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Why You Can't Order Exact Seats by Phone

August 17, 1989|SYLVIE DRAKE | Times Theater Writer

Buying theater tickets: How tough can it get?

Pretty tough, in a city as spread out as Los Angeles, where you can't easily walk up to a box office and purchase the seats you want. You would think that telephone sales would be made easy. They are-- if you have a credit card and are willing to pay a surcharge for seats whose exact location you won't know until you sit in them.

Ticketmaster, Ticketron, Teletron, Telecharge and the various large-theater box offices here and in San Diego are happy to sell you tickets by phone, but decline to tell you more than what section you'll be sitting in. Why?

Linda Woerz, Los Angeles area manager for Ticketron (which handles the Mark Taper Forum, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the Wilshire, among other theaters), cites the high potential for unhappy customers who might decide they didn't get what they thought they had been promised on the phone.

"We identify the seating area," she said, "loge, orchestra, balcony. The section, not the row. You get into the B's and C's of it and there's too much room for miscommunication. Row A sounds like the front row when it could very well be the sixth. It's an ongoing problem and causes mass confusion. We've been requested by our clients (the theaters) not to give the information."

Is that it?

"We've been in the business 20 years. Volume is the key. We would be spending much more time on the phone with a pick-and-choose system," she adds, getting to the real heart of the matter. "The computers automatically select the next best available seat. If you want to see exactly where you're going to sit, we recommend that you go to a remote outlet."

"Remote" in this parlance means a neighborhood Ticketron outlet, remote from the main computer. There, salespeople with seating charts can sell you a specific seat.

The box offices at Second City, the San Diego Old Globe, the Los Angeles Theatre Center and the La Jolla and Pasadena playhouses, which do their own booking, also don't give out seat locations over the phone. Operators don't have access to seating charts; box-office personnel do.

Fred Rosen, chairman of the board of Ticketmaster (which handles the Long Beach Civic Light Opera and Wilshire Ebell), is very clear: "When you run a service like ours," he says, "you run on efficiency. If you start giving seat locations, transaction time increases by eight or 10 minutes (per call). The economics of the business don't allow it. We operate in 110 cities, do $200 million in telephone sales--up $40 million from last year. (If you don't like it) you don't have to put your finger in the phone to dial--know what I mean?

"If there was a way of (giving out seat locations) that would be cost-efficient, I'd do it, but we're a mass distribution center." Unmassing it, he insists, is impractical.

Telephone-sale surcharges currently vary from $1.50 to as much as $4 per ticket, depending on the service or box office, with La Jolla charging $3 per order, regardless of the number of tickets involved. But surely there's a market for a personalized service that would take the extra time and give out ticket locations for a heftier service fee?

"I don't think it's an issue that the public would pay for it," says Rosen. "I considered starting something called Exact Seating once, but I think it would be pictured very badly in the press. I think we'd be accused of taking advantage. I just can't justify it for what we do."

So until someone solves the inexact seating problem, the alternatives remain traveling to the box office or to the nearest Ticketron or Ticketmaster outlets.

One useful hint: If you must use the phone, Pacific Bell's "Smart" Yellow Pages now has well-annotated performing arts and stadium seating charts at the front of the book that show sections, rows, seating capacity, functions and configurations. It's not perfect, but it will give you some idea where those inexact seats will be.

STAGING THE REVOLUTION: After several attempts to find a larger space, Paul Verdier, artistic director of Stages Trilingual Theatre, has decided to mount his French bicentennial tribute--Ariane Mnouchkine's "1789"--on home turf: under a tent in Stages' Hollywood back yard. The production, which has the patronage of French Consul General Gerard Coste, is the recipient of several grants, the latest of which is a $15,000 one from the French Committee for the Celebration of the Bicentennial of the French Revolution.

"1789" was originally created by Mnouchkine's Theatre du Soleil for the Piccolo Teatro of Milan in November, 1970. The sprawling, circuslike commedia event also played such venues as basketball courts and inaugurated the Theatre du Soleil's vast Paris headquarters at La Cartoucherie. The Stages production marks the first time Mnouchkine has relinquished the rights to this show to anyone. But can the revolution be shrunk?

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