Thinking Inside the Box: What Goes on Behind That Little Barred Window

Special Features   Thinking Inside the Box: What Goes on Behind That Little Barred Window
 
They hear "gimme" and "whatcha got?" all the time. Now, step behind the grille and thick glass to meet the gatekeepers of Broadway — the box office personnel.
A theatre-goer waits outside of a Broadway box office.
A theatre-goer waits outside of a Broadway box office. Photo by David Gewirtzman

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For the outside observer, the theatre holds more than its share of alluring and intriguing mysteries. What's going on backstage while a show is being performed? What rituals do the actors go through before hitting the stage? How did they achieve that stage effect? How do they learn all those lines?

But perhaps no position in the theatre provokes the theatregoer's abiding curiosity as does the box office attendant. Stationed behind a gold-barred window just off the lobby, they are the gatekeepers, the holders of the ducats. Their tiny kingdoms are seeming warrens of drawers, envelopes and cubby holes, in which are secreted the sought-after passes to paradise. To attain a piece of the happiness and joy that takes place inside the auditorium, you must go through them, the way Dorothy had to go through that obdurate, fuzzy-hatted, mustachioed doorman before entering the wondrous world of Oz.

Or so the popular thinking goes.

"We're the human face of the theatre," said Karen Winer, a longtime ticketseller who has worked on Broadway and the Brooklyn Academy of Music and is currently on staff at the New York State Theatre in Lincoln Center. "We're the first point of contact for many people. And people are very scared about buying tickets for some reason. It's sort of an alien experience to them. I think that's one of the reasons the internet is so popular. They're intimidated. There's a whole mentality that there's some sort of special alchemy going on back there." Part of the reason for the profession's reputation for near Masonic mystery is that most Broadway box office workers — who are all members of Treasurers and Ticket Sellers Union Local 751, an arm of IATSE — decline, as a rule, to talk about their jobs for the record. The majority of the people approached for this article either refused to be interviewed or didn't return calls. This is largely because they are following the wishes of their employers — ?the three major theatre owners, the Shubert Organization, Nederlander Organization and Jujamcyn Theaters.

Those who were interviewed for this story, however, stressed that there was nothing mysterious about their work — even if there is plenty that might be misunderstood.

"It's just pretty much what it appears to be on the face," said Winer. "You give me money, I give you a ticket."

But surely there must be more to it than that. Well, yes, there is. In fact, that's another of the common misconceptions about the job — that it's simple and easy. "I don't think people realize that there's a lot of experience, sometimes decades of combined experience in selling tickets" at any given box office, said Winer. Spencer Taustine, the treasurer at the Hilton Theatre (all union members are technically known as "treasurers" and each Broadway theatre has a head treasurer), also wishes people understood the job is more than short hours and show business. "Some people think that any idiot can do it. We beg to differ. We bring a lot to the table. When we get producers that appreciate that, that's when we're happiest."

So what do they do in that little room? Well, a lot of the things you expect they do: collect money, sell tickets, balance books, field calls from anxious producers asking about last night's take. They also answer a lot of the same questions every day. Among the classics: "Is the show good?" "Is that a good ticket?" "Where is a good restaurant."

"I go in 2:30-3 PM every day," said Craig Bowley, who has worked at box offices for all three Broadway theatre owners. "I make sure the show is ready for that night, check all the paperwork, see the group list and comp list is correct. We have to be as ready as we can because it is all going to happen in a span of 15 or 20 minutes" just before the curtain goes up.

Given that ticketsellers have "all day to get ready," Bowley said that "the cardinal rule in box office is we'd don't hold up the curtain. If they have to hold the curtain, fine, but never because of the box office."

Information Centers

With the rise of the internet as a viable avenue for ticket buying, the function of the Broadway box office has evolved from that of a trading post to an "information center," as Bowley put it. "Over the years it's become more customer service than counting the money. They already know they want to buy our product. What we have to do is find something in their price range that they're be happy with. Then they'll want to know where to eat and are we close to Macy's. That's all part of selling the ticket. It's not just taking the money and putting it away. Maybe it was that way 30-40 years ago, when everything was done with cash. Nowadays, you have to give them full service."

Craig Bowley is an expert at giving that service. He calls himself a "people person." He largely stays away from the abacus and spends most of his time handling the supplicants at the box office window.

"Different people have different skills," he said. "Somebody has to make the numbers work. And somebody else has to know how to quiet the lady at the window crying because she lost her tickets. That tends to be why I get hired. My people skills are much higher than my number crunching."

One might assume that dealing with such aggrieved customers constitutes the least attractive aspect of the job. Not so, said Bowley. It's a challenge he relishes. "You have to find a way" to help every person, he said. "There's always a way. There's the good cop, bad cop routine. I can't do bad cop, but I can do good cop. Never make the customer feel that they're wrong, even if it is their fault — which it usually is — you can't use that as your argument. And you can't argue with them. You have to keep calm. As soon as they get to you, then you lose control and nothing works."

"I've sort of evolved to where I'm really enjoying the human aspect," said Winer, who came to New York wanting to be a stage manager, but soon fell into box office work. "I'm finding it fascinated in my dotage, the give and take. Right now, I'm at the soldier level and I'm happy there, because I've had the high-powered jobs. At BAM, I was director of ticket and customer services. At Carnegie Hall I was subscription manager. I find that the politics at the top are very corporate."

Taustine — who followed his father into the profession and has a daughter at the performing arts camp Stage Door Manor — agreed, saying simply, "I prefer the people side." Who can blame him for preferring regular folk over the head office? He's worked at the Hilton Theatre since the 42nd Street house was first built as the Ford Center for the Performing Arts. That means he was once employed by the flamboyant, now-disgraced impresario Garth Drabinsky. "Working for Garth Drabinsky was one of the more challenging things I've even done," Taustine observed with dry understatement.

A Ticket to Nothing

Of course, customer service often encompasses very special customers who require special treatment. Winer once worked the ticket office for Zingaro, an "equestrian ballet" that played Battery Park City. The show had a strict policy of "no babies." "They didn't want the child to cry out suddenly and startle the horse," she explained. "One night, I'm there to enforce that, and who should have tickets but Demi Moore. But no one in Moore's entourage has told me she was brining an infant. She was actually lovely and was prepared to walk away, when Bartabus, the amazing character who came up with this whole thing, rode by on his horse and beckoned to me. He had his minion tell me it was all right for Demi Moore to come in with her baby."

Moore surely came away from that performance with a new respect for box office professionals. Since then, Winer has steadily worked on the rest of the population, ticketbuyer by ticketbuyer.

"I've tried to distinguish this from all the jobs that seem similar, like bank teller or the airline rep at the ticket counter," she said. "It's not the same. People are buying what they hope will be an emotional experience. You're selling nothing. You're giving them a piece of paper in exchange for possibly having, if not a life-changing, then a satisfying experience. It is evanescent. And people are intimidated by it.

"Their approach to us is very strange," she continued. "You almost never hear the word 'please.' Afterwards, people thank you. But you hear a lot of 'gimme' and 'whatcha got' and 'I want.' They come on a little bit strong. It's true, we've got an image that puts them a little bit on the defensive. That's why, each time a person comes up, I think this is a chance for me to make someone have a positive experience."

Sure, sure. But c'mon: Is that really the best seat you have?

Patrons enter the box office area to purchase tickets.
Patrons enter the box office area to purchase tickets. Photo by David Gewirtzman
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