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Interview: Caroline Hirsch of Carolines on Broadway on Reopening After the Pandemic

The Times Square mainstay is alive and well.

Theater, obviously, wasn't the only facet of the live events industry that got shut down with the onset of Covid-19 in 2020. Just across the street from the big play and musical houses, Caroline Hirsch's eponymous comedy club Carolines on Broadway suffered the same fate as everyone else. From March 2020 through Memorial Day of this year, the stage was dark, but Hirsch still had to keep the lights on. Here, Hirsch discusses the perseverance it took to keep Carolines on Broadway alive, and how great it feels to be back.

Caroline Hirsch
(© Marion Curtis)

Take me back to March 2020. When did you get shut down?
It was mandated on March 16 or 17, the Monday or Tuesday. We were half-shut down that weekend because we had an act coming in from LA whose agent told me he didn't want to fly in, and we were sold out. So we had to just put in a small showcase and refund all the tickets. It's been a lovely 15 months.

If you're open to talking about the economics of it —
The economics is that there was no revenue coming in, and we were refunding people that bought tickets way out into the summer. Private parties, we refunded those deposits. So we made everybody pretty much whole, unless they said to us "Wait until you reopen again," but nobody did that. We refunded all of the money, so you go into your pockets to do that. Listen, we're here today, we're open, it's good. You close, but the bills still come in. There's rent, there's electricity, there's gas, there's telephone, there's internet, there's laundry bills from previous months. It goes on and on and on. Luckily, I have a very good landlord and we've been compromising with him.

I think there are a lot of people who probably didn't realize that you even need to pay rent on the building, since your name is on it.
Yeah. I happen to have a landlord who was really understanding when we were negotiating where we were going to come out of this. Everybody will be made whole, eventually, in some way or another. I've been in this space for close to 30 years and have paid my rent for 30 years here. And it hasn't been a cheap rent — it's an expensive rent. I think a landlord who sees that understands that you can't say "You have to get out of your space because you're not paying rent," because who's coming in here? Everybody's gotta work with each other.

How did you begin the reopening process?
Well, we watched and waited. We'd been talking to the state, listening to what they have to say and thinking about when we think everybody will be vaccinated. And I came up with a date of Memorial Day, and just by listening to what everybody was saying about vaccinations, that was the time for us to start. We opened Memorial Day. People want to go out. We opened up with Donnell Rawlings and people had the best time eating dinner and drinking and watching the show.

The exterior of Carolines on Broadway
(© Deborah Eynon Finley)

What's it like to be in that room on that first night?
It was absolutely great. It was like back to old times, almost. The room wasn't as filled, but it felt good to be back. And it wasn't like it was so — we thought that people would be worried, but people weren't worried about anything. We were very respectful. The first show that we had, we didn't put anybody in front of the stage because of the social distancing regulations for entertainment venues. The performer said "I need people up front so I can see their eyes," so the next night we put all the vaccinated people in front of the stage.

You're not having a hard time booking acts?
A little bit. People were not sure about coming to New York, and now it's a lot easier. We're this bright light on Broadway that's opened.

It must be so nice to get back to it.
It really is. It feels good and I'm very much energized about where things are going and I'm very excited about the live event space, because this is what people want. Hopefully, Broadway will open with a big bang. Because we did. We opened with a bang.

What would you say to people that are apprehensive about coming back?
I don't think you should be afraid. People are going to restaurants. There are new mandates now about going back to your office. If you're leery, put a mask on. But I think that let's follow the science, which says that vaccines work.