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Theatregoing before computers.

February 29, 2012

Last week, I pointed out the problems computers can cause consumers, if used to mess around with prices… this week, to redress the balance, I wanted to take a look at how they improved things for us ticket buyers…

At the risk of sounding very ancient indeed, I well remember the days before computers ran the box office. Just to take a couple of examples from the early 1980s, “Cats” and “Starlight Express” were both massive – as in out of all proportion to anything today – hits, and tickets were almost impossible to obtain. Not just because they were sold out for months ahead, but simply because how you had to buy them hadn’t changed since the early 1900s when telephones replaced despatching a footman to the box office to buy tickets (which in itself replaced despatching a particularly psychopathic footman to hold your place in the auditorium until you chose to arrive).

Anyway, back then, your choices were three: write in by post (for younger readers: make marks with a pen – tube full of ink with a ball or nib to control flow – on a piece of paper [bit of crushed tree bleached white], place in a paper wrapper called an “envelope,” put a small sticky square of paper a “stamp” on the envelope and place in a big red box on the street “pillar box” for a company called “the Post Office” to take to the theatre for you).

You could also try telephoning the theatre – which, as the theatre only had around 12 people to answer the phones at most, could take several weeks of trying. True, the call was never “premium rate” and the theatre staff themselves answered calls, so they knew the venue and weren’t speaking from a telephone room inManchester… BUT… They couldn’t tell you your seat numbers, just “we can do 4 on the ‘revolving platform’ and that was all. On the other hand, they’d keep the seats “for 3 working days” if you wanted to send them a cheque rather than give a credit card number.

Or you could go to the theatre box office if you lived close enough. Those really are my fondest memories. Instead of a computer, theatre box offices really were full of little boxes that looked like tiny shelves, up and down all available walls. Each little box held all the tickets for one performance. The tickets were in books, each with the date and time in big letters on the edge. They were different colours too – usually white for stalls, red for dress circle and blue for upper circle.

When you chose a date, the box office person would pull a massive book of paper (like a wallpaper sample book) from under the desk. They’d leaf through it until they found the date and performance, and there you’d see (if you peered over the desk) a printed seating plan – rows of numbers without boxes round them, arranged in columns. Some numbers would have rings around them, showing they’d been sold if the ring was in pen, or with a pencil mark where a telephone booker promised to send in a cheque. A few box offices I could swear had 2 books, with different seats in them, for the telephone bookings room and the front desk, but most shared the one book… you had to hope you were the only person asking… double bookings were something of a standing joke among my friends going to see “Cats” for a while I recall…

So, they’d tell you what they had, you’d accept, and they’d find the right book of tickets on the shelf. Then, they’d tear out the first two bits of the ticket, keeping a third counterfoil for themselves to reconcile the books. All done? Not quite…

Sometimes rubber stamps were involved. The price, even the date, might have to be stamped on the ticket, as well as “concession” or (if lucky) “complementary.” Oh, and if you wanted to pay by credit card, you could expect another wait if they had to telephone your card company to “get the transaction authorised.”

It’s a bit of a wonder, really, that anybody got a ticket. Sure, we didn’t pay any service charges or booking fees – but it took a lot longer to buy a seat and with far less detail given before paying too. Fewer discounts too – but tickets were more fairly priced as discounts didn’t have to be factored in to selling prices.

Some you win, some you lose, I think. The convenience is almost worth paying a booking fee for… but I think I’d give rather a lot to have one of those proper “printed” coloured paper tickets with show logo on once again… but that’s just me…

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