When I was asked by Talkin' Broadway to write a piece on Box Offices and procedures, I was a bit puzzled. What was there to know? You walk in, knowing what you want, ask for tickets for a certain day, and if they have what you like, you buy them and then leave. Simple, no?
But then I remembered . . .
I remembered the time my life was threatened at the Astor Place Theatre (home of Blue Man Group) because a customer claimed that he was not told by TicketMaster that the tickets he ordered were limited seats (he had asked for the cheaper tickets which are priced as such because of problems but wasn't listening too carefully).
Or the nearly daily occurrence when people see the "This Performance is Sold Out" sign and ask "Not even one ticket for tonight?"
Or when one guy said "I'll do anything for a pair of tickets" as he leered at me. Yeah, sure you would. Still . . . no, there weren't any seats anyway.
Or when at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (where Cobb now resides) a woman put her dripping umbrella on the sill and I asked her to please take it off and she said "How dare you!" and then proceeded to take 10 minutes to buy tickets, asking "How much are tickets?" (I pointed to the very large ticket sign next to the window that clearly said all tickets are $45.00) "When are shows?" (Again I pointed to the sign) "Is the show good?" (what kind of question is that to ask?) "What time is it now?" (I pointed to the little clock I have at the window) "Now I want your best seats!" (Hmm, no, I thought I'd give you my worst seats so you'd take even longer at the window) and so on and on and on . . . and then, saying that she forgot to bring her credit card and she'll come back tomorrow at 10 and me saying "If you see the sign, the box office opens at 12 noon,", her saying "Jeez, you have such an easy job, don't you?" as she sweeps out.
Welcome to the Theatre. To the Magic. To the Fun.
Can you imagine walking into a car shop and saying "Hi, I guess I want to buy a car. Is this a good car? How many wheels are on it? Is there an engine included? Where are the doors to enter the car?"
Well, here's More Than You May Want To Know About Box Offices & Buying Tickets But Were Too Obsessed With (insert Actor or Cult Show here) To Ask.
What does it take to work in the box office? Patience and smarts. There is no school to learn, it's all really just hands on. One usually doesn't become a Unionized Broadway Treasurer until he/she's had experience in the Off-Broadway world first. I fell into that by mere accident myself: the General Manager I was working for was going on a sabbatical and, knowing that I would be jobless, offered to talk to his Theatre Owner friend who needed an assistant treasurer. After I was hired, I had to learn a lot of stuff. Being damn good on the computer was a big help so I could learn the Telecharge system (knowing a little about bookkeeping and accounting doesn't hurt either).
Basically, treasurers are responsible for everything that has to do with tickets sales in regard to a show: make sure tickets are on sale for whatever dates the producers want to sell, make sure the schedule is correct, make sure the money is correct, make sure any discount offers are correctly in place, etc.
One may think it would be great: Free tickets, short hours, high pay! Uh-uh. There are quite a few downsides: You only work while there's a show running (last year the Lortel was dark for 6 months!). And the pay is okay, but there are quite a few Off Broadway treasurers who work more than one job. You work an average of six days a week, 30 hours per week, and don't get any holidays off. Maybe Christmas if there's no performance. And you answer the same questions day in, day out. "Can you recommend a restaurant?" "Where can I park?" "Is the show good?" (Oy, that question again!)
Then you have to deal with Opening Night, the show that proves your mettle as a treasurer - the constant delivering of Opening Night gifts that you have to make sure go backstage since most Off-Broadway theatres don't have a stage door and/or doorperson; and the constant changing of seat locations because Julia-Roberts-decided-not-to-come-but-now-Jennifer-Lopez-is-coming-with-her-10-person-entourage-so-you-have-to-juggle- where-to-put-the-playwright's-family-because-Ms-Lopez-must-have-five-aisle-seats. Ever seen the show Fully Committed? That's pretty close to what Opening Night is like for a Box Office, which is probably why I didn't laugh a lot when I watched the show - it hit too close to home.
