( Originally Published 1916 )
WHILE there are many instances of a person seeking to purchase a theater ticket, treated by the box office man as though he or she came to rob the management, the tendency has been to recognize the box office as the first direct meeting-ground of producer and public. For instance, William A. Brady long ago had a sign put up over each box office he controls, with the name of the person in charge and the assurance that he is put there to be accommodating. The old idea of box office efficiency was quickest disposal of a line of patrons; now that carries a corollary—quickest disposal of a line with entire satisfaction of each patron. I know of no finer exponent of this latter idea than Jed F. Shaw, formerly treasurer at the New Theater, and now auditor for Winthrop Ames.
The box office window is open usually from 10 A. M. to 10 P. M. An assistant, who in reality is generally an apprentice due to graduate at some indefinite time as a theater treasurer himself, works in shifts with his chief, and at rush hours with him, the treasurer taking charge of sales at the busiest times, from three-quarters to a half-hour be-fore the curtain rises, to the count-up. He is usually bonded by some surety company, the bond being technically broken if anyone but his assistant crosses the threshold of the box office during his occupancy.
From three weeks to a month before the season opens at a popular house, the treasurer is called to his post. He orders tickets for from four to six weeks in advance, keeping usually two weeks' coupons in the advance sale rack.
Actual sale of seats is commonly begun the Thursday preceding the Monday of the opening week. No tickets are issued until then. First the tickets for the critics, or other first and second night guests, are pulled from the rack and delivered to the press agent. Each is punched once in the coupon and twice in the body of the ticket to show it is not paid for, so it will not be reckoned as cash returned in the count-up. Advance orders are attended to then, tickets being mailed to those who have remitted the price; and regular subscribers are notified that the tickets are ready and will be held for them until a certain time.
Of course, the first performance is not usually a matinee, but, for convenient description of box office routine,. I am assuming the first day to be a matinee day.
" RACKING " TICKETS
Tickets for the day's sale are " racked " as soon as the treasurer or his assistant comes on duty in the morning. Box office racks are of various sorts; but the up-to-date form holds each ticket on the rack in a vertical slit, leaving the coupon end sticking out where it may be seen. These slits are arranged in lateral rows to correspond to the seats on the theater diagram. Thus, the treasurer has in his day's rack a plan of his auditorium; and he may tell at a glance just how well his theater is filled. A separate division holds balcony tickets. Gallery seats are rarely re-served; and admittances there are commonly paid at a special window. In large theaters, the separate slits contain from three to four tickets each, instead of one apiece. This form is known as a " bunch " rack. All racks are fitted with sliding covers that may be locked down.
Tickets for advance sale are kept in a separate rack in little stacks, each constituting a set for one performance, and each kept in a separate pigeonhole. The pigeonholes are arranged to hold, in one row, from left to right, the tickets for one week. Before each week's set is placed in the rack, when received from the printer, the tickets comprising it are carefully counted. A theater treasurer counts by sound, rippling the tickets through his fingers. To one unfamiliar with his work his speed and accuracy are amazing.
Before opening the box office to the public, a stipulated number of tickets is pulled from the rack for distribution to the ticket agencies a week in advance. These agencies are usually independent of the theater. They are not common in America, the system being practically confined to New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. Agencies return the day's unsold tickets by messenger before I:30 P. M. for the matinee, or 7:30 P. M. for the evening performance, together with a check for those disposed of. If all tickets taken are sold, and more are demanded, the agent telephones the treasurer to reserve specified available seats, and sends the patron to claim them with a written order which is reckoned as cash in the count-up. Once a week a runner for the agency pays up these orders.
" DRESSING THE HOUSE "
Where a " sell-out " is certain, the treasurer does not take much pains to get rid of inferior locations. But if business is only fair, he distributes his tickets so as to " dress " the house—that is, to scatter the people so the auditorium will not betray its true state of emptiness. He works to sell alternate pairs, working from side to side, and through the center. Difficulty is experienced, then, with higher-priced seats, for they are harder to sell. When business is really bad, the treasurer can do little in the way of dressing the house unless he gives out passes, and this he does in the extremity, keeping at his elbow a list of persons who will be genuinely appreciative of the courtesy, even if it is ex-tended to them at but a few minutes' notice. The aim is to get the house filled before the first intermission, for it is then that the emptiness is first really noticed by patrons.
The old system of handling passes at the box office is still in common use. The pass—a filled-out form—is presented to the treasurer. He issues coupons of the number called for, tearing off and retaining the long ends, and giving just the checks with seat numbers to the applicant, together with the pass itself, punched with the number of seats given. Then the pass is given to the ticket taker, who deposits it in his box, while the seat checks are shown to the usher in the ordinary manner. The newer method is not to return the pass form at all, or to retain the ticket stubs. Instead, the tickets are each punched once in the check and twice in the stub, just as the tickets for critics on first and second nights were handled.
