When Elena and Aubrey Smyth quit their corporate graphic design and health insurance jobs on a whim nearly eight years ago to become full-time artists, they knew there was no looking back. “[Working in an office] just wasn’t for us,” Aubrey says. “It felt like the harder and harder we worked, the further away the dream of being self-employed artists seemed to get for us.”
Aubrey recalls that the young couple, both Detroit natives, had no savings to ease the risk but took the plunge anyway. After spending the next five years working collaboratively as painters while establishing a name for themselves in the art industry, the Smyths’ creativity and ambition finally paid off when the pair opened their brick-and-mortar venue, Armageddon Beachparty Lounge, in 2018. Since then, the swanky lounge on Putnam Street has doubled as an art gallery and performance space, hosting creatives ranging from local artists to DJs, as well as national performers and burlesque shows.
“The best thing for us was being able to create a platform for a lot of local upcoming acts on the scene that don’t really have a name for themselves to be able to book out the bigger venues,” Aubrey says.
In March, though, when the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread through Detroit and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a statewide shelter-in-place order prohibiting gatherings and events like the ones Armageddon Beachparty hosts every week, business came to an abrupt halt. Suddenly, the Smyths found themselves drawing on their creative resilience to navigate the unprecedented challenges of owning a small business during a pandemic.
“There were a lot of projects and traveling that we had planned ahead for the warmer season that got wiped out with this whole pandemic,” Aubrey says. “In terms of the lounge, we were booked from March out through the beginning of July, and our entire schedule was just wiped clean.”
“Normally we host two shows minimum per week, every Friday and Saturday, at the lounge,” Elena adds. “Months and months of planning and trying to get ahead with our process and be on top of everything was completely undercut.”
Elena recalls that when the couple heard about the pandemic and shelter-in-place orders, their primary concern was the well-being of their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Margot — and figuring out how to survive as self-employed artists and small business owners.
Elena estimates that the business lost around 90% of normal revenue due to the shelter-in-place orders. “The first couple weeks were really stressful as we were trying to figure out everything and how we were going to be able to stay afloat,” she says. “We applied for as many emergency relief grants and loans as we possibly could.”
The Smyths were able to secure a $5,000 grant from the Detroit Small Business Stabilization Fund, made available through a partnership between TechTown, the City of Detroit, the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC) and Invest Detroit, helping to ease the financial burden of having to pay rent for the venue throughout the duration of its closure.
Drawing on the strength and persistence that initially led to their success as working artists, the Smyths haven’t let the pandemic stop their work — or their vision of supporting other creatives. Quickly pivoting, Armageddon Beachparty began selling masks online, in addition to finding unique ways to continue bringing their lively events into the homes of their patrons while creating opportunities for the artists and performers they’d built their business around supporting.
“We started working with some very good friends of ours [on a new event] series,” Elena says. Dubbed “Full Tilt Fridays,” the newly launched event is a free “virtual variety show and dance party” hosted on Zoom and Twitch every Friday in collaboration with Full Tilt Social Club, whose founders include Joe Vourteque, Tana The Tattooed Lady, Cannon, and Killjoy. Elena says the events cycle through performers and patrons dancing in their homes, and include an option to donate to the show’s entertainers.
In addition to the new virtual event series, Armageddon Beachparty has also found a way to bring people together online while drawing attention to the recent nationwide uprising against systemic racism and police violence toward unarmed Black men and women in custody, sparked by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
“Having both grown up in political activist families, we realize everyone can contribute to the fight for equality and justice in their own way — whether it's with art, music, protest, or wise words,” Elena says. “We immediately felt a need to brainstorm as to how we could make a difference and take action to help fight the good fight.”
In an effort to raise money for various Black-led organizations, the virtual drag show “Queer Pride for Black Lives: A Virtual Variety Benefit Show” will stream live as two shows in one night — an early show at 8 p.m. and a late show at 10 p.m. on Friday, June 12 at the Full Tilt Social Club website. The event, developed and produced by Haus of Monejé, will feature the artwork of Armageddon Beachparty along with entertainers from around the country. Tickets for the fundraiser are available for purchase for a suggested donation of $10-15 via the Full Tilt Social Club website.
Although the Smyths say they’re eager to get back to hosting weekly events at their Woodbridge venue, they admit they’re uncertain about when Armageddon Beachparty will be able to safely reopen. “I say ‘safely’ very strongly,” Elena says, “because there’s the state-mandated elements of it, but there’s also the care and consideration of the personal safety of your patrons.”
In the meantime, the Smyths aren’t letting anything stand in the way of their art. “We’ve been hunkering down in the studio and taking advantage of this time to create some of our best new work to date,” Aubrey says.
Pointing out that the name Armageddon Beachparty has taken on an unexpected new meaning in recent months, Elena jokes, “In a very strange and ironic way, [the name] has become more and more relevant. But you know, we’re not doom-and-gloom sorts of folks. We look at all of this as an opportunity to find out what’s next and figure out creative solutions and ways to move forward.”This story is part of an ongoing series done in partnership with Woodbridge Neighborhood Development to highlight stories of resilience in the neighborhood.