“If I were a retailer and I had thousands of dollars of inventory and an absentee landlord who wasn’t as reasonable as the one I’ve got, I’d be in deep trouble”

Article by Bill Hornbostel/images supplied

Now in his sixth year of running the Loft Cinema in Cobourg, owner-operator Ken Prue describes his business as a “one-man show.” With the latest government-mandated lockdown, Prue has had to shut down the theatre for the second time in a year. In a recent interview, he spoke about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the Loft.

Before the COVID, the sixty-three seat Loft showed films and hosted live music. “The movies are mostly documentaries, and then classic films, or films that are out of current circulation,” Prue says.

Ken Prue

Live music at the Loft is typically Classical or Jazz. Musician Michael Pepa, who retired and moved to Cobourg four years ago, handles the Classical music programming. “He has a classical music series called ‘Les Amis’ concerts,” says Prue. “It’s chamber music, generally with small ensembles of two, three and four musicians, usually a piano and violin and sometimes other accompanists.”

“Most of these people have regular gigs, too,” continues Prue. “They play with the Toronto Symphony, or the National Ballet Company orchestra, or the Opera Company orchestra, or the National Orchestra from Ottawa.”

“Then I play a lot of jazz, mostly because I really love jazz, and jazz musicians find it difficult to find venues to play in,” says Prue. “Most of the jazz musicians that play at my place come from Toronto, and Toronto music venues have been closing at a horrific clip, because the real estate’s spiralling prices have made it unprofitable to hold the old clubs that have served as venues for jazz music.”

“We punch above our weight in terms of getting quality of musician in my little place,” says Prue.

“I’m 75 years old, and this is what I do in retirement,” states Prue. “It’s an extension of what I did in my career. I’m using an old muscle and lots of contacts in the business to do this stuff. I’m able to do more things as a small operator than some other people would if they didn’t have the long experience and contact list that I have.”

“All of this changed on March 11, when the pandemic was declared,” Prue says. “On March 13, I cancelled twelve concerts at twelve hard bookings.”

It was only at the beginning of August that the Loft was able to reopen. “On August 1, we were declared able to open, with restrictions,” Prue says. “The restrictions were advanced reservations, social distancing, all participants wear masks, and so on. So, I reopened on August 4 and I was operating under restrained circumstances from August 4 until December 18 or 19, when another lockdown was declared, and it was indicated that that lockdown would last 28 days.”

“I was prepared to reopen on January 24, but the incidence of virus cases continued to spiral and so the province put more rigorous lockdown in place,” Prue states. “And that’s what I’m working under now; I‘m shut down hard, it’s a hard lockdown, and it doesn’t have a tentative open date. I’m pretty optimistic that I will reopen; I’m just not sure when.”

When Ontario isn’t in a pandemic lockdown, Prue describes the restrictions. “I have an eighteen-person cap on my attendance, and people have to reserve in advance to get a seat, and everybody has to wear a mask, and they have to wear it to get into the room and they have to wear it throughout the movie. The last thing I say before I turn my projector on for any movie is, ‘In about 60 seconds, when you’re alone in the dark, everyone’s gonna want to tear their mask off and take deep gulps of air. Don’t do it. We have a contract here, and that is that we all wear masks. And as a result, we’re all safer for it.’”

Prue also talks about live music during the pandemic. “Since March 13, I’ve had one concert,” he states. That concert was on December 6. “It was chamber music, a classical pianist and violinist, under the Michael Pepa ‘Les Amis’ umbrella.”

“When I get to reopen again, my guess is that I’ll be able to do one or two concerts a month like that,” Prue says. “Presenting artists who don’t expel any air, like piano and violin are not intrusive, they’re not putting aerosols out in the air, and so they’re not putting people at risk, and the artists are masked as well as the audience.”

Prue talks about the pandemic restrictions on seating at the Loft. “That felt pretty constraining initially, but then I got in a groove, and it was getting eighteen people for most of my shows, which isn’t radically off my average attendance when I was operating under normal circumstances,” he states. “The big difference economically is that it didn’t have the higher revenue concerts to bump my revenue line. It’s still sustainable, but it’s only sustainable because it’s a one-man operation.”

Another thing that is helping the Loft keep aloft during the pandemic is his relationship with the landlord. “I have a great landlord!” Prue says. “He’s an absolute sweetheart.”

“If I were a retailer and I had thousands of dollars of inventory and an absentee landlord who wasn’t as reasonable as the one I’ve got, I’d be in deep trouble,” adds Prue. “I’d be facing financial ruin, as many are. My circumstance is really fortunate.”

So, Prue is looking forward to reopening after the current lockdown. And his choice for the first movie to hit the Loft’s screen when it does? 28 Days Later.

The Loft Cinema is located at 201 Division Street in Cobourg on the upper floor. For more information on the Loft Cinema, you may visit the theatre’s website, cobourgloft.ca, or follow the Loft on Facebook (@cobourgloft.ca).

For more information on Les Amis Concerts, you may visit the website, lesamisconcerts.org.

Kevin Lau and Lynn Kuo play the Loft (credit: Laurie Zabolotny)

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