Telephone 0rders are recorded and kept in the reservation pigeonholes, alphabetically arranged by names of applicants. The patron, having decided to accept certain avail-able seats, agrees to apply and pay for them before a certain time—usually from a quarter to half an hour before the particular performance. Desired tickets are placed in an envelope endorsed with the name of the person who is to claim them and the time they are to be called for. If the date has a ring around it, it indicates that the tickets within are for a matinee performance. In most details, the telephone order is quite the same as though the patron stood at the wicket, covering the same points of inquiry and accommodation. State of emptiness or fulness of the order box is generally a splendid indicator of the state of business. It represents the demand.
The exchange check system is probably the most elaborate in the sales routine of the box office. If, for instance, a patron who has purchased a dollar seat and has entered the theater, comes out and wants to change to a better location, the treasurer must negotiate the transfer and yet record it in such manner that evidence of both seats will not appear in the count-up.
When the doorkeeper is handed a theater ticket by the patron on his way in, he tears off the stub and returns the check or coupon to the patron who uses it to identify his seat. The stub is dropped into a box kept by the door-keeper, into a special compartment in it. There are usually special compartments for boxes, orchestra, and balcony tickets, and passes, for, by their collective evidence, receipts are to be checked up. So, to return to the hypothetical case of the man with the dollar seat wanting to change to one for $1.50 say,—change is never made to a cheaper location—there must not be added to the $1 stub already deposited by the doorkeeper, the $1.50 stub of the new seat, because then the count-up will show $2.50—a dollar increase over the actual amount received.
In coming from the auditorium to the box office, the patron has been given a " pass-out check " by the door-keeper. This is good for one admittance; and should he get his second ticket intact, that also will be good for one admittance. Two persons have actually been found entering a theater on one pass-out check and one exchange. To prevent this and to correct the count-up, the patron desiring better location, delivers to the treasurer his pass-out check, his seat check, and the cash difference. Whereupon he is given a seat coupon of the new location, torn from the stub, and an exchange check representing the difference in price, this being given to the doorkeeper, who deposits it in its proper compartment. In counting up, this exchange check is recorded on the statement.
Changing to a seat of the same price, the treasurer issues a new seat check in return for the old, which he resells with the stub of the new.
As soon as the seat sale is over, which generally is about three-quarters of an hour after the rise of the curtain, the company manager and the treasurer, who represents the theater, count up. For their findings they use a slip of paper called the box office statement. Form of this highly important record is very simple. At top are the names of theater, management, and attraction, whether evening or matinee performance, the day and date, the state of the weather—for this is a very good " reason why " for the state of business. Then comes the number of orchestra seats sold and unsold at stated price, with their totals ex-tended, respectively, in two right-hand columns. The quantities of other seats, balcony, box, and gallery, sold and unsold, are given in the same manner. Then comes the number of exchanges at the same price. If the number of passes issued does not equal the number of unsold they commonly are counted as unsold tickets; if more, they are charged to either company or house, according to who has issued them, and counted, consequently, as sold. Total sales and total unsold are given at the bottom of the columns. Capacity of the house is indicated by the whole number of seats accounted for. Space is left at bottom for signatures of theater treasurer and company manager.
As many copies of the statement are made as there are persons financially interested in the production—that is, producers, managers, play brokers, and authors. It is an old box office superstition, based on the old adage about too many cooks, that the greater the number 0f statements duplicated, the poorer will be the business.
Actual counting up is a matter of routine. The box office window, while this is going on, is turned over to the assistant. Ticket boxes from the various entrances are brought to the box office by the attendants and unlocked by the treasurer in presence of the company manager.
First the treasurer marks on his statement the number and prices of seats he has in his house, representing the capacity of the theater. Then a rough count is made. All tickets unsold are removed from the rack, bundled according to prices, each bundle marked with price and quantity, and deducted from the original capacity as shown on the statement. Unsold tickets are known in box office parlance as " deadwood." Classified deadwood having been subtracted, the result, multiplied by the price of seats in each location, gives approximately the number sold at the performance. Stubs of tickets from the boxes, with passes and exchange slips, are bundled and marked in the same manner as the unsold. These are checked against the amount called for as having been sold, on the statement.
Any tickets missing through inability of persons holding them to attend, are noted in the count-up. Tickets not used for the performance stipulated are generally considered good for a future admittance—although the person using them will probably have to stand up. Refund on unused tickets is rarely made after performance, but an exchange for some future performance is fairly common.
After the count-up, the treasurer makes up his cash in bundles of various denominations, and gives checks and all save the money necessary for change during the next day's sale, to his manager for deposit. In return the manager gives his I. O. U. to the treasurer. Full settlement between producer and manager is not made until the season's end. Settlement with the company manager is made at conclusion of the engagement, or each week, when he makes up his salary list and pay envelopes.