Sometimes, as Jim Moran helps audience members find their seats at various Chicago theaters, patrons glance at his lapel with a puzzled expression. Moran's nametag identifies him as a Saint and on more than once occasion, a theatergoer has asked him if he's part of a Catholic organization. Not quite. Although Moran and fellow Saints do plenty of good deeds, serving as ushers for 40 theaters and some 50 performing groups around the Chicago area
The Saints get their name from the now defunct St. Nicholas Theatre, the legendary acting company once led by David Mamet. In 1980 a handful of St. Nicholas fans volunteered to work as ushers. When the company folded a year later, the Saints moved on to the Organic Theater Company and then expanded their operations, offering their services to other Chicago venues.
In the early 1990s, more and more theaters began asking the Saints to provide ushers. Meanwhile, the arrival in Chicago of the blockbuster musical, Phantom of the Opera, prompted more people to sign up as Saints. In a short time, the membership jumped from 200 to 1,200. More and more individuals realized that joining the Saints is not just a way of helping out performing-arts groups‹it's also a way of seeing plays and concerts for free. Once the curtain is up, the Saints join the rest of the audience, taking seats where they can find them.
"It sounds kind of chintzy, but it beats buying a ticket," says B.J. Nelson, a former Saints president who has been volunteering for ten years. "And the theaters need our help." Joining the Saints costs $65 a year‹a fee easily recovered by ushering at just one or two events. "You get some people who usher five or six times a year," Nelson says. "Then you have the eccentrics like me. I did 204 shows last year."
Melanie and Dewayne Reed of northwest suburban Tower Lakes have been keeping track of how much money they've saved on tickets since joining the Saints seven years ago. They've attended around 1,200 events, which would have cost them $100,000. Like many of the Saints, the Reeds were regular theatergoers long before they began volunteering as ushers. Melanie grew curious about those ushers with Saints nametags, often silver-haired retirees. One night, at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie, she queried one of them, learned what the Saints is all about, and the couple signed up.
"Little did we know it would change our lives," Reed says. "The real benefit is making a whole new set of friends." Reed, who coordinates the roster of Saints volunteers for the Harris Theater for Music and Dance at Millennium Park, and her husband recently bought a downtown condo, in part so they can be close to the Harris and other theaters in Chicago. They've also taken trips to Prague and Stratford, Ontario, with friends they've met through the Saints (taking in some opera and theater while vacationing, of course).
In addition to providing ushers, the Saints also raise money for scholarships and grants. Last year, the group awarded $20,000 to college seniors studying performing arts and $22,000 in grants to theaters. That money helped pay for body microphones at Porchlight Theatre, sign-language interpreters at BackStage Theatre Company, and sound equipment at Remy Bumppo Theatre Company.
Saints members are apprised of upcoming opportunities through a newsletter and website (www.saintschicago.org.) Many of the ushering slots fill up as soon as they're announced, especially for eagerly anticipated plays and concerts. Saints arrive at a theater an hour before the performance. One night at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, Matt Conlon greeted four volunteers: B.J. Nelson, Kyle Hamby, and Jim Moran and his wife, Nancy. After thanking this crew for their punctuality, everyone got to work. While Nancy Moran worked the coat check, the other three Saints folded subscription envelopes and stuffed fliers into the Playbill program for that evening's show.
Conlon then gathered the group together for a quick orientation, explaining how the seats are numbered and what the tickets looked like. "If you get a seat discrepancy, check the date," he said. He went over the house rules (bottled water is allowed, but not other drinks), the length of the show, and the location of the bathrooms, and gave the Saints one final guideline: "If you get a problem, just poke your head out and say, 'Matt!'" The only problem that night turned out to be a ticket for a seat that did not exist. After Hamby showed it to Conlon, he remarked, "That's so weird. That's a computer error." The house wasn't packed, however, and it was easy enough to seat the ticket holder in another spot nearby.
Jim Moran says he enjoys joking a little with patrons as they enter a theater. Sometimes, he'll say, "Oh, you're at the other door, where we send the important people." Hamby demonstrated a similar sense of humor as he showed some people to their seats and momentarily stood in front of them. "Well done," he said. "You know where you're going. Unfortunately, I stand right here during the show."
The Saints experience has turned many of its members into real theater fanatics. When they're not seeing shows for free, they're hitting box offices all over town. Saints president High Spencer, a Countryside retiree who has been with the group for 22 years, says it's not usual for him to see two shows in a day. He recently trekked from a matinee at the Court Theatre in Hyde Park to an evening show at the Marriott in Lincolnshire. "People say, 'That's crazy.' My wife says, 'Some people do drugs. Some people do alcohol. We do theater.' "