Friends and colleagues know Rod Stafford Hagwood as an ever-optimistic man with a relentless sense of humor. He posts some of the most laugh-out-loud memes on social media.
But even he has a hard time seeing much through rose-colored glasses since the coronavirus pandemic took hold in March.
The longtime South Florida Sun-Sentinel reporter and columnist has been writing about the entertainment, arts and restaurant scene since 1990.
It’s safe to say he’s seen a lot, but nothing quite like this.
In late March he was in a newsroom staff meeting where everyone was told to immediately start working from home. Hagwood and others went to their desks to pack up, not knowing when they might return.
He said the surreal feeling began to creep in and the gravity of the situation started to come down when stay-at-home orders were issued April 1.
“I knew there would be a change for entertainment, arts and restaurants, but I had no idea it would all be decimated,” Stafford said.
South Florida has a particularly large presence of outdoor events and festivals, concerts, casinos, Broadway shows, theater and thousands of restaurants that are a big part of the lifeblood of the economy. Not to mention the beaches that drive so much of tourism.
“I also didn’t think [stay-at-home orders were] going to last long. I thought, a couple of weeks, a couple of months, and then things would slowly start shifting back to normal,” he said.
Hagwood soon realized that the industries and people he covers on his beat were in big trouble.
“I don’t want to overstate it, but people are in a kind of state of shock. They are being hit every day, punch after punch after punch. Aid is not helping much at all, from what I am gathering. These safety nets that are being put out there are, for all practical purposes, not working,” he said.
He said it has been a “seismic change,” a “paradigm shift that is mind-boggling.”
Hagwood said even though some restaurants — with slim profit margins to begin with — quickly shifted into takeout and curbside service, even in the best-case scenarios thousands of dollars are lost every night.
The theater and dance companies — also operating on slim profit margins even when times are good — are clearly not faring well and likely won’t for an extended period of time, Hagwood said.
“For example, South Florida has a lot of ballet companies, and they make a big profit on their schools, the classes,” he said. “Well, virtual ballet classes are not the same thing. And the schools are really the financial engine for everything else they do.”
Hagwood said the smaller theater and art ventures, in particular, are in dire straits.
“I guess what is maybe just beginning to dawn on all of us, is how enormous a paradigm shift this is going to be. And how we may not recognize the world we live in a year from now,” he said. “I never really pictured a world where there were no concerts, no festivals, no performing arts. I never in my wildest imagination would have guessed that.”
At the same time, Hagwood doesn’t downplay the fact that many businesses, nonprofits and otherwise, are getting creative and doing everything they can to survive.
Those in entertainment who can are shifting to online offerings and trying to make it work with live streaming, video posts and even virtual reality.
Hagwood said he’s grateful on a personal level to be in a more stable position than many he writes about.
“I was just talking to someone and I was saying to them that my husband and I have no reason to complain, we’ve just been blessed,” Hagwood said. “Even when you feel like complaining, you check yourself.”
Hagwood continues to cover his beat for the Sun Sentinel. He was already working from his Fort Lauderdale home most of the time, so the work-from-home transition wasn’t as abrupt as it could have been.
His husband, Gary Lodge, recently took a position at Whole Foods Market, so his job security is as solid as anyone’s can be in the current environment.
“I was telling him that his timing is impeccable,” Hagwood said. “If he had stayed with the company he worked at before, he’d be out of a job now.”
The two have been together since 2003 and were married in 2015 when it first became legal in Florida and then the U.S.
From Nashville to Las Olas
Hagwood was born in Richmond, Virginia, but grew up in Nashville. He went to college at the University of Memphis.
“I’m 57, and you know when you’re old because your schools have all changed their names,” he said.
The University of Memphis was Memphis State when he was enrolled.
Both his parents were educators — his mother an elementary school teacher and father a teacher turned lawyer.
When he was growing up, segregated busing was still an issue in the South, and he remembers his mother saying of her only child: “I’m not going to let those hillbillies get ahold of my baby.”
Before college, Hagwood went to a private primary and secondary school that was 70% Jewish.
“Jewish culture valued education. The good thing was I got a great education, and when there was a Jewish holiday I practically had the school to myself,” he said with a chuckle. “When I turned 13, trying to keep a yarmulke on my Jackson 5 afro was an engineering feat.”
Nashville also gave Hagwood his first big dose of the entertainment industry — and an environment that was more accepting of gays.
After college he took a public relations internship in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he, perhaps surprisingly, found a tight-knit, organized and forward-thinking gay community.
“They were doing major AIDS fundraisers before anyone else,” Hagwood said. “I worked on one fundraiser — a musical review that was traveling at the time raising money for an AIDS organization called Heart Strings.”
He escorted the governor and first lady of Arkansas to their seats — Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Hagwood would go on to earn his journalism chops at the Arkansas Gazette, writing for its society and fashion sections. (“Very important in the South,” he said.)
And in case you were wondering, coming out, even in the South, wasn’t really a thing, Hagwood said, because he never really had to.
He said his parents were very progressive for their time and he had a few girlfriends and a few boyfriends in high school.
“I always say to people now: it’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when parents didn’t want to know about their children’s sex life,” Hagwood said with a laugh. “They knew. I had friends coming by and was partying with friends. Sometimes I’d spend all weekend at a friend’s house with a boy.”
He said in Nashville he felt safe to go out just about anywhere and even be included at the gay bars when he was technically too young to get in.
“There were people who looked after you — people who worked in the mall, waiters, a few in the entertainment industry, in country music, recording studios,” he said.
Back in Arkansas, the Gazette gig afforded him a window into designer shows where he would have a chance encounter with (then) USA Today fashion editor Elizabeth Snead, who had formerly been at the Sun Sentinel.
“She took me under her wing and showed me how to do the designer shows in New York. She’d take me to the little clubs and restaurants I wouldn’t have gone to because I was too intimidated,” he said.
Snead suggested he apply for an opening at the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale.
Hagwood said the Sun Sentinel put him up at the Riverside Hotel on Las Olas Boulevard. He wasn’t thinking much about the interview, though, because he couldn’t wait to check out the Cathode Ray, what had been described to him as “the most beautiful gay bar anywhere.”
“I was really relaxed during the interview and got the job,” he said with a laugh.