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caption: A ghost light illuminates the empty stage at the Lincoln Theater in Mount Vernon Washington.
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A ghost light illuminates the empty stage at the Lincoln Theater in Mount Vernon Washington.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

What the 'ghost light' in Mount Vernon's old theater reveals about shuttered venues

Arts organizations are on the edge of their seats to see when they can get some of the $16 billion in relief that’s been promised to them by the federal government.

One of those organizations is an historic theater in Mount Vernon, Wash. called the Lincoln Theater. It’s the biggest entertainment venue in town. And like most theaters, its seats have sat empty for much of the past year.

Before the pandemic, the Lincoln was busy several nights a week. It had national acts, local plays, even a funeral.

But during the pandemic, the stage has mostly been dark, except for a single, bare lightbulb glowing in the darkness. The executive director here, Roger Gietzen, calls it a "ghost light."

“The ghost light is a theater tradition that has been, as far as I know, been in this theater since 1926," he said. "It’s a tradition that keeps the ghosts – the theater ghosts – at bay. It keeps them calm and it keeps them happy and it lights their way in the evening.”

Normally, ghost lights are turned on when theaters empty out at night. But that hasn’t been the case at the Lincoln this year.

“We’ve never used it as much as we have the last 13 months. It’s been on constantly,” Gietzen said.

caption: A window display outside the Lincoln, prepared for a Tulip Festival window display competition
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A window display outside the Lincoln, prepared for a Tulip Festival window display competition
Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

The Lincoln is kind of a small economic engine for downtown Mount Vernon. And so, when it doesn’t have shows, downtown businesses suffer, especially restaurants.

An economic engine

Ellen Gamson runs the Mount Vernon Downtown Association. She says during the month of April, when people are driving through town to visit the tulip fields, the Lincoln normally gives them a reason to stay.

RELATED: Mount Vernon looks to tulip tourists for rescue from pandemic slump

“Often times, our visitors are not ready to leave," Gamson said. "They don’t want the fun day to end. And it’s absolutely fabulous when we can point to live entertainment happening at the Lincoln Theater, which in and of itself is a gorgeous, beautifully restored, historic jewel of a theater.”

caption: Ellen Gamson and Kathleen Petrzelka of the Mount Vernon Downtown Association
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Ellen Gamson and Kathleen Petrzelka of the Mount Vernon Downtown Association
Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

One of the draws for the Lincoln during the tulip festival is the Skagit Valley Drag Show, an annual event featuring a mix of amateur and seasoned performers. The event raises money for a modest scholarship at Skagit Valley College. Christopher Sadler is the show's producer and creator, and performs regularly in the show as Gina Touché. He describes his onstage persona as "your glitter-bearded, live-singing, sassy southerner."

caption: Christopher Sadler and Anji Viola (of Skagit Valley College) co-produce the Skagit Valley Drag Show, photographed outside the Lincoln Theater on 1st Street in Mount Vernon in April, 2021 
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This year, the audience will be online, reacting with emojis to a livestream on YouTube.

“It’ll be a little weird," Sadler said. "Because I love that cheer and I love seeing the faces. I feed off of that energy massively, so that interaction with the crowd will be a little strange to not have.”

And because event is online and free, this year, he says the scholarship may not get funding this time around.

$16 billion Shuttered Venue Program

An empty stage has led to financial problems for the Lincoln. Its subscriber base shrunk by two thirds during the pandemic. It’s offered limited in-person film screenings again, but the audiences have been small.

caption: Lincoln Executive Director Roger Gietzen
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Lincoln Executive Director Roger Gietzen
Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

The Lincoln may be an economic engine for Mount Vernon, but it’ll take money to restart that engine after the pandemic. Lincoln Executive Director Roger Gietzen has put his hopes on landing a big grant, through the federal government’s $16 billion Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program.

“If we are approved, it would be 45% of our 2019 revenue,” he said. That would give them a strong foundation to reopen. But the status of that grant is unclear.

Just six hours after the government’s web portal opened, it crashed, due to overwhelming demand.

“Over 20,000 venues registered for the grant before it crashed," Gietzen said. "No one was able to upload any documents.”

That was a couple weeks ago.

The Small Business Administration just announced the web portal has since gone through rigorous testing and will reopen Saturday, April 24. [UPDATE: Web portal reopening was rescheduled for Monday, April 26.]

So, the Lincoln’s gonna give it another try.

But until awards are announced, the Lincoln’s financial health, and the financial health of many other theaters, hangs in the balance.

The town of Mount Vernon owns the Lincoln Theater building. And so, Gietzen says he’s confident the theater itself will survive the pandemic.

What’s unclear is how much the ghost light will stay on, to calm the theater ghosts while the stage is empty.

If you want to catch the free, amateur drag show at the Lincoln, this year’s performance streams at 7:30 p.m., Saturday night April 24, 2021 on YouTube.

That story is part of KUOW’s series, The Main Street Project, where we document economic recovery in the greater Puget Sound region one street at a time. To hear more stories and recommend a street you think we should visit, go to kuow.org/mainstreet and fill out the form linked there.