WEST KINGSTON, R.I. — With their song “Gotta be Patient,” Barenaked Ladies, Michael Bublé and Sofia Reyes have resonated with many of Mariann Almonte’s patrons at the Courthouse Center for the Arts in West Kingston.
I just wanna see my friends
I wanna walk the street again
But I gotta be patient
So let’s enjoy this confination
“‘We need to get out, we need to get out, we need to have fun,’” Almonte said about what she, too, hears expressed from her patrons coming to events.
Now, she’s starting to give them what they want. She told The Independent this week that she has re-charged the Courthouse’s music and entertainment offerings that now stretch beyond this year.
“I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and that is very good,” said Almonte, the center’s executive director.
In addition to concerts, the center also provides art instruction free for young people in inclusive classes and summer camps. It also offers work readiness programs and internships for young adults to learn skills for earning a living.
Some of this has not been brought back yet. Concerts are the first to start in resuming the operations, she said.
At the old Kingstown Road jail and courthouse that was converted to an entertainment venue, Almonte said the planned schedule will right now seat only about 100 people for each event. That is less than the allowed capacity under current state restrictions, she explained.
“I don’t feel comfortable with the 144 I could have, given the continuing issues with COVID-19,” she said. “I will keep it limited to 100 until more vaccinations are done, and possibly looser restrictions.”
She also said, though, that those wanting to gather at the venue can feel safe. Dozens of acts and tribute bands are booked (courthousearts.org) for the coming months.
In April, for instance, the lineup includes Aerosmith Tribute, The Elvis and Orbison Show and Destination Motown — Sensational Soul Cruisers.
“We’re following all COVID restrictions, including seat distancing, touchless sanitizer when you come in, touchless paper towels, and touchless soap,” she said. Almonte added that mask-wearing is required.
Seats have been removed for every other row. Anyone sitting together needs to have purchased side-by-side tickets or have come in the same vehicle, she said.
“People have been very cooperative and working together. It’s good, it’s good,” Almonte said. For instance, she allows some limited dancing and couples follow the rules that only a few are allowed on the floor at once and must be spaced far apart.
“They maintain space, dance only to one song and then allow another small group to go up,” she said.
During the COVID-19 massive shutdown of indoor entertainment, the Courthouse lost over 200 shows. The building remained unused for much of the time and it needed top-to-bottom cleaning, Almonte said.
Volunteers from the University of Rhode Island’s Phi Gamma Delta fraternity — which has helped in the past — came during February and March to prepare the building.
Volunteer help, such as the physical work performed by the fraternity, is one way Almonte saves on expenses.
She said they cleaned building from top to bottom — they mopped floors, scrubbed 30 large double- and triple-pane windows, wiped down risers, moved chairs and even dusted.
They also swept the basement, used blowers to push dirt and leaves from sidewalks and raked mulch into an expand parking lot area.
“They came in like a hired cleaning crew,” Almonte said, noting that $6,000 was an estimate for the same work by a contractor. “They are just such great guys. They are so sweet and so polite.”
Fraternity member Cole Lagasse, who helped organized the spring clean-up, said the mission of Courthouse appeals to his group’s members.
“We love and support Mariann’s inclusion program for ‘differently-abled’ children. She dedicates a ton of time to helping children learn through art and music,” he said, adding that they want to help both the program and the community.
In addition, he said, Almonte makes their time at Courthouse special.
“Mariann is one of the sweetest women and is truly grateful for everything we do to help her out, whether it be the biggest or smallest of tasks,” he said. “The gratitude that Mariann shows is truly the most rewarding part of the entire volunteering experience and is the reason we do what we do.”
It’s always been difficult for the Courthouse to manage operations with the right amount of proceeds from events, concerts and other activities.
Canceled shows this year brought even more problems.
“Between the courthouse budget and myself, the well has gone dry,” she said in a few months ago. She added, “Technically, we should be closed because we don’t have a dime.”
Since then, she’s received an infusion of donations that have topped $50,000, including one large donation. She estimates she still needs about $20,000 to break even and make some repairs.
“We have been kept open by the generosity of people who have just come up and offered support,” she told The Independent this week.
Among the needed fixes are a leaky roof, a new boiler and some stone masonry work, she said. It’s a list that often seems to have the same items on it.
“We fixed the roof, but not all at once,” she said. “It leaks again in different places and we fix it through grants, but we’ve never gotten a grant to do the whole roof.”
The other night during a performance intermission she stumbled over a four-inch piece of concrete outside the door.
“I don’t know where it came from. I know what side. That’s going to be another leak,” she said with some resignation.