And then there's after Opening Night. Is the show a Huge Hit, so that you have a line of people who all must have third row center aisle seats this Saturday night? Is it a Flop, with you having to lie and say "Oh yes, business is great" while patrons want to know the cheapest ticket they can get - that is, if anyone even comes to the box office? Even worse, is it a middle-of-the-road, "maybe it will run, maybe unemployment is looming closer than you think" show?
You get the idea. I know, at least I'm working in the theatre, but believe me baby, it ain't easy at all.
On Broadway, the same kinds of problems are multiplied by trying to sell many more seats. Except that since Broadway treasurers are Unionized, I'm sure the pay is better. I really don't know much about that yet. I'm trying, I'm trying!
Many people think all treasurers are rude jerks, but I believe it mostly has to do with stress and ignorance on the part of some customers. I myself have never had a bad experience buying tickets and no, it's not because they know I'm an Off Broadway treasurer, I only know one or two Broadway people. So what makes a good customer?
A Good Customer is prepared. They know what time the box office opens and closes, they know how much tickets are, they know the layout of the theatre, they know what kind of seats they want, they have several dates in mind, they bring their glasses so they can see when they have to sign the credit card receipt, they have the right cash ready and/or have the credit card they want to use ready (and knowing there will be enough credit available on the card), they've brought at least one picture ID if they are paying by Traveler's Check. They've read their discount flyer completely, understood the limitations ("Not Available Saturday Nights" really does mean that. These are often meant to encourage people to see not-so-heavily attended shows) and filled out the coupon. If they have a problem giving out their phone number, they understand that the box office takes it in case they needed to be contacted (Earthquake, the star is sick, etc.). When they walk into the lobby to buy, they look at all the posted signs in order to be fully prepared with they approach the box office window. They mean it when they say "Any Saturday Night for a pair" and don't, after you offer one Saturday, say "Oh, except that one, that's Aunt Fanny's birthday."
A Good Customer has the day and date in mind - Tuesday, February 6th, not just "next Tuesday" or "The 6th, whatever day that is". Especially with February and March's dates this year falling on the same days.
A Good Customer knows that "This Performance is Sold Out" means that there really isn't a ticket available for that show at that time. They know to ask if there is some sort of waiting line or list in case extra tickets come up. They also know that this can happen because most theatres hold a few tickets for emergencies (broken seat, mistaken order that is the theatre and/or show's fault, etc.)
If they are a member of one of the Theatre Clubs like Audience Extras or Play-by-Play, a Good Customer understands the procedure for asking for their tickets (Audience Extras members must present their card at the window to pick up the tickets) and they don't shout at the top of their lungs "Hi, I have Comps [or Free Tickets] for tonight." They understand how subtle they have to be. They also understand that they are there to help "dress the house" (make it look presentable for the actors and/or critics) and don't whine about the free tickets they are given in regard to location. This is actually true for any sort of free ticket - the whole lobby doesn't need to know that your Best Friend Kevin Spacey put up free seats for you.
If they are picking up tickets previously ordered via a phone service like TicketMaster or Telecharge, a Good Customer knows to have their credit card used to purchase the tickets ready when they come up to the window. They try to arrive early to pick up their tickets. They understand that no receipt may be given for the tickets so they wrote down what the total charge was ahead of time. They also were listening carefully at the time of the order so they know about the handling fees charged and don't curse the treasurer for these.
A Good Customer also knows that the box office doesn't control when the theatre will be open so the bathrooms can be used. They don't threaten the treasurer that they will pee in the lobby if they don't go to the bathroom right now. Auditoriums can't open until the House Manager has checked all the Emergency Exits, Fire Extinguishers and Exit Lights (New York State Law in accordance with the Fire Department), made sure all ushers are assigned with enough Playbills, and is given the House by the Stage Manager who is making sure the stage is clear and that all is in place. A patron entering before the theatre is ready who trips and falls can sue the theatre and show for an improper inspection. It is not a Sadistic Treasurer who likes to see people suffer who keeps you out, he/she is trying to protect you.
