Yesterday, phone lines at the Kennedy Center were jammed and their website crashed (nearly 24 hours later, it still hasn’t been restored.) The cause? Members trying to get tickets to the July/August performances of The Book of Mormon. DCTS writer Steven McKnight reports from the front lines.
- “We few, we happy few, we band of theatre lovers; For he today that sheds his money with me shall be my brother; this day shall gentle our spirits despite the conditions and our vile treatment by the Kennedy Center.”
What a week I am having. On Sunday I experienced the nine circles of Hell, courtesy of Dante’s Inferno playing at Washington Stage Guild. On Wednesday, I experienced ticket buying Hell at the Kennedy Center trying to see The Book of Mormon this summer.
Here’s the chronology.
Thursday Feb. 21st: I receive a long, detailed email from the Kennedy Center stating that The Book of Mormon tickets would go on sale on Wednesday morning, February 27th (like it wasn’t already on my calendar in BOLDFACE FONT for weeks). It warns of long lines, the likelihood that the show will sell out before tickets are open to the public, and assorted Biblical plagues (okay, not the last one, but not far off).
Tuesday Feb. 26th: I trip across an evil scalper website that already promises to have thousands of tickets for the run of The Book of Mormon. These tickets are marked down 40%, which means that they are only selling for about triple the face value.
It seems that The Kennedy Center makes no attempt to police the “group sales” beyond limiting the number of tickets for any one transaction. These aren’t sales to community groups – they are sales of blocks of tickets. Why these ticket sales have priority over sales to paying Kennedy Center Members is a mystery.
Wednesday morning, 4:30 a.m.: I use every ounce of willpower to get up early despite the fact I ushered the night before at Arena Stage for Good People (great production). In addition to the short supply of tickets, I also fear those college students who regard camping out for tickets as “fun.” I learned, back then, I would never get a discount day-of-show ticket for Rent.
I contemplate driving to the Kennedy Center, but don’t want to pay $20 for temporary parking in the garage because ticket window validation is only good for one hour. At 5:15 a.m. I step out into the near freezing wind chill and walk to the Metro.
5:50 a.m.: I arrive at the Foggy Bottom station and walk rapidly to the Kennedy Center to beat those entering from the parking garage when it opens at 6:00 a.m. At various times, I am sent by security to four different locations to start the line: (1) Level B, (2) the ticket window, (3) outside the entrance to the Hall of States, and (4) outside the entrance to the Hall of Nations. It seems that only Officer Johnson read the memo issued the previous day.
6:00 a.m.: I am the first in line. Perhaps the college students have mid-terms. I try to read my paper, but it is too dark for me to see. Soon, though, I am joined by a few other hard-core theatre lovers.
6:15 a.m.: Sharing of information begins, followed shortly afterwards by numerous complaints. I am upset to find that we will be limited to four tickets per transaction, something that I cannot recall being true before when buying tickets for shows like Wicked. I am told it was posted on the website the night before, but given that Kennedy Center Members had already received a long email that was supposed to contain all of the important ticket-purchasing facts, I expected similar email notice of any other changes in policy (fool that I am.)
6:30 a.m.: The woman who is #2 in line sets out to find an ATM to get cash because another individual who is only seeking two tickets has agreed to buy two more for her. The man who is #3 in line complains about getting off of his deathbed only to be forced to stand outside in the cold for over three-and-a-half hours. Others complain about the fact that Cuppa Cuppa was not opening until 7:00 a.m., depriving them of desperately needed coffee when they were arriving. (Evidently they did not know about the 24 hour 7-11 at New Hampshire and I Street, or they could not deal with third-class java.)
7:00 a.m.: An expedition sets off for Cuppa Cuppa. I decline to submit an order, fearing that I would face the need for frequent bathroom trips that comes when you reach my age.
7:15 a.m.: The Cuppa Cuppa order is brought back. Everyone feels much better, temporarily.
7:30 a.m.: Still only a dozen people in line – we are nearly outnumbered by the ferocious looking security police.
The woman seeking the ATM machine returns only to report that the PNC ATM would not provide her money since she did not have an account at that bank. A woman arrives who was surprised the parking garage was open since she called the day before and was told it did not open until 9:00 a.m.
The weather is still cold and windy. “We few, we happy few, we band of theatre lovers; For he today that sheds his money with me shall be my brother; this day shall gentle our spirits despite the conditions and our vile treatment by the Kennedy Center.”
8:05 a.m.: A woman who drank coffee asks if she can enter the Kennedy Center to use the restroom. A nice security lady grants her permission.
8:30 a.m.: A woman seeks permission to use the Kennedy Center restroom. This time a large and in-charge deputy security chief inside wearing a black suit denies permission. Further, when she tries to ask him a question or two, he refuses to talk with her. He then issues an edict that no one will be permitted inside the building to use the restroom or for any other reason. He tries to placate her with a false promise to seek information, but he never returns. He also tells the security guards if any other members of the crowd (average age well over AARP membership minimum) become unruly (???), they should be removed from the premises.
9:00 a.m.: People are now arriving regularly. Many gaze with a combination of amazement and disdain at the people who would dare arrive more than an hour early to buy tickets.
9:05 a.m.: A member of the line tries calling the Washington Post to report a large, unhappy crowd of mistreated members at the Kennedy Center. He asks for the Style section, thinking they might be interested in coming by to do a story. He is transferred to a number with a recording that solicits sponsorships to send children to summer camp. He calls back, and is then transferred to a line where no one answers, but he leaves a recorded message. Are the press cutbacks that brutal, or does the Washington Post shun unsolicited interaction with the public?
