Every season or so there is a box-office phenomenon like South Pacific, The Music Man or My Fair Lady, and a yowl is heard across the land—"It's impossible to get tickets!" The season's new favorite is THE SOUND OF MUSIC (LUNT-FONTANNE, 46TH STREET west of Broadway), about which I will have more to say next week. The show has one theater party booked, by the Bowater Paper Company, for next June 27. For this month alone 29 parties and benefits have been booked—and there will be only 35 performances! Up to now 300 parties have been scheduled, and more are coming. This does not necessarily mean that the entire house has been sold to groups; sometimes only the orchestra or part of the orchestra is taken. But, still, how do you get tickets?
The most direct thing to do is to go to the box office and offer the man your money. Another way of doing it is by mail. Make out a check for the right amount in the name of the theater. Send it to the theater with a self-addressed, stamped, return envelope. Specify alternate dates—or, best of all, say "for the first available performance." Don't be too choosy, either. Mail-order staffs are as literal as baseball umpires, and if you say "fifth row center" you may have your check returned to you. Remember that every seat to a hit is a good seat and give the box office some leeway if you want fastest action.
Another method is to go to a broker—best of all, I think, when you plan a night on the town and want to see a show. Not one particular show, but one of several. This keeps you from making a decathlon event out of it, and it saves taxi fares or shoe leather shopping from theater to theater until you get what you're after. If the broker is all out of one show he'll have another, and you'll have 25 or 30 attractions from which to pick. He will charge $1.38 over the price of each ticket.
In a case of desperation or what-the-heckishness, like entertaining a big client or being so rich you don't care, there's the speculator who can magically turn up a good, fast pair for $25 or $50 or $100. The scalper is hounded by the law and is supposed to be an outcast, but he is a handy guy to have around in an emergency, and I have always thought he should be permitted to operate legally for big sports events and Broadway. After all, the speculator doesn't take money from you at the point of a gun—you offer it to him. How do you find him? Ask your friend—everybody has one—who tells you on the sly the outlandish price he paid the last time he went to the theater.
The ticket-getting business started to become complicated when do-gooders started doing good. In a fit of righteousness we outlawed the brokers' "buy," and I think it was a mistake. Time was when a bunch of the boys—Leo Newman, one of the McBrides and others—would go to Atlantic City for the tryout of a new Ziegfeld show. If they liked it they would tell Ziegfeld that they would buy, cash in advance, half or maybe three-quarters of the orchestra for eight weeks or 16 weeks. This gave Ziegfeld, or any other manager, the money to pay off with.
Sure, some of the tickets were scalped, but about 95% of them were sold for the legitimate fee plus commission, which used to be half a dollar, no tax.
When the buy was outlawed a new kind of scalping was created—the theater party for charity. I would be happy to see it outlawed. So would show people (except those in the business end), who hate benefits. They say the organized audiences are too noisy, too unresponsive or too resentful. I have my own further objection to them: benefit prices are too steep for young people, so the stage is losing its best audiences. It isn't much fun to sit in a theater filled with old poops like me.
The theater-party business has been developed by, and is in the hands of, a small group of women. These include Anne Herschkowitz, Elsa Hoppenfeld, Mildred Kaplan, Annette Schein and Lenore Tobin. They are shrewd judges of box-office values, and they gamble on their judgment by buying tickets in blocks. Sometimes they get a small discount from the theater. Tickets arranged for or in hand, they go to their clients—which may range from the Vassar alumnae to Octavus Roy Cohen's legendary Sons and Daughters of I Will Arise—and they will say, "Why don't you have a benefit?"
I have before me a list of all the parties slated for The Sound of Music. For next month it starts off: January 4 E [for evening] Hoppenfeld; January 5 Hoppenfeld; January 6 M [for matinee] Hoppenfeld, Herschkowitz; January 6 E Larric; January 7 Tobin; January 8 Hoppenfeld; January 9 M POM. POM—Play of the Month Guild—is down for 21 performances during January and February. Of $2,250,000 reported already on hand or promised for Mary Martin's show, $1 million comes from theater parties.
My tickets for the opening of the musical were free, of course, but they were marked $9.90. If I need a pair for January 9 I know where I can get it—for $70. The "scalper" is the very social and wealthy Lucia Chase—but she is doing her scalping for a worthy and tax-deductible cause. She is having a benefit for the American Ballet Theatre, of which she is codirector.
Most of you receive theater-party invitations, and it is one way of getting tickets. And most of us have some pet charities or belong to social or religious organizations which will be throwing parties. The price will be steep, but the bait is this: you can use your "contribution" as a legitimate donation on your tax returns.
So if you are desperate for tickets you ought to be able to latch on to some group—if it doesn't latch on to you.
Two of this new season's plays which have been enjoying considerable public favor have strong male leads. One is THE GANG'S ALL HERE (AMBASSADOR, 49TH STREET west of Broadway) in which Melvyn Douglas gives a carefully and admirably studied portrait of an easygoing United States president. In the other, GOLDEN FLEECING (HENRY MILLER, 43RD STREET east of Broadway), Tom Poston plays a slick but likable scamp who has figured a way to let the Navy help him break the roulette bank at the Lido in Venice.
Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, who had a solid success with their semifactual account of the Scopes "monkey" trial, Inherit the Wind, have again gone to history for The Gang's All Here. This is the story about a man who gets maneuvered into the White House even though he does not want the job and does not consider himself qualified. Once in office, he appoints his poker-playing cronies to high positions, and some of these cronies betray his trust.
The authors have carefully made everything look fictitious, but there is an obvious parallel between the plight Douglas finds himself in and the troubles "the Ohio gang" got Warren G. Harding into. Douglas' performance is splendid, and the rest of the cast have high ability.
In Golden Fleecing, Tom Poston is playing with all his drollery in an out-and-out farce by Lorenzo Semple Jr. Semple has imagined that some ships of our Navy are visiting Venice and one of the vessels contains a fabulous electronic computer. By ship-to-shore signals he puts the high-voltage brain to work figuring out the odds on rouge et noir. One girl and Poston fall into the Grand Canal, and absolutely everybody gets into hot water with the admiral. Poston is just right in such slippery monkeyshines, and he voices a statement that has become one of my mottoes. He calls it Murphy's Law. It is: "If something can go wrong, it will."