A strange thing happened within the South Florida live music scene during — not after — the COVID-19 pandemic, especially between the fall of 2020 and summer of 2021. The outdoor Pavilion at Old School Square, the 3,500-person-capacity amphitheater in Delray Beach, charted an unlikely renaissance and became a major concert draw and destination.
Yet the seemingly overnight sensation has had a long climb toward this apex since being completed in early 2002. In previous years, the facility (which features a concession building with restrooms and covered loggias) hosted mostly local-to-regional acts in free shows before erecting fencing around its perimeter for its current concert culmination. It now resembles a slightly smaller version of the popular, 4,200-seat-capacity Mizner Park Ampitheater in Boca Raton.
“Mizner was actually built shortly after the Pavilion by the same architectural designer,” says Holland Ryan, Old School Square’s chief operating officer for the past two years, by phone in mid-July. “I’ve been with the organization for 21 years, including before the Pavilion was built, so I was part of its construction and layout design team. The original intent was to use it for community and regional events, like orchestras and a film series. Eventually, we also started free Friday night concerts, which built from four shows a year up to 18 right up to the start of the pandemic.”
There were also sporadic early appearances by international acts, like blues singer Etta James and funk band the Ohio Players. But since last October, marquee bands and artists as diverse as New Found Glory, Grace Potter, Al Di Meola, Sister Hazel, the North Mississippi Allstars, Tommy Emmanuel, the Allman Betts Band, and Hot Tuna have entertained crowds seated in different iterations of the Pavilion’s gated-off, socially-distanced four-seat “pods.”
“I spent a lot of time with my staff going over every CDC requirement and social distancing procedure,” Ryan says, “and coming up with ideas to not only make the artists feel safe, but also our audience and staff. And it all took hold pretty quickly. Previously, we booked a lot of tribute acts, and ones that were relatives of famous people and had familiarity through their name recognition. But COVID-19 actually gave us an opportunity to present actual name artists once they realized it was safe to play here. I believe the Pavilion was one of the first venues of its size to reopen in the nation, and word spread quite fast.”
Pop star and Palm Beach resident Jimmy Buffett even felt safe enough to take the stage with members of his Coral Reefer Band for four sold-out nights in mid-May.
“The plane is out of the hangar, on the runway,” Buffett said from the Pavilion stage on May 13, during his first live show in more than a year, “and we took off tonight.”
“I believe Jimmy will be back again,” says Ryan. “We were at 888-seat capacity for each of his four appearances because of the pods. We’ve since graduated to a modified, hybrid seating version where the front section is still all socially distanced pods with setups of four seats, and the back half is seating that’s distanced row-to-row, but not seat-to-seat. That puts capacity at 1,400 patrons. Our next bump up, scheduled for August 1, will put us at 2,500-seat capacity, and we hope to back to a full 3,500 by the beginning of September.”
“We have no restrictions currently regarding capacity,” Ryan adds. “I just wanted a phased approach to reopening. I didn’t want to go back to full houses with a new variant and cases rising again. I know neither the staff nor the patrons are fans of having to wear masks as they enter and exit, but it’s for everybody’s safety.”
In late July, King Crimson, the British progressive rock juggernaut that’s managed to stay relevant since forming in 1968, blew the figurative roof off the Pavilion. Two nights later, New York City rockers Living Colour injected the venue with their own famed cult of personality. Each show was sold out with the 1,400-seat capacity cap in place.
Located on North Swinton Avenue near Atlantic Avenue, downtown Delray Beach’s two-lane thoroughfare, Old School Square events can create traffic and parking dilemmas, especially during sold-out shows.
“My team spent a lot of time forming a plan with the city,” he says, “the police and fire departments; parks and recreation, and streets teams, all to make it as close to a perfect scenario as anyone could create. The Jimmy Buffett shows were, without a doubt, the largest things to happen recently in Delray Beach, and logistically, they came off without a hitch. Parking, traffic and foot traffic have always been concerns, but we stress to every ticket buyer parking garage locations and pick-up and drop-off locations for ride share programs.”
“There’s a garage right behind Old School Square, but that only has around 556 spaces. The next closest is near the courthouse and library, with another 500-plus spaces, plus there’s ample street parking. Not the best locations, perhaps, because you’ll have to walk a bit. But you’ll be within four or so blocks from the venue, giving you the opportunity to walk down Atlantic Avenue and see all the restaurants and other establishments it has to offer.”
Old School Square is so named because its Cornell Museum of Art is situated in the old Delray Elementary School building from 1913, and its vintage gymnasium and 347-seat Crest Theatre reside in restored Delray High School buildings from 1925. Upstairs in the Crest Theatre building, the modern Creative Arts School offers students visual art, photography, and writing classes.
“There are six classrooms at the Creative Arts School, with a capacity of 15 to 20 students for each,” says Ryan. “But we’ve moved classes to a virtual format because of the pandemic, adding a music school and culinary arts school. We’re also looking at creating a film school soon, and have gone from around 18 classes a semester to more than 40, with an average of 40 to 80 students per class globally, not just locally. Professors too, now including ones in Kenya, France and elsewhere. So we’ll start to bring back some classes in person, but for the most part, we’ll be continuing on as a virtual creative arts program. It’s worked wonderfully.”
A registered nonprofit cultural arts organization, Old School Square also features a multi-tiered membership program, with perks from discounted museum admission and free registration for a class to invitations to exclusive VIP openings at the art museum and a brand-new feature — pre-sale access to ticketed shows.
The newly restored Crest had numerous events canceled because of the pandemic last season, but officially reopens with a Sept. 22 concert by popular Scottish singer/songwriter KT Tunstall. Its MusicWorks Concerts and Broadway Cabaret series will return in November and January, respectively.
The MusicWorks concerts kick off with veteran Memphis pop group The Box Tops (Nov. 5), and include tribute performances, plus original shows by John Mayall (Nov. 18), Corky Laing’s Mountain (Jan. 26), Livingston Taylor and Jonathan Edwards (Feb. 23), Loudon Wainwright III (March 16), and Peter Asher (March 23). Houston-spawned trio King’s X, which plays like a rock orchestra and sings like a choir, is also a surprise addition on April 16.
The Broadway Cabaret series begins with Tony Award-winning actress and singer Shoshana Bean (Jan. 17-18), and includes Norm Lewis (Jan. 31-Feb. 1), Linda Eder (Feb. 14-15), John Lloyd Young (March 7-8), Rachel Bay Jones (March 14-15), Mandy Gonzalez (March 28-29), Lucie Arnaz (April 11-12), and Telly Leung (April 25-26).
Ryan doesn’t intend to let Old School Square take its foot off the figurative accelerator, even as he keeps his cards close to his vest regarding upcoming Pavilion events into the 2021-2022 season and beyond.
“We’re in a bit of a slowdown,” he says, “to give my staff a little break. It was reduced significantly near the start of the pandemic, and everyone has had to wear a thousand hats since. But I have about 85 shows booked for the Crest that I haven’t announced yet, and about 75 for the Pavilion, which I’ll start rolling out soon.”
Put that under the category of Old School anticipation.
If You Go
Old School Square is located at 51 N. Swinton Ave., at the intersection with Atlantic Avenue, in downtown Delray Beach.
Tickets and info: 561-243-7922, oldschoolsquare.org.