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Anyone running a venue that specializes in presenting live entertainment to the public will tell you that over the past 14 months, operations have been akin to navigating a harried journey through river rapids, replete with jagged rocks, the dangers of capsizing, and an utter lack of predictability.

The Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton is one of the dozens of Orange County entities forced to reckon with the joint issues of making drastic changes to its events calendar for the bulk of 2020 and most of this year, and keeping patrons apprised of what to expect if attending an event there.

Through considerable creativity and ingenuity, the venerated Fullerton venue crafted a continuous stream of events open to the public, all while observing whatever pandemic guidelines were in place at the time of each event. And as Orange County moved down a notch from the most restrictive tier, “the Muck,” the affectionate term used by staff and patrons, began preparing for its annual jazz festival, one of the venue’s signature events.

That the festival opened last Thursday essentially without a hitch qualifies that date, May 13, 2021, as a milestone for the venue.

As the sun began to set and patrons filed in, a quartet of talented jazz musicians from Cal State Fullerton, warmed up the crowd. The ever-popular group Cow Bop took to the stage. They and the audience then received a warm welcome from Muck CEO Farrell Hirsch, who later said the joy coming from everyone around him was palpable.

As the first night of this year’s Muck Jazz Festival, the event christened the reopening of the outdoor amphitheater after going dark for more than a year. The music of Cow Bop, a singular group that meshes the seemingly dissimilar styles of jazz and country, only heightened the excitement surrounding the evening.

Perhaps the only element that might qualify as a snag would be an error of commission: On the preceding evening, Hirsch sent out a mass email to patrons alerting them as to what to expect when they arrived.

That memo was pretty much overturned the next morning when new guidelines were issued, most of which were at odds with what Hirsch had outlined. When asked about this as patrons were taking their seats, a hapless Hirsch remarked, “The rules are literally changing from one day to the next. The key is moving forward.”

Taking Precautions – Then Having the Rug Pulled Out From Under

He clarified by saying, “I waited as long as I possibly could, then emailed out to our patrons at the end of the day Wednesday – and then Thursday morning a new set of guidelines were issued that invalidated all the rules I had set up.”

As with every entity everywhere in dealing with the public, Hirsch and company have constantly been behind the eight ball, scrambling to keep up with constantly shifting recommendations. As Hirsch points out, the CDC “only makes recommendations. Only government entities at whatever level can make rules and regulations; every time their rules change, they send something out.” Those “somethings” are what he and his staff use to advise their patrons.

Muckenthaler communications director Ana Cottle reported that the staff “has been keeping up on the guidelines for venues, and adjusting as needed. Our strategy, as far as communicating with our audience and the public now and this past year, has been to share our safety guidelines and any requirements of the audience and guests as they evolve.”

This year’s Muck Jazz Festival is notable as the venue’s first event using its outdoor amphitheater – but it’s by no means the first time since the pandemic began that audiences have been attending events there. In fact, even in the face of other live entertainment destinations closing their doors for months at a time, the Fullerton venue pressed on with what must be considered one of the most ambitious lineups of entertainment and recreational events anywhere throughout Orange County.

Hirsch relates that he and his staff “did a ton of live performance events over the past year – all kinds of things.”

Cottle rattled off a variety of events that must be the envy of any venue that simply threw in the towel rather than explore possible ways to include the public while keeping mindful of its safety: “We did a drive-thru art program, drive-in concerts, private art gallery reservations for our indoor exhibitions, an outdoor ribbon-cutting reception for our sculpture garden, a social-distancing friendly summer camp and small group art classes,” she said.

“In many ways,” she noted, “we’ve been managing this dynamic all year, and we’ve been lucky to have a really receptive community through all of these evolutions.”

Stirred into the mixture of a creative staff brainstorming to provide exciting live events and a public hungry for diversion was what Cottle refers to as “a huge range of performers.”

You can count Brazilian singer-songwriter Caro Pierotto, folk duo Bettman and Halpin, and the L.A.-based group Mariachi Garibaldi de Jaime Cuéllar as just a few of these. The Muck is also popular both with musicians and the local public because of its penchant for providing an enthusiastic showcase for well-known, Orange County-based groups like the Dardens, Sean Oliu and The Alley Cats.

