 

Jon and Antz Wettig are the owners of Zanzabar and other nearby properties.

Zanzabar is unique because, in addition to its stage, it has an arcade and a restaurant. While the arcade has been scaled down due to the pandemic, the restaurant is still operating. Anyone who’s visited Zanzabar knows that the food is noteworthy. 

“It’s tragically underrated as a restaurant,” said Evans, citing that he is a vegetarian and still finds himself impressed with their food selections. 

Zanzabar is a Germantown staple and for over 80 years, the club has hosted generations of patrons and musical acts. While only one of Louisville’s many stages, Zanzabar reflects a battle that many venues are facing. They depend on the community that supports them and the way we continue to fight COVID-19. If we win, our stages, nightclubs, restaurants and all local businesses win. It’s an effort that demands all hands on deck. The “Zanzabars” of America are counting on us.

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