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When performers die, get sick or back out, music venues must act fast

At about 5 p.m. Wednesday, Scott Schecter got a call with some bad news. Frank Sinatra Jr. had fallen ill before a concert in Daytona Beach. Thursday's concert at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg was in jeopardy.

"Doctors are looking at it," Sinatra's tour manager told Schecter, the president of Big3 Entertainment, which had booked Sinatra. "We're trying to figure out what's going on. Follow up next week, and we'll try to figure out a rescheduled date."

The venue sent out a vague but urgent media release about the cancellation of the nearly sold-out concert, and promised more details. Less than three hours later, Sinatra's agent called back, and the news was much more somber: The singer had died of cardiac arrest at 72.

RELATED: Frank Sinatra Jr. dies of heart attack in Florida

"The protocol is, you just notify everybody, you make the refunds, and what else can you say, except express your sadness about it?" Schecter said Thursday. "We were sad for the family, but what else can you do?"

Concert cancellations happen for endless reasons, from Garth Brooks bumping up against the Stanley Cup Finals to Aretha Franklin ditching an upcoming gig in Sarasota due to a "lack of band personnel."

Far more common are cancellations due to illness, injury and even death — sudden emergencies that can send venues into a tailspin.

RELATED: Death, documentaries and hockey: 10 unusual reasons artists have canceled concerts in Tampa Bay

This month alone, such cancellations feel like an epidemic across Tampa Bay. Merle Haggard (pneumonia) and Tanya Tucker (bronchitis) both pulled out of the Florida Strawberry Festival with only a few days' notice. Same for the Goo Goo Dolls ("illness and doctor's orders") at Busch Gardens' Food and Wine Festival. Melanie Martinez (kidney stones) pushed a show at the Ritz Ybor back by a month. And Adam Lambert (doctor-ordered vocal rest) canceled a concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall on the day of the gig, mere hours before showtime.

In some cases, venues can scramble and keep the concert on the books with a similar replacement. Within hours of the Goo Goo Dolls falling ill, Busch Gardens had a shortlist of fill-in options, courtesy of partner promoters AEG Live. The park's top criteria: They wanted another alt-rock band. And they got one, booking Collective Soul just a day before the show.

"We wanted to try to stick with that demo, because we knew people had probably made plans to come to the park on that day," said Nancy Hutson, the park's vice president of entertainment. "Our biggest concern was to get the information to our guests, so they know what's happening."

That tends to be the case, as venues immediately start breaking the bad news to ticket holders.

"A lot of people were disappointed," Schecter said of Sinatra. "We looked at this show as kind of a benchmark of the season because of the 100th birthday of Frank Sinatra. This was just going to be a really cool event."

It isn't the first time a Tampa Bay concert has been cancelled due to death.

Alt-rock band Blind Melon was booked to perform at St. Petersburg's Jannus Landing on Oct. 23, 1995. Two days before the show, singer Shannon Hoon died of a heroin overdose in New Orleans.

"Even though we didn't have the Internet and all that stuff back then, word traveled pretty quickly," said promoter Rob Douglas, who booked the show, and who learned of Hoon's death via a call from Blind Melon's agent. "It was a great disappointment and sadness and what have you, but it was a given that there was going to be no show, and people were going to get a refund. There was no hand-wringing about what to do."

He added: "I wonder if any people decided to keep their tickets from that show as memorabilia?"

Sometimes, the show goes on no matter what. Prog-rock heroes Yes elected to keep touring following last summer's death of co-founder Chris Squire, including an August gig at Ruth Eckerd Hall. Three Dog Night singer Cory Wells died suddenly less than a month before the band was to perform at St. Petersburg's Ribfest, but surviving members wasted no time announcing they would keep the date with another singer. (That wasn't possible at Ribfest '99, when Atlanta Rhythm Section drummer R.J. Vealey died on the road in Orlando the day before their gig in St. Pete. Gary "Dreamweaver" Wright took their place at the last minute.)

For the Mahaffey, none of this was an option. Once Sinatra's death was announced, theater officials scrambled to notify staff, union crews, musicians, vendors and equipment rental agencies that there would be no show on Thursday. Their ticket office began calling and emailing as members and ticket holders.

"It's just about marketing and communications to let as many ticket buyers know," he said. "Inevitably, we won't get through to everybody, and I'm sure we'll have a few people that'll show up at the theater tonight around showtime. We're hoping people, one way or another, will get the word."

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

When performers die, get sick or back out, music venues must act fast 03/17/16 [Last modified: Thursday, March 17, 2016 2:44pm]
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