Trump Country, Hamilton and COVID-19: The top 10 entertainment stories of 2020 in SWFL – News-Press

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Charles Runnells
 
| Fort Myers News-Press

Any other time, “Hamilton” would’ve been our top entertainment story of the year.

The blockbuster musical finally — finally! — rolled into Southwest Florida after years of anticipation. And yes, it was awesome.

But this wasn’t any other year, was it? This was the year of COVID-19 — and that changed everything.

Just two months after “Hamilton” visited Artis—Naples and Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall, both venues went dark. And they didn’t open their doors again until the fall — at reduced capacity and with strict new COVID-19 rules.

That’s not all that happened in 2020 — a busy year for arts-and-entertainment news in Southwest Florida. Here’s a look at our top 10 stories of the year:

COVID-19: Everything’s closed, everything’s canceled

The pandemic shut down everything in March, from bars to concerts to every theater and performing arts venue.

Most venues have reopened since then, but with lots of changes: Social distancing, temperature checks at the door, masks encouraged or required. Some shows are happening outside instead of indoors, and others moved online instead of in-person and onstage.

Some venues — including Regal Cinemas theaters everywhere — still haven’t reopened.

And many of Southwest Florida’s biggest events decided to skip the 2020-21 season altogether. That includes the Edison Festival of Light Grand Parade in Fort Myers, the Island Hopper Songwriter Fest, Cape Coral’s Oktoberfest and the entire Broadway seasons at Artis—Naples and Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall. 

Read more: What Fort Myers, Naples events are canceled? Fireworks, Edison Parade and more

And: Ghost lights burn in SWFL theaters during pandemic, a sign of hope. Plus the ghosts like ‘em

And: Broadway’s canceled for Mann Hall, Artis—Naples this season. When will musicals return?

“Hamilton” visited Southwest Florida. Remember that?

It seems like forever ago that the blockbuster musical “Hamilton” came to town. Nope. It happened in January, right before COVID-19 hit and changed the world.

The musical spent two glorious weeks each at Artis—Naples and Mann Hall, where it broke sales records and packed the house.

Tickets weren’t cheap, though. The best seats set people back a whopping $425 to $499, plus fees. At Mann Hall, that was three times more than any previous musical, including white-hot shows “The Lion King,” “Wicked” and “The Book of Mormon.”

«Hamilton» shattered the price ceiling at Artis—Naples, too.

“These are the highest ticket prices we’ve ever seen,” Ashley Mirakian, the venue’s former vice president of marketing, told The News-Press and the Naples Daily News in November 2019. “It’s just an amazing show, and there’s such an incredible demand for it.”

More: ‘Hamilton’ tickets shatter price records in Fort Myers, Naples. Top seats cost $425-$500.

Read our review:‘Hamilton’ comes to Fort Myers. Finally. And it’s awesome.

Dominic Fike breaks out

The Naples native made international news in 2018, when Columbia Records signed him for a staggering $4 million deal.

The rapper/singer finally released his debut album in July 2020. Two months later, he performed many of those songs for a live concert series inside the videogame «Fortnite.»

The album «What Could Possibly Go Wrong” scored mostly positive reviews and write-ups from major entertainment publications, including Vulture, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Billboard and Entertainment Weekly.

The single “Chicken Tenders” reached No. 21 on Billboard’s Hot Alternative Songs chart, and the music video racked up more than 2 million views on YouTube. Fike landed at No. 2 on Billboard’s Emerging Artists chart in August.

Still, the album hasn’t reached the heights of Fike’s debut EP “Don’t Forget About Me, Demos” and the single “3 Nights.” That song — which references Fort Myers’ nickname, The City of Palms, in the chorus — has scored more than 60 million views on YouTube.

Dominic Fike interview: The rising pop star talks new album, pressure, fame, what’s next

Dominic Fike reviews: What the critics say about new album ‘What Could Possibly Go Wrong’

Southwest Florida Event Center closes in Bonita Springs

Since opening in 2016, the concert venue had brought some of the coolest, most varied musical acts to town.

