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The Fine Art of 'Papering the House' : Free Tickets Sometimes Offered When Performer Can't Fill the Venue

August 08, 1989|PAUL GREIN

As a longtime Julie Andrews fan, Los Angeles accountant Nina Stein headed straight for the box office when tickets went on sale to the veteran performer's recent two-night stand at the Greek Theatre. Stein, 42, paid $156 for four choice seats.

After the concert, she and her three friends went to Canter's Deli in the Fairfax District for a late-night nosh. To her surprise--and dismay--she saw a stack of vouchers by the cash register, each one good for four free tickets to either of Andrews' shows.

Stein's first thought: Why had she just paid $156 for what others could see for free?

"If Julie Andrews can't sell (enough) tickets to her comeback concert, maybe she shouldn't play such a large venue," Stein said in a letter to The Times. "She certainly shouldn't insult the fans she has left by making them feel like suckers."

In a subsequent phone interview, Stein was still steamed: "Here I am the stupid one who gets stuck spending over $100 and everyone else was walking in free."

Well, not everyone else, but a significant number. Susan Rosenbluth, general manager of the 6,200-seat Greek Theatre, said that about 700 tickets were given away each night.

And this was hardly an isolated incident.

A Calendar survey of booking agents and personal managers suggests that the practice of distributing free concert tickets in an effort to fill empty seats--"papering the house," as it's called in the industry--is common. Industry insiders estimated that at least some papering goes on at 10% to 40% of all shows across the country.

Papering is especially prevalent in the media centers of Los Angeles and New York, where a high premium is placed on maintaining the image of success.

Phil Casey, vice president at the ICM talent agency in Beverly Hills, said: "If you're playing Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and you've got three-quarters of a house filled, you're not going to worry about it, but if you're playing the Forum (in Inglewood), you want to fill it up. You want to give the impression that you're successful in the major media markets. There's nothing worse than a review coming out saying so-and-so played to half a house, so you try and find a way of putting more people in there and filling it up a little bit."

But Casey said it's usually done more "tactfully" than it was in the Andrews episode: "You try to do it as discreetly as possible so that it doesn't look like you're flooding the city with tickets."

An Andrews associate, who requested anonymity, said that "those who did get in for free were sitting in the back of the theater to make it look nicer so Julie would feel comfortable when she walked out on stage."

The associate added that whoever put the vouchers on the counter at Canter's "wasn't the person who was authorized to paper a limited amount of seats for the Greek Theatre. The theater may have given them to somebody who's involved in a charity or an organization, who decided like a jerk to leave them at Canter's."

Papering the house--which does not include the routine practices of giving away a limited number of promotional tickets for radio station giveaways and a limited number of complimentary tickets to members of the media and the industry--is a sensitive subject in the concert business. Everybody does it from time to time, but nobody likes to talk about it.

"It's very embarrassing for both the artist and the venue," said Dick Alen, head of the music department at the William Morris Agency.

One reason for their reticence is that papering is one of the tricks of the trade to give the illusion of success. Many in the concert industry would prefer that audiences didn't realize that there's sometimes a difference between appearance and reality, that one can't simply look at the size of the audience as an accurate gauge of a performer's drawing power.

But no one denies that papering is a common practice.

"It's done all the time," said Ron DeBlasio, a manager who has worked with such artists as Donna Summer and the rock group X. "There usually are seats remaining that aren't particularly good that nobody wants."

DeBlasio, a former William Morris agent, added that this is especially true with performers such as Andrews, whose appeal is to an upper-demographic, middle-of-the-road audience.

"That audience tends to buy high-scale tickets," he said. "They probably wouldn't buy cheap tickets way up on top or way over on the side. So those tickets are available."

Papering the house is usually carried out during the 48 hours before a show.

Rob Kahane, who co-manages George Michael and was formerly a booking agent, said, "It's always just the last couple of days when you know it's going to look like a disaster and you want to save face."

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