Minding Your Historic Theatre During a Pandemic

With historic theatres currently dark due to COVID-19, and with furloughed staff and decreased funds to pay operating expenses, it’s critical to keep an eye on your most valuable asset–your building. We’ve created this checklist to use as you walk your theatre, ideally weekly, to make sure that you’re aware of potential problem areas. This list also serves as a good reminder of what to be looking for, even not during a pandemic. If you have a dedicated maintenance staff, some of these things will already be common practice, but with many staff members doing extra duties outside of their usual routine, this list should be helpful. If your theatre has maintenance staff working during this downtime, other areas to review include: monitoring utility expenses to catch extra lights left on, temperature control, and an increase in water use.


A weekly roof inspection is a must, and areas to examine start with the downspouts, scuppers, and gutters. These get clogged more often then we’d like with blown debris, bird guano, and even dead birds. Next, check all roof penetration points like struts holding equipment, venting pipes, or other areas where water can seep in if ponding or heavy rainfall occurs. Examine roof material for new tears, rips or punctures, also checking past patches to determine if edges are peeling up. Look for evidence of past “ponding” due to the de-colorization of material. Don’t forget to look at any roof-mounted ductwork to identify concave areas that may lead to leaks or bird nests. Check any roof hatches to make sure they are secure and not able to be opened by trespassers. Lastly, check the integrity of the parapet walls and any flashing or coating that is protecting the underlying material. Take overall photos of current conditions monthly so you can track issues and be able to watch for progressive issues.


The “in-between” area that acts as a buffer between the exterior climate and your historic décor is the last refuge and place to stop leaks. It’s hard not to have a few questionable spots where some rain gets in, but placing tarps, buckets, and other materials to intercept moisture is a sound solution. Be sure to check all these areas for recent moisture, best to check during or after a rain, if possible. Check the integrity of any suspended chandeliers, theatrical lighting equipment, and look for evidence of pests.  


Depending upon specific equipment and gear in your booth—some that should start weekly, and others not so frequently—you may want to cover items to protect from dust and unplanned moisture. Be sure to check breakers, tech restrooms, ducting, and temperature control in the space to confirm it’s maintaining minimal temperature.


If you have a balcony, this is your best view of the ceiling and potential leaks. Ideally, photograph the ceiling at intervals and note any changes and damage to track its progress. It can be hard to find the entry for moisture in the attic or on the roof, where it ends on the ceiling. Also, check sidewalls for any leaks, exit signs, and lightbulbs that may be out. Check floor lighting and carpet for any trip hazards as well. If you have front-of-balcony lighting positions, make sure to confirm the attachment of any hanging instruments and their safety catches along with plugs to prove they are not damaged or loose. Check to see if all seats are still functioning as self-rising per fire code. Finally, check any egress doors to make sure they swing freely and are not catching on carpet or in need of oiling.


Check all access doors from lobby to auditorium to confirm all are functioning, Check carpet on aisles, aisle lighting, and seating for self-rising function ability. Check wall sconces and decorative lighting for missing bulbs and confirm all exit signs are working. Check walls at ceiling height for any evidence of leaks from the roof. Check all exit doors to the outside to ensure they are secure and functioning. 


Ideally, your soft goods will all be flown, if not dead-hung, but they should be checked, to ensure that all are secure and functioning. If you have a fire curtain, make sure its testing is current. If you have a motorized orchestra pit, that system should be tested as well. Check the stage floor for any signs of leaks or buckling. Check doors to the exterior to confirm they are secure and working. Check accessible lighting fixtures for connections and cable integrity.


If you have an under-stage area that may or may not be below grade, be sure to run sinks and showers and flush toilets weekly, at a minimum. Be sure to monitor the temperature in this area frequently. Check exit lighting and monitor spaces for any possible leaks.


Be sure to visit all theatre spaces, not just the public areas, such as mechanical spaces like control rooms, sub-basements where ducting is, and any janitorial closets. Check for working water, evidence of pests, and security of access points. You may find areas that need attention like old uncovered ducts or cable conduits that should sealed, chipping/flaking paint, or lightbulbs in need of replacement. If you’re storing food or candy, check for expiration dates. Beer & wine inventory should also be checked, as it will no longer be saleable Hard liquor, except for some cordial spirits may have a longer shelf life. If you have a stock of merchandise like t-shirts, hats, or other items, make sure they secure from moisture, dust, or pests. Check for unusable paint and dispose of or secure in lockable paint lockers. If there is a security system sending backup footage to an off-site location, confirm its function, and verify someone is viewing backups. 


Run all sinks and flush all toilets and urinals regularly. Check for leaks and water pressure as well as temperature in all fixtures. Check floor drains for obstructions and run some water down these on frequently. Check light fixtures for missing bulbs and consumable stock.


Check exterior windows for signs of damage and make sure all windows are covered so there is no view to the interior. Make sure secure areas remained locked and check ticketing equipment and phone lines. If not open for business on any regular schedule, make sure posted notices are still up and readable. Check ticket stock and make sure no personal valuables (cash or other items) are present.


Check all doors to the exterior to make sure they work and are unobstructed. Check the carpet for trip hazards. Check light fixtures for correct bulb wattage and remove accumulated bugs from bowls. Check exit signs. Check any water fountains for leakage and inspect walls and ceilings for possible unseen leaks from other areas. Check stairs for carpet integrity and railings to make sure they remain secure.


Run all sinks and flush ice chest drains. Confirm coolers are locked and that stock has not expired. Clean and test soda machines to avoid clogged bag and box systems. Confirm gas tanks are secure and not leaking. Check food items for their expiration date or evidence of tampering.


Check lighting fixtures, security cameras to confirm they are all working and on correct timers. Confirm each door’s security. Clean away accumulated debris and check for graffiti. Remove any posters or flyers from past or postponed performances. Change marquee messages as frequently as possible, directing people to your website for updates. If roof downspouts drop out to the sidewalk, confirm they are unobstructed. If there are electric outlets or hose bibs in this area, confirm they are not being used unlawfully, maybe disconnect the breaker and remove a spigot handle during these times.

If you have a service entrance/stage door area, confirm the security of that space and that trash is being collected on a regular schedule. Monitor the areas to make sure lights are on a timer and that they do not look abandoned. Promptly paint over any graffiti check security of gates, doors, or other access points. 


Much of the previous content also applies to staff offices such as bathroom/kitchen maintenance, lighting and temperature control, and checking for roof leaks. This might be a perfect time to review the annual inspection deadlines for backflow preventers, termites, etc. Be sure to check the schedule for fire extinguisher inspections, fire sprinkler and fire alarm tests, and fire door testing. Also, be sure to check air filters and return grills throughout the building.


While each historic theatre has it’s own unique facilities and issues, this guide should help you keep an eye on key systems and spaces. Historic Theatre Consultants has been conducting “virtual consultations” via face time for building operators who want to have a review of their theatres. Contact Herb Stratford at 520-204-2240 for more information.