Mavis Staples. Melissa Etheridge. Ted Nugent. George Clinton. Kellie Pickler. Three Dog Night. Jefferson Starship. Maxi Priest. They all played the former Eckerd drug store turned performing arts center.

Then owners Richard and Jennifer Shanahan pulled the plug in May. The reason: The coronavirus and uncertainty about the future of the entertainment industry.

“It’s sad,” Jennifer Shanahan told The News-Press and the Naples Daily News. “I’m completely devastated because of the blood, sweat and tears Richard and I have put into that thing. But we had an amazing run!”

More: Southwest Florida Event Center closes permanently in Bonita Springs over coronavirus, industry concerns

Bad Company’s Brian Howe dies

The rock singer died of a heart attack in May, just weeks after moving to Lake Placid from his longtime home on Fort Myers Beach. He was 66.

Fans, friends and musicians reacted to Howe’s death with shock and fond memories.

 “I always enjoyed Brian’s company and had many a good laugh with him as two old Brits together,” said AC/DC bassist Cliff Williams of Fort Myers. “Great voice. He will be missed as a friend and a talent.”

Howe was best known for his eight years with classic rockers Bad Company. He joined the band in 1986, replacing original singer Paul Rodgers. Together, they co-wrote and recorded four gold- and platinum-selling studio albums and the hit songs “If You Needed Somebody,” “How About That” and “Walk Through Fire.”

His relationship with the band’s founding members was a rocky one, though, and he exited Bad Company in 1994.

Still, Howe said he regretted nothing from his rock ‘n’ roll career.

“I never really quite got over the fact that when I walk out onstage, the audience knows the songs probably better than I do,» he told The News-Press in 2019. «And that’s a tremendous compliment for any artist of any stature at all. If they know the words to songs that you have written in your bedroom — wow.»

“It’s a very strange, surreal life. But it’s incredible. It’s incredible. I’ve loved my life. I’ve loved it.”

More: Former Bad Company singer Brian Howe, dead at 66 of a heart attack

Welcome to Trump Country

Was it a publicity stunt? Maybe so, maybe not.

Regardless, alternative-rock fans were caught off guard when Fort Myers radio station 93X suddenly stopped playing Nirvana and Godsmack in September.

In their place: Luke Combs, Florida-Georgia Line and other country-music acts. And oh yeah: A Trump impersonator saying funny things between songs.

The new Trump Country drew national media attention and resulted in higher ratings for the station. But it didn’t last.

Trumpended up losing the presidential election to Joe Biden. And one month later, Trump Country pulled the plug on the concept. They kept the country music — sorry, rock fans — but started calling themselves Hell Yeah 93.7 FM, instead.

Station management claims the Biden team contacted them about the Trump format, and the station was afraid of losing its broadcasting license. The FCC has strict rules about political content and advertising.

Neither the FCC nor Biden’s staff responded to requests for comment.

More: Trump Country signs off in Fort Myers; radio station 93.7 FM changes name to ‘Hell Yeah’

And: Welcome to Trump Country: Fort Myers radio station 93X changes formats

Ben Allen competes on ‘The Voice’

Speaking of country music: Let’s talk about Ben Allen.

The Estero country singer was already popular in Southwest Florida, where he and the Ben Allen Band often play The Ranch Concert Hall & Saloon and other local venues.

But then Allen performed on “The Voice,” and his popularity exploded. Now he’s headlining his own show at Hertz Arena, and tickets for the Jan. 9 concert are almost sold out.

Allen made it to the semi-finals on the TV singing competition — one of just nine contestants who got that far —but then he lost to 14-year-old Carter Rubin (who ended up winning season 19).

Allen hopes his time on «The Voice» brought Southwest Floridians a little closer together during the pandemic.

«There’s so many things that have been negative for 2020,»  he recently told The News-Press and the Naples Daily News. «And I’m fortunate to have been someone that the community can rally around and smile about.

«It’s something that has shone brighter for me, getting to fill that void.”