A Good Customer knows that if they are going to buy tickets for a future performance to not show up five minutes before another performance is about to begin to do so. Many box offices have a sign posted saying "Advance Sales Not Permitted 15 minutes Before Showtime". This way, people picking up tickets or buying tickets for the performance about to happen can proceed smoothly (true, they should have come earlier). They also know that most box offices close when the performance starts, so they don't arrive later than that attempting to buy tickets. Even if they "come all the way in from Connecticut".
A Good Customer doesn't say they want "Good seats". Of course you want good seats! And we want to sell you good seats. Well . . . there was one time where a guy asked for the "Worst Seats in The Theatre"; he was forced to buy some for a sibling's birthday and he was in a tiff over said sibling marrying his former girlfriend. Ah, family . . .
A Good Customer knows that if they aren't told the seat is a limited view, that even if they are sitting on the extreme side, it isn't a limited view seat. Again, we are required by law to state if a seat is not a full view and/or full legroom seat. A Good Customer also understands that if they order a problem seat, to expect a problem at that seat. "Duh!" you're saying, but you don't know how many times I've sold Limited Legroom seats at Blue Man Group and petite people will giggle and say "Oh, I'll have no problem with these" and then five minutes before showtime, come Stomping out to the box office saying, "Hey, these seats you sold me have no legroom! I'm uncomfortable!" "Well, ma'am, I did tell you that when you bought the tickets." "Well I didn't know you meant it!" D'oh!
A Good Customer who has misplaced their tickets knows to show up ahead of time with as much information about the order as possible; when they were ordered, how they were ordered, what method of payment was used, etc. If they had ordered over the phone, they contacted the phone service to explain the problem.
A Good Customer who has extra tickets or tickets for the wrong date comes to the box office hoping that something can be done but not expecting a refund. Some theatres will allow tickets to be refunded or exchanged, depending on how the tickets were ordered (TDF tickets, for example, basically can only be used for the day they are good since the discount is so high). But nearly all theatres have some form of Past Date Policy in which the customer would phone up the theatre or telephone service on the future day of the show that they wish to go to inquire if they can use their tickets for that show. Subject to Availability they will be able to go, unless it's something like Lion King or Blue Man Group.
Past Dating is not a guarantee, but depending on the time of year, it can happen. A Good Customer will understand all this and not proceed to try to sell their ticket in the lobby right in front of the box office harassing everyone who comes to the window with "Need one for tonight? It's cheap." That's called scalping and treasurers hate that. I was once told that New York Law states that one must be at least 30 feet away from a theatre to attempt to resell a ticket. I'm not sure if that's true or not, but I don't recommend finding out. This is another reason that a Good Customer is as sure as they can be about the date and time, since the tickets themselves do say on the back "NO REFUNDS, NO EXCHANGES" (it is in rather small print, but seriously, look at the back of a ticket sometime. There's a lot of information you should know about, like tickets bought from "unauthorized sources", etc.).
A Good Customer will understand that if they buy separate tickets that chances are not good that these tickets can be returned to the box office for seats together. Sometimes something can be done but don't count on it.
A Good Customer knows that if the phone service they have called for tickets has a lovely pair available, that that doesn't mean that pair may still be available if they don't buy over the phone but come on over to the box office to save on the service charges. They know that tickets can't be held; they are either bought or not, so if you call up for The Producers and 5th row Center's available, dear friend, you'd best buy them right now because they'll be gone after you hang up even if you're on the pay phone in the lobby of the theatre.
Finally, A Good Customer checks their tickets carefully before leaving the theatre. You wouldn't want to show up the night of the show and realize you bought tickets for the previous week! Yes, even I have made mistakes and thought I heard something different from what the customer wanted; that window glass is pretty thick! Ever notice that on all ticket signs, it says at the bottom "Please Check Your Tickets Carefully. No Refunds, No Exchanges"? As Martha would say, it's a Good Thing.
This all seems a bit obvious, but boy, you'd be surprised.
And now the big question: How is availability determined? All the questions I'd gotten from Chatterati were in this theme: "How on earth do they determine what's available at TicketMaster Online?" "How come yesterday the show was sold out according to TicketMaster, but when I go to the box office today, there are tickets for tonight's show?" "Why does Telecharge offer two seats in the back when I call but when I get to the theatre an hour later closer seats come up?"
