How One Beloved Local Theater Weathered the Pandemic: Thanks to Aid Money and a Customer Who Kept Showing Up

"It was just time for good news," Clinton Street Theater owner Lani Jo Leigh tells PEOPLE, after the most trying period in the venue's 107-year history

Lani Jo Leigh of the Clinton Street Theater in Portland, Ore.
Lani Jo Leigh. Photo: Courtesy Lani Jo Leigh

In early July, Lani Jo Leigh stood in the back of the Clinton Street Theater and basked in a room full of laughter for the first time in more than 15 months — a moment she and thousands of other venue owners around the U.S. feared might never come.

Leigh — the owner of the historic, 107-year-old theater in downtown Portland, Oregon — had gritted her teeth through 2020. The first year of the COVID-19 pandemic brought painful layoffs for Clinton Street (half Leigh's intimate four-person staff), while she still showed up every day to change its legendary marquee and dust off seats she hoped, one day, to fill again.

"It was just really devastating," Leigh told PEOPLE at the beginning of this year, weeks into her seven-month wait to hear back from the federal government about relief funding from the Trump administration's December 2020 stimulus package.

The transition between the Trump and Biden White House, as well as internal delays — such as website crashes and an arduous by-hand review process — kept the Small Business Administration from sending billions to theater and other venue operators alike for more than half a year in 2021. The SBA has mostly caught up by now, reporting in August that it had issued decisions on 98 percent of the relief applications it received. (That number has since dropped to 87 percent as thousands more applications came in ahead of the fall.)

And the good news finally came in bunches for Leigh this summer: Less than 24 hours after Oregon Gov. Kate Brown lifted pandemic restrictions on local businesses across the state, the SBA notified Leigh that Clinton Street would receive $137,368 to keep its theater doors open.

Then, less than a month after that, Clinton Street opened to a full capacity crowd on July 1 — the first time since March 2020.

Leigh stood in the back and let herself laugh along with the 221 others in attendance. Comedian Ian Karmel was hosting a free show to celebrate the theater's back-to-capacity comedy night and for a moment things felt somewhat normal again after the most trying year Leigh has ever experienced.

"It was just time for good news," she tells PEOPLE, calling the comeback show "the most fun night" she and others there had in a long time. "Everyone was happy," she says, sounding like she's nearly smiling through the phone.

Clinton Street Theater in Portland, Ore
Clinton Street Theater. Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa via AP

Keeping Clinton Street open always felt like Leigh's calling. She purchased the theater somewhat on a whim in 2012, taking a second mortgage out on her home to afford it. The venue has a long history: It's been open since 1914, mostly as a movie theater but hosting an array of other events like comedy, music, live theater, burlesque and often even serving as a simple gathering space for community meetings.

But when no one could gather there any longer, as COVID spread through the community, the bills began piling up. Leigh tells PEOPLE she lost roughly 90 percent of her income keeping the theater alive, while state funding through Oregon, an initial $12,000 loan from the first Paycheck Protection Program last April and a stream of local donations kept Clinton Street alive.

"I'm a caretaker," Leigh says about her own efforts. "It belongs to the people who come there and make the art. I just had to keep the bills paid."

Leigh spoke with gratitude over the phone during one interview with PEOPLE this past May, remembering the tears she shed during a September 2020 telethon that local artists organized to help the theater out. She watched from home with her sister as musician after musician traded off songs and stories about the theater. The artists raised more than $20,000 for Clinton Street, Leigh says.

"I still get teary when I think about it. It was so special," she says. "They just wanted us to be able to survive, because we stand for something in the community, especially for the LGBT community."

Others worked to keep the aura of the theater and its traditions alive. Nathan Williams, who emcees the theater's weekly showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show, came to the theater by himself for 54 straight Saturday nights in a row to play the film. It's a tradition that's gone uninterrupted since 1978, and now Leigh can still say the film has played every weekend since then — even if just to one person.

"I was in a position to keep a flame burning, to keep a torch lit," Williams told The Oregonian about the Rocky Horror streak. "I'm just a guy holding a torch for the city of Portland, for all the weirdos, for all the people who don't have a safe place to call home, we're home."

Clinton Street Theater in Portland, Ore
Clinton Street Theater. Alamy

Leigh says she and the surrounding community are more optimistic than this time last year. The free spirited-speaking owner talked of "the light at the end of the tunnel" moments after Clinton Street received its recent federal funding and celebrated, saying finally that "we're going to be all right!"

In one particular nugget of good news, Clinton Street was able to hire back even more part-time helpers, increasing Leigh's staff to six.

With the federal government mandating venues spend their relief funding in 2021, Leigh says she has "big plans" for the theater. She hopes to invest in long-needed maintenance to the theater's aging stage and equipment, as well as plans to update the website and the ticketing systems — something she hopes will get plenty of use now that business is back.

Still, Leigh recognizes the hard times aren't over, in spite of the theater's full summer crowds and a slate of events scheduled through Christmas. Labor, wood and material shortages have left her searching everywhere for someone to hire for those reconstruction jobs — even the simple supplies are hard to come across right now. "There's a backlog in lots of stuff, like I can't even buy candy right now. It's crazy," she says.

And the delta variant has already forced Leigh's hand. With COVID cases rising sharply this summer, according to a New York Times tracker, Clinton Street decreased its capacity limit to 50 percent starting Sept. 1 to allow for adequate social distancing.

If shutdowns are required again, Leigh says at least she has the federal funding money to fall back on. Although if there's a next time, she hopes the government can find a way to get the money out faster. The seven-month wait for approval amid the pandemic left her in mental anguish over the theater's future, she says. Had the money been more forthcoming, that may not have been the case.

"The whole process was kind of a big mess," she says, though grateful for the eventual aid.

At the moment, though, things are good — even with the pandemic leaving venue operators balancing on unstable ground. Clinton Street is eyeing its 108th year in business, while Leigh is back to welcoming people through its doors and even laughing again.

"We're just doing our thing for now," she says. "Just hoping for the best."

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