More: Ben Allen discusses his time on ‘The Voice’ and his upcoming concert at Hertz Arena

The shows go on for The Marco Players

The 47-year-old theater troupe was just days away from dropping the curtain and closing for good on Marco Island.

Then donors rallied and saved the day.

The theater had already been suffering after canceling its final two plays in the 2019-20 season. On top of that, it was dealing with skittish audiences worried about COVID-19 and a reduced audience capacity from social distancing.

The Players announced in November that they’d be closing their doors if they didn’t get any financial help. But the troupe’s donors wouldn’t let the theater go under. They stepped up and donated to the theater’s ongoing «Staying Alive» fund.

The result? The fund shot up to $67,000 — $17,000 more than the original goal of $50,000. The money will keep the theater afloat until at least March, when the theater will likely do another fundraiser.

«I am deeply humbled,» Marco Players President Beverly Dahlstrom said in November. «It really was a blessing. It says a lot about our patrons and their love for live theater.» 

More: Theater lovers keep Marco Players afloat for an embattled season

New venues open — just in time for the pandemic

They opened, and then they closed again. Blame the pandemic, of course.

At least seven new or dramatically changed venues debuted in Southwest Florida in 2020:

Three of those places — Players Circle, BIG ARTS  and the aquarium —opened before the pandemic started, but then had to shut their doors just weeks after their big debuts. Now they’re all open again.

The other four venues opened in the fall, but they still have to deal with social distancing, masks and other concerns in the COVID-19 era.

Changes at Southwest Florida Symphony

The longtime Fort Myers orchestra lost two of its biggest stars this year.

First, popular music director Nir Kabaretti left after six years. He was the fifth director in the Fort Myers symphony’s six-decade history, replacing former director Michael Hall.

Kabaretti blamed his departure on an increasingly busy schedule conducting in Europe, Israel, Switzerland, the United States and elsewhere. He’ll be back in Fort Myers for two goodbye concerts in April and May.

Then there was the resignation of longtime violinist and concertmaster Reiko Niiya. Or was it a resignation? It depends who you ask.

In October, Niiya sent an email to friends, two symphony board members and the symphony’s company email address. The subject line: “My resignation.”

Symphony leaders say they accepted that apparent resignation, but Niiya insists the email wasn’t her official resignation at all. She was just telling her friends about her intentions, and she’d hoped to continue performing with the orchestra for the rest of the season.

But it’s too late, orchestra leaders say. They’ve already moved on and plan to hire both a new maestro and a new concertmaster.

More: Southwest Florida Symphony says goodbye to maestro Nir Kabaretti. What’s next?

And: Southwest Florida Symphony violinist Reiko Niiya resigns. Or did she?

More entertainment news

That’s not all that happened this year, either. Here are more big stories from 2020:

The Art League of Fort Myers disbands after 64 years and closes its downtown Fort Myers gallery.

Southwest Florida gets its first cat café, Cattyshack, at Gulf Coast Town Center.

The reality TV show “Live Recue” comes to Fort Myers and features the Fort Myers Fire Department in its third season.

Hard-rock heroes AC/DC release their new album “Power Up.» It features all the surviving members from the band’s 1980 blockbuster album “Back In Black,» including part-time Fort Myers resident Cliff Williams. 

— Bestselling novelist Randy Wayne White releases “Fins.» It’s the Sanibel Island resident’s first young-adult novel.

The Naples Art Association rebrands itself as Naples Art.

The United Arts Council of Collier County and CAPA (Cultural And Performing Arts Center) merge.

Organizers of the annual Lehigh Spring Festival change the fest to an all-new event celebrating soldiers, police and other heroes. It’s called Southwest Florida’s Hero Fest. The Lehigh Spring Fest had been a tradition since 1975.

— Lydia Black announces she’ll be stepping down after 13 years with the Alliance for the Arts. The executive director plans to leave sometime in January or February.

Connect with this reporter: Charles Runnells (Facebook), @charlesrunnells (Twitter), @crunnells1 (Instagram)

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