Hirsch said that all during the turmoil of last year, he looked at other venues all around him, all of which host multiple public events – and most of which “canceled their whole years. Some were cancelling through January of 2023,” he said, expressing bafflement and disbelief over such decisions.

That stance – being puzzled by simply closing up shop – clarifies the how and why as to Muckenthaler’s determination to have as many events as possible from spring of 2020 right up until just a few weeks ago.

The Concept of the ‘Drive-In’ Spurs a New Way to Engage

The entire “drive-in” craze developed almost by accident. The Muck had already partnered with the Frida Cinema in downtown Santa Ana to do a collaborative event over Memorial Day weekend of last year.

The pandemic forced the heads of both organizations to rethink the event, leading to the concept of screening a movie and doing it as a drive-in. A screening of “The Princess Bride” sold out in less than a minute. A second screening also sold out in just minutes, so a third screening was added which also was a hit with the public.

As Cottle notes, “The collaboration remained, but the event changed.” More importantly, it caused Hirsch and his staff to recognize that they had hit upon an alternate way of presenting live events to the public without worrying about members of the public physically interacting. As Cottle says, the Frida screenings were “a great start to introduce the format” for later events.

In short order, Muck events that had been scheduled for the summer were converted to the “drive-in” format. When performers, for whatever reasons, dropped out, new performers were signed up to replace them.

Notable among these events was an appearance by Broadway star Adam Pascal. Not originally booked for 2020, the event was added as a drive-in. The original Roger Davis in the Broadway and movie production of “Rent,” Pascal did an intimate retrospective/acoustic show in August.

September saw a drive-in dance performance by Ballet Folklorico de Los Angeles, referred to by Cottle as “our first drive-in dance performance and BFLA’s first live performance of the year.”

The format proved so durable and versatile that it was incorporated into the Muck’s Annual Gala on October 17, 2020.

What typically would have included a silent auction, a sit-down dinner and dancing morphed into a “Mask-Car-Ade: Road Rally Scavenger Hunt.”

Guests pre-registered as teams and followed a series of clues to destinations all around Fullerton. Some clues simply required sending in a quick cellphone selfie while other destinations had staff or volunteers waiting with a quick challenge.

Cottle reports that “after the scavenger hunt portion ended, everyone returned to The Muck for prizes, a drive-in concert, and a car-friendly gourmet boxed meal and dessert.”

The annual jazz festival was not quite lost in the flurry of activity surrounding revising events on the fly so that they met pandemic guidelines – it was simply punted until Hirsch and company could devise a way to satisfy their patrons’ and the public’s desire to see its favorite jazz performers in a series of weekly concerts.

Jazz Festival’s Organizers are Talented Improvisers

Hirsch noted that several elements of the annual jazz festival make it a different animal from many of the other events the Muck has done in previous years, including many of those that were done safely throughout last year during the worst of the pandemic.

Muck Annual JazzFest: Spring 2021

Where: The Muckenthaler, 1201 W. Malvern Ave, Fullerton
Tickets: $35 per performance, $150 for a festival pass.
Contact: 714-738-6595, or TheMuck.org

Schedule

  • May 20: LA Jazz Quartet, featuring Larry Koonse
  • May 27: Barbara Morrison group
  • June 3: Bill Cunliffe, featuring Francisco Torres, Kye Palmer, Brian Scanlon, Jeff Ellwood, Mark Ferber
  • June 10: Josh Johnson and Holophonor, featuring Mike Cottone (trumpet), Miro Sprague (piano), Dave Robaire (bass), Jonathan Pinson (drums)
  • June 17: Don Most Orchestra

Headliners take the stage at dusk. Each is preceded by a pre-show concert performed by local college and high school jazz musicians.

First, despite the fact that the amphitheater is an outdoor venue, audience members are seated within close proximity to one another, with seating on permanently installed, curved metal benches.

