MANSFIELD -- It's been four months since the last live performance at the Mansfield Playhouse, and another theater season sits in limbo thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A planned Christmas show was postponed in late November, two weeks before it was scheduled to open as the viral infection began another new wave across the state.
The scenario has created uncertain times for theater and entertainment venues across the state, an uncertainty that began nearly a year ago.
Even as COVID cases now decline all over Ohio, no one can say for certain when theaters can resume operation with an audience capacity that will support the work.
What's certain is that Doug and Tammy Wertz do not like to sit around and do nothing.
The long-time local community theater leaders are taking advantage of the unusual downtime to improve the 95 E. Third St. facility that has been home to the Mansfield Playhouse for almost 54 years.
The only paid employees of the community non-profit, the couple has launched an interior renovation of the 95 E. Third St. theater, including the replacement of all 288 century-old seats for $6,000.
Wertz, the Playhouse artistic director, said Monday he found the gently-used seats on the internet and contacted the owner on the east coast, who originally wanted $20 per seat and also $20 for shipping each seat.
"If we were to try to buy new seats, it would cost between $75,000 and $125,000," Wertz said. "But I didn't want to pay $12,000. Once I explained to him we were a non-profit, he agreed to help us out and ship for free," he said.
Armed with the reduced price, Wertz gained approval from the Playhouse board and agreed to the deal.
"They are not brand new, but they are in really good shape," Wertz said. "The man put them on a truck and delivered them himself."
The truck arrived at the Mansfield Playhouse on Jan. 26, which was also the couple's 25th wedding anniversary. Armed with some volunteer help, it was a day-long "celebration" -- unloading a truck filled with 300 seats.
Once the new seats arrived, the real work began. The Wertzes had to remove all of the old seats, work that included removing all the anchor bolts from the floor and filling in the holes.
"We knew we need a clean floor because the bolt patterns didn't line up," Wertz said.
The couple then looked at the empty auditorium and its drab, gray walls.
"We knew this would be a prime opportunity to do something ... give the theater a little bit of a facelift," Wertz said. "We approached the board and said we wanted to paint the auditorium in a color palette that matched the new seats."
Thus began a painting effort that included the 5-foot-2 Tammy Wertz, the theater manager, spending days atop a 16-foot ladder to paint the frames high above the floor, which also got a fresh coat.
"We wanted it make it warm for the audience," Wertz said. "We are very excited about what we are doing. We want to make the Mansfield Playhouse more of a destination place, where people feel comfortable and where they can enjoy the total atmosphere.
"We want to give the Playhouse more of a personality," he said, thanking volunteers and board members who have helped in the effort.
Another planned improvement is new chandeliers, thanks to a donation from the family of longtime Mansfield Playhouse performer and member Beverly “Char” Hutchison, who died in December at age 81.
Wertz said the current chandeliers came from the old Leland Hotel in downtown Mansfield, which opened in 1927. The new fixtures have been ordered and will be installed before the new seats are put into place.
Wertz, who was painting in the theater balcony on Monday, said he can't wait until the theater can open the doors to the public again and perhaps offer the postponed show, "A Christmas Story," the set for which now shares the stage with stacks of the old seats.
Given the chores that still lie ahead, including installation of the new seats, it will likely be April before the work is complete.
"That means we are looking at June, July potentially (before the next show). We don't know when we will be allowed to re-open with a capacity that allows for us to produce the kind of shows we want to produce.
"We do know we are preparing to come back and serve the community with a more cheerful (interior) atmosphere. We are investing in ourselves and we want to make sure the funds are being put to good use," Wertz said.
"I never thought this place would get this kind of a facelift in our lifetime. I found those seats by happenstance and it was just too good a deal to pass up. They are not new, but they are new to us. They are in good shape and they are much more comfortable.
"It's been interesting. It's been fun. We're tired," he said with a laugh. "But it's still exciting because we know what it will mean for the experience of our patrons."