Friday, October 17, 2008

Buying B'way Tics from a Sidewalk Stranger

Posted by Bruce Miller
Last weekend, my family took advantage of the Columbus Day holiday and went to New York City. Hannah’s school was closed all day Monday; Curt was out for half a day. This post is my second installment about our NYC trip (see Our Journey to “South Pacific” below). Today I’ll continue with my personal tale of buying great seats to a sold-out hit from a guy I’d never met.

Like a magician, I’m tempted to say “don’t try this at home.” I can’t vouch for the practice I’m about to describe, nor can I promise that should you try to replicate the procedure you won’t get burned.

Nonetheless, on two occasions I’ve nervously purchased Broadway tickets valued at more that $100 each from guys shouting out show titles on the sidewalk adjacent to the TKTS line. On both occasions, I’ve obtained great seats to a sold-out hit for nothing more than the standard ticket price.

As I mentioned before, Hannah and I really wanted to see South Pacific at Lincoln Center. But tickets for the Columbus Day weekend had been sold out for months. Regular price tickets to South Pacific are $115 to $120. I could have bought Premium Seats in advance from the box office for $300 each, or other good seats from a broker for $225 each. There was no way I could handle that expenditure. So I decided to arrive in NYC empty handed and try my luck.

There are two ways to get good seats at the regular price at the last minute for a sold-out Broadway hit. Neither one is a sure thing.

1 – You can go directly to the box office several hours prior to curtain on the day you want to see the show and ask if and when unsold Premium or House Seats will be released. Often the box office associate will tell you exactly when to return and offer a guess as to your chances for success. Frequently two to ten great seats are released 90 minutes or so before curtain. Armed with this box office advice, you can return at the time suggested and hope you’re close enough to the head of the line to make it to the box office window in time to buy great seats at the regular ticket price.

The Premium Seats that may or may not be released are among the best seats in the house. They are the seats the producer has been trying to sell for $300 each to people who have the means to buy great seats at the last minute without worrying how much they cost. The House Seats that may or may not be released are also among the best seats in the house. They are the seats set aside for purchase by the cast and crew, playwrights, directors, designers, producers etc of the show. If you’re in the cast, and your Great Aunt Harriet comes to town and asks for tickets at the last minute, you as a cast member can purchase House Seats for her, if any House Seats are still available. Once in a while, some House Seats are unspoken for on the day of the show, and they are released for sale to the general public at the last minute.

2 – The second way to buy last minute, hard-to-get tickets is to buy them from one of the broker’s representatives who are sent out to the sidewalks before every performance. They usually ply their trade somewhere near the line of folks waiting to buy half-price tickets at the TKTS Booth. I’ve heard the horror stories about people who bought tickets on the sidewalk only to learn when they showed up at the theatre that the tickets were counterfeit or stolen. When you buy tickets on the sidewalk, it’s definitely buyer beware. Just because I haven’t been burned yet doesn’t mean I won’t be burned next time.

Having issued that warning, here’s what I’ve done. I’ve walked up and down and all around the TKTS Booth area, listening for someone hawking tickets to the show I wanted to see. Several years ago with The Lion King, and last weekend with South Pacific, I heard a man shouting the show title I wanted. I approached the hawker and asked what he had.

In both instances, the man produced a stack of tickets that appeared to be absolutely real and he let me look at them closely. I'm wary if someone is selling only two or four tickets to one show, as they might be stolen. I like it when the street vendor has several tickets for several different hits.

The tickets were marked for group sale and, in the case of South Pacific, the price printed on the ticket was the discount price of $75. I asked how much he was charging for the tickets. He quoted $115, which I knew to be the regular box office price. (The earlier you purchase your tickets from a sidewalk vendor, the greater the mark-up. As you approach curtain time, the mark-up decrease, but so do the available tickets.)

I told the seller that I was interested in buying two tickets, and asked how I could be assured that he was for real. Both times I've made these street transactions, without hesitation or complaint, the sidewalk sellers have given me the name of the broker they worked for, showed me their driver’s license with photo, name and address, and matching credit cards with the same name. They both reminded me that they were standing out in the open shouting loudly, obviously not worried about being noticed and/or questioned by the cops. They both seemed legitimate to me, and completely above board.

After engaging in this back-and-forth, I decided in both instances to purchase the tickets with cash. Checks and credit cards were not an option, but both broker’s reps would have accepted Traveler’s Checks. Several years ago, I purchased four great seats to The Lion King for something like $100 each. This time I purchased two great seats to South Pacific. In both instances, it worked out fine.

If you buy tickets in this way, here’s what you’re buying. When the major ticket brokers sense that a show is going to be a sold-out hit, they purchase tens of thousands of the best seats at group rates months in advance. They then resell those tickets to the public directly or through hotel concierges and travel agents, usually with a considerable mark-up over the regular price and a huge mark-up over the reduced group rate. More than a third of the people who see a sold-out hit buy their tickets directly or indirectly through a broker.

On the day of the show, brokers frequently have a handful of great tickets still available. They give these tickets to their sidewalk salesmen, who go down to the TKTS line and start shouting out the names of the shows they have. Usually the salesmen will have a small number of good seats to several shows. Usually the tickets will be marked with a discounted group rate. Usually they will sell the tickets to you at the regular ticket price. Usually they aren’t offended if you ask them to reassure you as to their legitimacy.

If you’re a gambler and want to see a show badly enough, it may be worth a try. I don’t recommend sidewalk sales of theatre tickets, but for those who want to know, this has been my experience. I haven’t done it often, but the two times I have, I haven’t been scammed.

And remember, of course, most shows aren't sold-out hits. Most shows will allow you to buy regular price tickets from the box office even at the last minute. Often you can buy half-price tickets from or at the tkts booth. The current sold-out hits for which last minute tickets are difficult include only Billy Elliot, Jersey Boys, The Lion King, South Pacific, and Wicked.

Coming tomorrow: our backstage tour with Jerold Solomon, and meeting our should-have-been President outside Kelli O’Hara’s dressing room

--Bruce Miller

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