27 entertainers on the disbelief and despair that took over when covid-19 shut down their world

Maybe you were at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, taking in a matinee of “La Traviata” from a primo seat. Or packed into the 9:30 Club in Washington, clutching an IPA as the Drive-By Truckers blew through 30 songs in 2½ hours. Or you could have been at home, on the couch, tuning in to one of the Jimmys or Stephen Colbert and wondering why the in-studio crowd was so quiet.

It was a year ago this month that it all came apart.

The rumblings from China and Italy began rattling lives in the United States, crowding hospitals, rewiring businesses and clearing classrooms. The NBA would soon suspend its season, Broadway started shutting down and Tom Hanks, looking like he had signed up for a “Castaway” sequel, quarantined after being diagnosed in Australia. A mysterious novel coronavirus was fast becoming a global pandemic. Arts and culture would be among its many victims.

The sobering anniversary arrives as many of our great halls and museum galleries struggle to reopen, our rock heroes are relegated to online gigs, and we continue to wait anxiously for the great unknown of whenever it’s okay to resume live entertainment. This is the story of those last shows — staged and stopped just as the crisis was unfolding — as told by the artists, producers and organizers caught up in the largest cultural shutdown in modern history.

Prelude to a pandemic

In late February 2020, fewer than 3,000 covid-19 cases had been reported outside of China, where the virus began surfacing in late 2019. The first non-travel-related cases in the United States, indicating community transmission, wouldn’t be reported until the end of February. Around that time, Margaret Cho taped a TV program with fellow comedian Howie Mandel in Los Angeles.

Margaret Cho

Stand-up comedian and actor.

[Mandel] was the one person who was really warning about it. Obviously, he’s known to be quite a germaphobe and he was really upset, really terrified. And this is a few weeks before I went out on the road.