Here are some answers:
Your choices are limited when you order over the phone. The phone operators can look by price and section (Orchestra, Mezzanine) and can usually attempt to search for an aisle seat, but that's about all. They really don't have the ability to roam around checking every row. For example, if you call and ask for two Orchestra seats for Follies on Tuesday, January 2nd at 8:00pm, all the operator will see on their screen is the above info with choice A/ 12th Row Center, Row Q, Seats 110-111 and choice B/ 10th Row Side, Row M Seats 40-42. And that's all they can offer you for that section. PS: This is for Telecharge. TicketMaster only offers one choice per show.
I know that you're thinking "Well, then why the hell are there service fees if I can't get what I want?" You are paying for the privilege of not having to go to the box office and wait and to have your tickets mailed to you or waiting for you at the theatre. Now I hate to pay for service charges myself, but as a member of Lincoln Center Theatre, it's easier to be at home getting ready for work and trying to order tickets on the phone than to get up real early to go wait in the freezing cold to buy tickets on the first day a new show goes on sale. The downside is that I can't pick and choose, and since my subscription is only for one person (and my choice of performances is limited; have I mentioned I work six days a week??), I usually end up sitting near the extreme side or in the back for the smaller theatre shows. But them's the breaks.
The exception to this is if a show or theatre has its own phone room. Blue Man Group, for example, has its own phone operators located in the Astor Place Theatre. You still pay a service charge (there is no TicketMaster handling fee, however), but you will have greater access.
TicketMaster and Telecharge sell what the box office gives them to sell. But as you may or may not know, all tickets are never available when a show first goes on sale. Some locations are held for people connected to the show and the theatre for their own contracted use. These are called House Seats. Some unused House Seats may get released and available to the public 48 hours before the performance, but there's certainly no guarantee to that. Oh, a small warning: Never ask a Treasurer when House Seats become available. We all bristle at hearing a non-theatre employee use this phrase, I don't know why. I do recommend asking if other seats become available a day or two before the show. Your treasurer will probably tell you what's what. Remember, the sooner we sell out a show, the better for us.
Did notice something a bit weird in my example of trying to buy Follies tickets over the phone? Take a look again, the choices were Q Center and then M Side. Does that seem strange? Not if you know how a computer ticketing system works. When selling tickets, it doesn't go "Row A Center, Row A Left, Row A Right, Row B Center . . ."
Theatres are usually divided on computer systems by Zones. I'll use the Lortel Theatre as an example. First, some background: There are 12 rows downstairs. There is a Center, Left and Right Section. Center rows are 11 seats long, side rows are 3-5 seats.
The First Zone is Rows A-H 101-111, meaning the first 8 rows center. The 2nd Zone is Rows A-H 1-9, first 8 rows on the Left Side. The 3rd Zone is Rows A-H 2-10, first 8 rows on the Right Side. Understood?
When you call Telecharge, you will get the best offer for the first Zone available and then the best choice for the second Zone available. And that's how that works. In person at the BO, the treasurer may jump around a little if a customer wants to be closer and doesn't mind being on the side. This is why your best bet really is to come to the box office. You'll be able to come closer to what you're after seatwise if you don't drive the poor treasurer too crazy.
Oh, and one other thing: when a customer calls up to order tickets, the locations quoted by the operator are in what's called an "Inquiry Status" so that no other customer can get those tickets for about 2 minutes. This explains the other reason for getting closer seats later on in the day. For example, Daisy Hilton calls and is offered C 103-104; while she is considering purchasing, Violet Hilton calls up and is offered G 105-106, the next pair available. Daisy thinks about it and then decides to call back, so C 103-104 are again released to the system when Queenie Blonde calls a minute later.
So, that's all I can think of. I hope this has been helpful. And if you happen to come to the Lortel or Astor and see a rather tired looking treasurer wearing a jazzy tie, don't hesitate to say Hi to me. (But don't ask about House Seats . . .)