9:15 a.m.: The line contains 75-100 people wrapping around the corner of the building. The sun starts to shine. Ticket buyers, ushers, and other Kennedy Center employees enter at a rapid pace. We are hopeful that the arrival of additional staff means imminent entrance inside. We are wrong.
9:45 a.m.: We are finally admitted to the red-carpeted sanctum. We are slowly marched through the Hall of Nations, down the back hallway, and then to the edge of the ticket purchasing area halfway down the Hall of States. We are told that ticket sales will move quickly because eight windows will be open. Someone asks why they couldn’t use the ticket computers on the Hall of Nations Side as well. Modern IT solutions totally baffle our kindly but vacant shepherds.
I ensure that I am able to log in to the Kennedy Center website. I also try the telephone ticket ordering line and get through to the recording that says ticket sales will begin at 10:00 a.m.
10:00 a.m.: I am the first person sent to a window. I make my request. The ticket seller’s computer freezes. She takes the time to tell me that The Book of Mormon has adult language. I assure her I don’t expect any words that I haven’t heard for forty years.
Good news. I don’t have to worry about paying $200 for good orchestra seat since they are gone for all four of the performances that I ask about. I get seats in the rear orchestra halfway into the side section to satisfy my Christmas present promise to my boss and his lovely wife.
My ticket seller offers to validate my parking. I said that I did not drive since I knew that parking validation for ticket purchases is limited to one hour. She says that the restriction was being lifted for that day. One more important piece of information that the Kennedy Center could have told me in a Kennedy Center Member email, but didn’t.
People at surrounding windows who were behind me in line have completed their transactions while I’m still waiting. Would it kill the Kennedy Center to buy some faster computers? Finally a supervisor performs some magic that helps my ticket-seller complete the transaction.
10:12 a.m.: I face a ticket buyer’s dilemma – try to go back through the line again, or give up and go to work? Thinking of the promises I made to work colleagues and loved ones, I trudge back outside and circle to the Hall of Nations.
10:15 a.m.: I am standing in line halfway back in the Hall of Nations. Someone near me asks the guard how long it will take to get to the ticket window. He says 30 to 45 minutes. He is a friendly fellow, but apparently he has no experience with long lines.
10:20 a.m.: The spouse of the woman behind me in line returns. He has done a line count. I am number 375 from the ticket windows. My feelings start to sink as I do the math.
11:00 a.m.: Rumors start flying that the computer system has crashed. Whether true or not, the line goes through a period of barely moving.
11:15 a.m.: We have only just rounded the turn and made it a quarter of the way down the back hallway. Just for fun, I try to log in to the Kennedy Center website. I am repeated given the message “service is not available.” I also engage in dialing the ticket sales hotline. I can’t even get a busy signal, just a fast circuits busy sound. I give up after 200+ tries because my battery is dying.
Surprisingly, we are told multiple times by ushers and other employees that they actually expected bigger crowds. We wonder how they would have handled them. I do talk to a few people who came down to the Kennedy Center because they couldn’t get through for other ticket-buying alternatives. Another rumor starts that 10,000 people tried to log onto the Kennedy Center site at 10:00 a.m. Between the theatre lovers and the people who may have seen what the scalpers are already charging for seats, I can believe it.
11:30 a.m.: We chat with the very nice Joan Schramm, Manager of Usher Services at the Kennedy Center. We ask if it is possible for people to be brought in earlier on ticket buying days given the large number of security police standing around. She says it is not, without explaining further.
She confirms that while block buyers of tickets are limited in the amount for each purchase, no effort is made to limit the total tickets sold to block buyers or to police whether the purchasers are reselling them to scalpers. She has no idea how many tickets were sold even before normal Kennedy Center Members had the chance to make purchases.
Audience members made suggestions for alternative ticket-selling procedures. Some favor the deli-Southwest Airlines-DMV approach where people are given batches of numbers that are later called. It is especially popular with the people whose feet, knees, legs, and backs are suffering from having to stand in line for over three hours. The ability to walk around and sit on stairs would be a blessing. Others favor the simple Wolf Trap mail order approach. All agree that the Kennedy Center cattle car treatment of members is unacceptable.
12:15 p.m.: We have advanced about two-thirds of the way down the back hallway. My stomach is growling. I consider purchasing something from an overpriced concessionaire who has set up in the hallway, but decline on principal. The same holds true when a vendor hawking The Book of Mormon soundtracks as available in the Gift Shop for $25 advances down the line. Even if they weren’t $11.00 cheaper on Amazon.com, I am in no mood to put any more money in the Kennedy Center’s pocket. In fact, many people are talking about letting their long-standing Kennedy Center memberships expire when renewal is due.
1:15 p.m.: I approach the ticket sales windows, my seven hours in ticket lines nearly over. I realize that orchestra seats for weekend shows are about all gone, so I purchase a pair for my godson serving at Fort Bragg. (Unlike me, he can’t attend a weeknight performance.) Then, since I don’t have enough slots left for my planned outing with two friends, I decide to use the second pair for a wonderful mother back at my office who will be having a few days in August where her two children will be elsewhere. I decide to facilitate the romance of a married date night. I will buy my own tickets, and perhaps some tickets I wanted to give as a graduation present, either online or over the telephone when I’m back at the office.
6:30 p.m.: I still can’t get onto the Kennedy Center website or past the busy signal for telephone sales. I have a work dinner to attend. I trudge off with willpower weakening, faced with the likelihood of eating too much due to the feeling of depression that I may never get to see The Book of Mormon without paying scalper’s rates.
I am reminded of a childhood Peanuts cartoons where Snoopy/World I Flying Ace and his doghouse/Sopwith Camel having been shot down, shouts (in a dialogue bubble), “Curse you, Red Baron.” “Curse you, heartless Kennedy Center barons.”