( Originally Published 1916 )
THIS account of the ticket speculator is begun from the premise that he is a necessary " evil," created by the theater patron and existing for his convenience. Unfortunately, the business of ticket speculation includes the " scalpers," who formerly infested sidewalks in front of theater en-trances and who now hawk their wares from adjoining doorways, but they are not truly representative of their profession.
It is often inconvenient for a person who has reserved seats by telephone to call for them by or before the time set by the theater management, when, if unclaimed, they will be placed on sale again. Yet, the management should not be compelled to meet that inconvenience by supporting distant and miscellaneous branch offices where the patron may purchase his seats at the same time he orders them. It is not practicable under present conditions; and there-fore the ticket broker exists, deriving his profit from a commission of about twenty-five per cent. advance over box office prices, paid by the patron who benefits by the arrangement. This commission is usually split with the manager; but the bonus to the theater is merely a partial guarantee against loss if unsold tickets returned at the last moment cannot be sold before performance begins.
His booth situated at some point more convenient to potential patrons than the box office itself, at railroad terminals, in department stores and hotels, the ticket speculator of better standing does business. Generally speaking, he could not earn his living selling tickets for just one theater; but he can by selling them for many.
Theaters cooperate by supplying him with actual coupons, which he requires to satisfy his customers. These persons view him with suspicion, always inclined to doubt his authority to act for any management. It must be remembered that choice locations are issued by the theater to more than one speculator. Together, they constitute but part of the choice locations of the house, the others being kept on sale at the theater box office.
THE TELEPHONE COMPANY PLAN
When Winthrop Ames served on Mayor McClellan's committee of prominent New York citizens to solve the local ticket speculator problem, he proposed the splendid scheme of making the operator of every telephone pay station a ticket broker. This operator would call up the theater, learn the available locations, reserve those desired by the patron, and issue an order for them, charging perhaps twenty-five cents for the service, whether it concerned one ticket or twelve. Thus, theaters would have agencies everywhere for general convenience. The telephone company was enthusiastic over the idea, but pointed out that to undertake the work would necessitate amendment of its charter; and to accomplish this, special legislative action would be required.
We have, in the theater, an important instance of a price that is arbitrarily set irrespective of value received. Theater prices in general do vary ; but each house endeavors to maintain its fixed scale because regular patrons have their own ideas of how much they can afford to pay for their entertainment. One pays a top price of two dollars to see " The Bubble " at the Booth Theater, with a cast of six characters and a single setting throughout, and a top price of $I.50 to see " Hip Hip Hooray " at the New York Hippodrome, with perhaps five hundred players, Sousa's Band, a skating rink, and elaborate scenic investiture. The first must make perhaps $3,500 a week to show profit, and the other possibly $18,000. Where is the adjustment?
We have always the average cost of a particular kind of production, and also the fact that the maximum price the American theatergoer cares to pay for the privilege of attending his first-class attraction is two dollars. In order to make some kind of accurate estimate, I have made a composite chart of regular scales of prices of a number of first-class but popular houses scattered throughout the United States. I find that five per cent. of the audience will pay $2; twenty-five per cent., $1.50; twenty per cent., $1; fifteen per cent., 75 cents; ten per cent., 50 cents and, twenty-five per cent., 25 cents, with a reduction of approximately thirty-three and one-third per cent. on these prices for matinees.
The chief objection to the "ticket library " plan, seems to be that those persons who take the trouble to apply in advance at the theater box office, are 0ften unable to get desired locations there, but may purchase them from speculators at a twenty-five per cent. increase in price. Admittedly, that situation is forced and wrong; but the beginning and continuance of the evil seems to rest largely with the public itself, which demands that the same tickets be on sale in several places at once, and admits of no compromise. The Ames plan would dispose of this particular condition in a manner that would restore the box office to its original policy of first come first served, without issuing seats to any but actual purchasers; but until that—or some equally good—plan obtains, the clumsy adjustment must continue. It will end when Metcalfe, of Life, gets full support.
Before going further into the matter of juggling ticket prices through indiscriminate speculation, let us. inquire further into the question of the price itself.
I have already hinted at my conception of the audience as constituted by a group of persons pooling their available funds to finance a production presented for their mutual benefit, the size of each person's contribution toward defraying the general expense, estimated by the number of his associates; and by this view, prices should be set according to their notions of value, or according to their resources—for a poor man may have a two-dollar desire with but the price of a fifty-cent seat.
Actual money value of a good theatrical attraction is supposed to be many thousands of dollars to any person who witnesses it; by co-operative method, he receives that value for $2, $1.50, 75, 50, or 25 cents, as the case may be. On this basis the patron cannot reasonably complain of the difference in cost of " The Bubble " and " Hip Hip Hooray," for it is a question only of how many persons join him in defraying it. The cost to the individual is automatically reduced as the number of spectators concerned increases, although it must be borne in mind that " The Bubble " presented at the Hippodrome, or " Hip Hip Hooray " at the Booth, would suffer untold disadvantages. The right theater for the right play is an important problem to be solved for successful play production in America.
Theatrical business to-day is just rallying from the bad moral effect of the cut-rate ticket that in 1910 or thereabouts, began its domination of the American theater, particularly in New York. It represented a method whereby the management of an attraction not playing to very good business at regular prices, undertook to draw patronage of persons of limited income by selling blocks of tickets at reduced prices.
