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Unruly Scene at Box Office Upsets Ticket Buyers for ‘Phantom’; Theaters’ Pay-What-You-Can Policies Are Growing in Popularity

Fans of the “Phantom” are out in full force this week.

The opening of the “Phantom of the Opera” box office on Monday, at the Ahmanson Theatre and at Ticketron locations, brought them out of the woodwork. Total “Phantom” sales for the first day reached $894,273 for 18,182 tickets, and another $275,734 was paid for tickets by noon Wednesday.

When prior telephone and mail order sales are added to these figures, the “Phantom” advance has reached $13 million--and counting. The show doesn’t begin previews until May 18.

But not everything is A-OK in “Opera"-land.

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Later, interviews with some of the people who weathered the first-day line indicated that many were stil fuming.

“I represent hundreds of us who are infuriated,” declared Michael Smith, a would-be ticket buyer from Hollywood. “A mass of scalpers butted into line, causing such congestion that the line just wasn’t moving.” And he was as angry at the management as he was at the brokers: “There was very lax security. I thought there would be a riot.”

“The brokers were very effective in getting around whatever rudimentary devices we had to keep the lines orderly,” conceded Music Center coordinator Roger Parrell. “They were able to coerce, cajole or otherwise intimidate the others in line.”

When Parrell arrived 45 minutes before the scheduled 7 a.m. opening of the box office Monday, he found the first part of the line (which had begun forming Saturday) dominated by “150 to 200 fairly young people, not well dressed, not what we would consider normal theatergoers. They had partied and been there all night long.”

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Parrell asserted that the young people were working for brokers “who may not have had seeing the show uppermost in their minds--I’m understating this--but who had dollar signs in their eyes.”

The lack of interest in “Phantom” by some of the young people in line also was noted by Noah Alexander, who had waited in the line since early Sunday. During the night, said Alexander, someone turned on a “Phantom” tape and was greeted with hoots from others in line. “God, I can’t stand that kind of music!” shouted one of the would-be ticket buyers.

One guard, who declined to identify himself, said he observed a child, whose head barely reached the ticket counter, paying $400 for eight tickets.

The brokers themselves were obvious, said Parrell: “People carrying cellular phones, pagers, large amounts of cash. There was no attempt at subterfuge.”

Buying tickets for later off-the-premises resale by licensed brokers is not illegal. But what upset the more conventional ticket buyers were the attempts to buy more than the eight tickets permitted to each purchaser.

Upon witnessing one shirtless youth attempt to rejoin the line, some of those who had been waiting for hours started chanting “Out! Out! Out!” The offender was ejected from the line--but only after a woman pleaded with a nearby security guard to take action.

As many as 12 private security officers and county and city police officers monitored the line at any one time Monday, and employees of the Ahmanson and the Music Center also tried to spot those who were cutting in or talking their way back into the line for another chance at buying tickets. About 20 individuals were ousted from the line, Parrell said.

But Parrell also said he had heard of brokers’ claims that they had paid guards to look the other way. The security agency that employs the guards is investigating such claims, he said. However, a spokesman for the firm said supervisory personnel observed the guards Monday and “we’re confident that our officers were not involved in any exchange of money for preference in line.”

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Parrell added that “Ahmanson authorities unfortunately rejected my suggestion for a numbering system,” in which everyone in the line would have been issued a number. “Of course some of the people might have tried to purchase numbers,” he acknowledged.

“We hadn’t anticipated the numbers who would show up,” responded Ahmanson general manager Ellen Fay.

Meanwhile, another attempt to check the flow of tickets to brokers occurred away from the line. From the computer, Fay noticed that one of the Ticketron outlets that also began selling “Phantom” tickets on Monday “was doing gangbusters business in a short period of time.” Suspicious that this outlet was selling more than the four tickets per customer permitted by Ticketron, Fay removed that outlet’s access to “Phantom” tickets. Access was restored several hours later after a Ticketron investigation revealed no violation of the rules, but Fay remains suspicious: “I would not want this outlet to sell our next (show),” she said Wednesday.

Another sign of “Phantom” mania was a classified ad that appeared this week, offering two orchestra tickets for May 18, “the first night” of “Phantom” (actually the first preview; the opening is May 31) for $5,000 each.

When contacted at her Arizona telephone number, the seller said she was not a broker. She had bought the $50 tickets for the May 18 performance for herself, she said, but then realized she couldn’t use them. She had heard of Super Bowl tickets selling for $8,000 and “these should be more valuable than tickets to the Super Bowl. This is probably the greatest show since ‘My Fair Lady’.”

REVERSE SCALPING: Ticket prices can deviate downward, as well as upward, from the fixed rate. Recently, the Mark Taper Forum joined La Jolla Playhouse in establishing a “Pay What You Can” policy for selected performances. Ticket buyers get to choose how much they’ll pay.

At La Jolla, where normal ticket prices range from $18 to $28, every seat in the house is sold on a pay-what-you-can basis for one Saturday matinee per production. There have been 10 such performances in the past two seasons, and the payments have ranged from 25 cents to $18. In 1987, the average pay-what-you-can ticket price was $4.25; in 1988 it dropped to $2.28. The show that drew the most money on this basis was “A Walk in the Woods”; “The Fool Show” took in the least.

There will be six such performances at La Jolla in 1989; information is at (619) 534-3960.

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The Taper, where tickets usually cost $20 to $26, releases 100 pay-what-you-can tickets at one or two performances of each mainstage production, including the Friday and Sunday evening performances of “Sansei” this week. Pay-what-you-can tickets to “Sansei” were virtually sold out at press time.

So far, the average ticket price chosen for “Sansei” was $3.44. The range of prices extended from 25 cents to $10. This contrasts with an average of $2.91, and a range of three cents to $11, paid for “Dutch Landscape,” the first Taper show offered as part of this program. Information on future Taper pay-what-you-can performances: (213) 972-7373.

South Coast Repertory and the Pasadena Playhouse are considering pay-what-you-can policies. Said South Coast marketing director John Mouledoux: “Obviously somebody in a seat is better than a seat that’s empty.”

But representatives of the Old Globe and Los Angeles Theatre Center said no pay-what-you-can plans are being considered. All of the theaters cited an array of discounts already offered--to students, seniors, last-minute buyers, union members, groups. The Old Globe reported that it sometimes gives free tickets to special interest groups and charities, within one or two days of the performance--when it’s apparent that the house won’t sell out.

Times intern Pamela Lopez-Johnson also contributed to this column.


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