Second, Hirsch himself doesn’t create the event or its scheduling. Prior to his arrival in 2017, the festival’s creator, Eric Futterer, was the producer and coordinator. Since 2017, the festival has been co-produced by Bill Cunliffe and Jeff Sotzing, so for any decisions made regarding the event, Hirsch works in close coordination with the two producers.

Both are armed with impressive credentials: For many years, Sotzing was producer of “The Tonight Show.” Cunliffe is a Grammy-winning arranger, composer and pianist who coordinates jazz studies and teaches at Cal State, Fullerton. Between them, the duo have innumerable show-biz and music industry contacts.

Sotzing notes that running this event is definitely a three-way partnership and that he and Cunliffe not only work closely with each other but also “work with Farrell to kick around ideas.”

Hirsch said that by June of last year, “it was apparent that the time for the (spring 2020) jazz festival had passed.” As the summer months approached, he focused on the drive-in concept and its ability to encompass some types of live music.

By last summer, most of the acts that had been signed for last spring’s Muck Jazz series were no longer available, so Hirsch conferred with Cunliffe. Cunliffe began networking, turning to his colleagues in the jazz community and inviting them to perform on the lawn at the Muck, with audience members listening from the safety of their cars.

By mid-summer, Cunliffe said, he had lined up five jazz acts to participate in an amended festival that unfolded on five consecutive Thursday nights from Oct. 1 to 29. Attendees were instructed to remain in their vehicles during the performance and to open their windows to hear the performance. Masks were required only if patrons needed to leave their cars either to use the facility’s restrooms or for any other reason.

The series was formally billed as “Jazztoberfest 2020” and informally referred to as a “Drive-in Jazz series on the Muck lawn.”

When asked recently about the way the Muck and its jazz festival producers have rolled with the pandemic punches, Hirsch said even after the 2020 festival was canceled, then resurrected in the fall as a drive-in event, there was “never any other plan” in place to have the jazz festival anywhere else but at the venue’s amphitheater in 2021, just as it had always been held. Having an impromptu drive-in event last fall was merely a stop-gap that wasn’t intended to replace the event fans have come to know and love.

He said “the plan always was ‘the minute it becomes viable to move back onto the stage, we will.’ ”

Two benchmarks bear out Hirsch’s perception of the festival. One is that even with much of the populace still cautious about attending a public performance, the opening night concert was at its full capacity – the venue, which holds 250 patrons, was maxed out at 125.

Second, of those who attended, some 80% were carried over from the 2020 festival, whose patrons were given the option of rolling their season tickets over to the following year. By the Muck staff’s calculations as patrons filed for Cowbop, 100 were patrons from a year ago. The remainder (between 20 and 25) were Muck “gold star” patrons whose membership tier for Muck events allows them entrance to specified special events.

Seems Like Old Times

Asked about the festival ice-breaker, Sotzing said the event “looked like business as usual. We had a lot of people show up for it. The audience was ready to see a performance and the performers were ready to perform.”

The opening night performance of each festival, he noted, rarely generates the kind of audience attention and enthusiasm as was seen on May 13. He attributes this to the public having had “no social interaction” nor live entertainment for some 14 months. “And Cowbop was simply off-the-charts good.”

Audiences can expect more of the same in the coming weeks. Five of this year’s acts have appeared previously on the amphitheater stage as part of the festival. The new addition this year is the Don Most Orchestra, a swing band created, organized and headed by the actor known as Donnie Most during his days as a regular cast member of the ’70s TV show “Happy Days.”

As a bonus, each night of the festival includes a pre-show performance by local students who are jazz musicians. Cunliffe has either contacted or is in the process of contacting these young entertainers. Of the opening acts for the remaining five concerts, three will feature jazz students from CSUF, one from Fullerton College and one from a local high school.

Hirsch said he’s been elated by public response to the festival opening night. “Four or five people were so enthralled that they bought season tickets for the whole year,” a fact he also attributed to the fact that “we spent last year continuing to produce events for their benefit.”

Of audience response to his excited-nervous curtain speech, he had only to say “everyone was happy, everyone was good, no one gave me a hard time. People are just so happy to be back and to have their lives back.”

Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at emarchesewriter@gmail.com.

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