It is strange that any manager, having made a production that fails to draw patronage, should ignore the question of intrinsic value and seek to remedy the trouble by reduction in prices. One may sell inferior goods at bargain rates; but the practise lowers the standard of the theater, and makes it difficult to build up the scale with improved value later.
So, even for the producer who is in the business just to make money, it is generally better to let an inferior play fail at well-formulated prices, than to reduce the scale as an inducement to bargain-hunters who may applaud something only fairly good because it is just a trifle better than entertainment to which they have been accustomed.
I am a stickler for positive value in the production itself. Either it should interest, entertain, please, and generally satisfy the class of audiences for which it is designed, be remade to suit a wider class, or should naturally disappear altogether from the world of the theater. There should be no compromise.
The cut-rate ticket system is simple. Managers issue special coupons which, when presented at the box office with twenty-five, fifty, seventy-five cents or a dollar each, are redeemable for regular tickets of much greater face value.
These coupons were at first distributed under guise of special rates to organizations, so as not to antagonize regular box office patrons who paid full rates. By degrees, the distribution became more open. It was even proposed by a large chain of grocery stores in Greater New York to use cut-rate tickets as premiums with goods. An acquaintance of mine, chancing to find himself in Brooklyn one day where there was no convenient place save a delicatessen where he could get luncheon, was given a coupon with his sandwich, entitling him to reduced prices at a theater showing a " leading Broadway hit." At last one manager came out frankly and hurled quantities of redeem-able coupons labeled " advertising tickets," from the upper windows of a tall building, to be picked up by passers-by.
Speculators were quick to appreciate the little scheme of the managers, and began to make their shops points of distribution. Joseph Leblang, perhaps the most ingenious, and certainly the most successful " rate-chopper " in New York, called his concern the "Public Service Theater Ticket Office." Incidentally, Frederick Schader, assistant editor of Variety, and one of the first persons to enjoy Leblang's confidence, noted a significant fact in the business.
" The class of people buying," he said in his paper, " showed that they were of the real type of bargain-hunters. Women were in the majority at the counter. The noticeable part of the whole proceeding, however, was the manner in which buyers were shifted from one show to another, and from one evening to another. It was a case of the public not caring where it went or on what night as long as the ticket was cheaper than the printed price on it."
On account of the wide scope of this book, there is not space in which to dwell upon the quarrels of contemporary managers over the cut-rate ticket, and their enlightening points of view as expressed in the press; but at last the Managers' Association agreed to abolish the cut rates, any member violating the agreement to pay a large forfeit. All seemed serene for a time, although some managers found it difficult to fill their balconies and galleries. Then strife began again.
Sale of blocks of seats at " Around the Map," then playing at the New Amsterdam, to the Tyson Company, by Klaw and Erlanger, was held to be in violation of the agreement. Klaw and Erlanger replied that William A. Brady, of the Shubert forces, was then making arrangements to issue reduced-rate tickets for his revival of " The Liars," to the Workers' Amusement Club. One accusation led to another; the entire embargo was literally violated to pieces, and the cut-rate ticket flourished again like the flowers that bloom in the spring (tra-la!), which have nothing to do with the case.
THE RIGHT PRICE FOR THE RIGHT PLAY
For my part, I believe emphatically in stabilization of theater prices. If managers would make their cost of production conform to them—set the maximum figure of expenditure allowing fair margin of profit—and keep the prices reasonably near that limit, there would generally be higher standard of value received.
Ordinarily, it seems unfair for a management to charge its patrons, collectively, $I0,000 for an attraction that costs $4,000-giving management, authors, and others concerned a net profit of 150 per cent.
For what constitutes a fair percentage of profit I must refer the reader to economists who have threshed the question to reasonable basis; but from what I have observed in various lines of endeavor, i0 per cent. seems to be considered a generous return on any investment. It is not the fault of the public that a play fails; so it should not be compelled to maintain, through excessive prices, a sinking fund that tides the manager over misfortune due to his own error of judgment.
If the $4,000 attraction is well adapted t0 the house in which it is presented, it would be unwise to move it to a theater of more limited seating capacity for the sake of maintaining the $2 scale, which then would produce a smaller revenue. As many persons as may be accommodated with practically the same individual advantages of seeing and hearing, should be admitted to any attraction; and if the number is sufficient to defray the expenses and provide a fair profit at a given, reasonable price to each, that should be the scale.
By this arrangement we would have houses adapted to the showing of $1.50 productions at all times; others to those costing $2, and so on. The producer would not make all his miscellaneous productions in one type of house, but would present them variously and appropriately in these fixed-price theaters.
It is the dream of many producers to maintain a house with an elastic capacity—one that will seat only three hundred persons at a matinee, perhaps, and seven hundred at night. The idea is to do away with seats that are not in use, but yet call them into service when needed. Schemes are various. Winthrop Ames thinks of a series of panels to be erected at short notice, to shut off so few back rows that the audience will not notice the change. A fantastic notion of my own proposed a small balcony that could be let down when needed, out of the rear wall. Any change in shape of the auditorium, however, would require corresponding changes in acoustic properties of the stage. Shutting off part of the auditorium would probably mean that the stage would have to be muffled—possibly by hanging extra cloths or drops in the flies. But a successful elastic auditorium would go far toward adjusting the theater price.