Christmas comes but once a year for Denver’s nonprofit arts and culture groups, who often live and die by their revenue from holiday shows.
This season’s sales are looking merrier and brighter compared to 2021’s uneven return, local programmers and arts leaders said, from Colorado Ballet’s iconic “Nutcracker” to elaborate lighting displays at the Denver Zoo and Denver Botanic Gardens. That bodes well for audiences as arts companies return to regular schedules in 2023 and produce plays, musicals, comedy, dance, and chorale shows with refreshed financial support.
As of Nov. 29, Colorado Ballet had reached 100% of its $3.3 million ticket-sales goal for “The Nutcracker’s” 25 performances, surpassing its previous revenue record set in 2019, when it had $3.22 million over 27 performances. Shows started on Dec. 4 and continue through Dec. 24.
That doesn’t mean every “Nutcracker” performance is sold out; as of last week 17 shows were completely sold out, but five had limited availability and the remaining three (all on weeknights) had even more open seats. It doesn’t have to be sold out to be valuable, producers said.
“We currently have the second-highest attendance for ‘The Nutcracker,’ and our current daily average number of tickets sold have us projected to surpass 2019’s total attendance of 53,384 (across) 27 performances,” said Rachel Perez at Colorado Ballet.
Even with two fewer official performances of the show this year, the Ballet is $1.28 million ahead in revenue and 19,700 ahead in the number of tickets sold over 2021, Perez said. This year’s “Nutcracker” revenue is expected to make up a whopping 60% of Colorado Ballet’s overall budget.
Like retailers, nonprofit arts companies are desperate to build on 2021’s gains as people return to public rituals — in this case, streaming back into theaters, mask-free, to take part in revived runs of “A Christmas Carol” and other stage performances. Capacities in 2021 opened up compared to the previous year at both outdoor and indoor events, and in some cases, families ventured out together in public for the first time in nearly two years.
“Overall, this holiday concert looks to be 10% to 20% more profitable than last year’s concert series if our ticketing buying trend follows last year’s pace,” said Michael Sattler, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Arts Association, the umbrella group for the Denver Gay Men’s Chorus and Denver Women’s Chorus.
The 140-member Denver Gay Men’s Chorus are holding six performances of its “Haul Out the Jolly” program at three locations in the metro area, through Sunday, Dec. 11. Advance sales for those shows are up 23% over 2021, rising from 1,300 tickets sold to 1,600 as of Nov. 29. Sattler projected that those sales will eventually reach 90% of their full capacity — or about 2,400 total tickets sold — by the time the run ends.
Revenue for holiday shows like “Haul Out the Jolly” represent between 36% and 40% of the group’s overall concert income the last two years, Sattler said, underlining the role it plays in his nonprofit’s overall stability. That’s especially true since most nonprofits this year didn’t receive any of the pandemic-era government assistance that helped them stay alive the previous two years.
“In keeping with this post-pandemic season, audiences are hungry for live performance art, and teachers have indicated that students are equally eager to attend,” said Malik Robinson, executive director of the 52-year-old Cleo Parker Robinson Dance (CRPD) in Five Points.
The eight “Granny Dances to a Holiday Drum” stage shows from CPRD are about 75% sold, Robinson said. He encouraged people to buy tickets now if they haven’t yet.
“We expect to sell out every show again this year,” he said of “Granny,” which is celebrating its 31st anniversary with a return to live musical accompaniment, as well as eight, 45-minute “Granny Samplers” for students (all of which are already sold out).
As of last week, Denver contemporary ballet company Wonderbound only had about 8% of its available tickets left for its holiday show, “Brrr!esque” — or 1,355 out of a total 1,472. They’re expecting to be completely sold out when the show debuts on Thursday, Dec. 8, said marketing manager Sally Walker.
Comparing Wonderbound’s 2022 sales to last year is tricky, with changing capacities and state health mandates dictating different formats, Walker said. Subscriptions to Wonderbound’s full artistic season are up compared to pre-pandemic numbers, at least.
“We never stopped during the pandemic,” Walker said. “We were down to a reduced capacity that changed throughout the season, and then we raised the price of tickets for this current season and went to a capacity of 100.”
Sales for cultural landmarks such as “A Christmas Carol” and the immersive “Camp Christmas” installation, both produced by Denver Center for the Performing Arts, are also tough to compare with previous years given their disruptions and venue changes.
“A Christmas Carol,” the lush Charles Dickens adaptation that runs through Dec. 24 at the Denver Performing Arts Complex, was deposed from its usual home, now known as the Wolf Theatre, while that theater was renovated during the pandemic. Despite that, DCPA officials said “A Christmas Carol” roared back, with about 25,000 tickets already sold this year out of an available 29,692. That will translate to 85% of all seats being filled, officials projected, which improves on 2021’s 81% of all seats being filled. DCPA officials expect to sell 1,000 more tickets overall this year as compared with last year.
Visionary designer Lonnie Hanzon also experimented with his kitschy, eye-popping “Camp Christmas” by moving it from the indoor Stanley Marketplace in Aurora to online in 2020, and then back in-person the last two years at Belmark Park in Lakewood. DCPA officials did not share ticket revenue.
Denver Botanic Gardens’ wildly popular “Blossoms of Light” sales are up about 10% compared to last year. They’re expecting $3 million in revenue by the time the show ends on Dec. 7. Sales for the Gardens’ “Trail of Lights” at its Chatfield Farms location are about the same as last year, totaling around $500,000.
Denver Zoo’s 32nd season of “Zoo Lights” — another wildly popular, family-friendly event — will sell between 160,000 and 180,000 tickets this season, according to Zoo officials, following strong demand during early sales. (Weekends are tighter than weekdays, but there are still slots available, they said.)
“Zoo Lights accounts for about 6% of the Zoo’s total operations budget, which helps cover its expenses for animal care, education and wildlife conservation,” said Jake Kubié, director of communications. “As a nonprofit with daily operating costs of $117,000, the Zoo relies on revenue from Zoo Lights at a time when daytime visits are low in the colder months.”
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