This time of year is typically joyous for music fans who dig the Jefferson Center’s lineups. The Star City Series usually kicks off in September.
With that comes incidental meet and greets with fellow concert-goers, including the guy I considered to be the venue’s unofficial ambassador, Fred Pryor, the venue’s director of center services.
If he was out by the Shaftman Performance Hall doors before a show, there was typically a group of people wanting to say hi. The big dude with the friendly smile and easy-going nature often had a bit of time to talk before lights dimmed in the auditorium.
That was before COVID-19.
Jefferson Center’s Shaftman Hall 2020-21 season, which was to be its 20th, is in a holding pattern. And Pryor? Due to the pandemic-related slowdown there, he is out of a job.
More to the point, Pryor, 60, retired when faced with the fact that his position would be eliminated. He could have stayed on, he said, but doing so would have cost another employee his or her work, he said.
So this summer, instead of prepping Jefferson Center spaces for concerts, weddings and other events, he stayed home, spent time with wife Mary and dog Pippa, and tended his garden. A visit to his home last week revealed another surprise. He had cut off his dreadlocks.
“I gotta look for a job,” Pryor said, with a laugh.
He was there for 31 years, by his count, 20 as a Jefferson Center employee and 11 years before that working for a maintenance contractor at the building, when its renovation was still going on.
His time there ended in July, after a conversation with the building’s executive director, Cyrus Pace. Pryor said that Pace told him he was eliminating the position, but that he could continue to work there. Yet someone else might lose their job, as Pace restructured duties in the lean financial times of the virus.
“I kind of realized right in the middle of the conversation that weddings, corporate events and things that I took care of in the ballroom were going to go away and they weren’t coming back any time soon,” Pryor said. “He had other plans if I said no. If I wanted to stay there, I could, but the job would change.”
Pryor took a day to talk to Mary and mull it over. It had been a job that included dealing with meeting room rentals and custodian responsibilities.
“This might be a sign that it might be time to do some changing,” he said. “Mary kind of agreed with me, so with that, I went back and told Cyrus that I would retire.”
He trusts his former colleagues to hold it down, but after he trained them on his responsibilities, he promised them and Pace that he would help, if they needed anything.
“That crew that’s there right now is a super capable crew,” Pryor said. “They want to make it work, so I was like, maybe it’s time to let the young bloods take it and see what they can do.”
There was no big announcement of his departure, and Pryor has spent the time since slowing down. His stage managing duties at FloydFest, Rooster Walk and Local Colors fell for now to the pandemic. He considered such work a vacation.
“Good food, good vibes, good music,” he said.
The former Marine, who had planned on working at least another two years at Jefferson Center, said that he has missed no more than three consecutive days of work since 1984.
Is he a trouper or a masochist?
“I’ve been trying to figure it out the last two weeks, too,” he said during a July interview.
In another chat last week, he said that he was starting to adjust to the new routines, while he works on the home he has owned for 29 years and pared down much of the electronic gear he collected during his years at Jefferson Center. And he has slept a lot.
“I think just like anything else that you’ve done for 20 years, you go through those bouts of anxiety and a certain amount of disappointment,” he said.
But without a wide announcement of his retirement, he has been able to avoid over-talking the issue with sympathetic listeners.
“It gave me a chance to focus on what I need to do myself, and do things that I need to do with my home and try not to really worry about what the future is going to be at this point,” he added.
He’s about ready to start looking for the next job.
“If nothing’s available then, don’t worry about it,” he said. “It’s 40 or 50 million people kind of in the same boat.”
Pace, who last week marked 10 years as Jefferson Center Foundation’s executive director, praised Pryor.
“What a beautiful dude,” Pace said. “He’s been such an important asset to Jefferson Center for so many years.”
Pace added that two other positions, an administrative one and a production one, were lost, too — not to mention the multiple day-of-show jobs for production.
Jefferson Center is no ghost town, as it has about 20 tenants including Clean Valley Council, Local Colors and RVTV Channel 3. Last week, the Roanoke Arts Commission notified its governing foundation that it was one of the city’s arts and culture organizations selected to receive a $28,500 grant from a pool of federal CARES Act funds.
Jeff Center spokesman Matt Wirt said in an email exchange that the grant will help cover payroll and utility expenses.
On another front, the foundation’s “Give now, Gather later.” fundraising campaign has raised more than $50,000 and is still “going strong,” Wirt wrote. “We’re really grateful to everyone who’s supported us so far, and we’re still accepting donations at jeffcenter.org/givenow.”
No live music is scheduled in the fall for either the building’s premier venue, Shaftman Performance Hall, or its smaller Fostek Hall. There are hopes for live shows next year.
“We’ve been working on an approach for some virtual shows this fall, but we’re still in the logistics, testing, and planning phase,” Wirt wrote. “These virtual shows would be the ‘fall’ portion of the 20th Season, and 2021 live shows will be our ‘spring’ portion of the 20th Season.”
Either way, it’s not going to seem the same without Pryor around.
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