Thursday, 15 May 2008

Why Can't The Past Just Die?

A long long time ago in a galaxy far far away……well actually just a short way across the west end…..I set foot in a theatre box office for the first time. Before I say anything else I should probably clarify that I was VERY young. In fact I was just eighteen. It wasn’t the first time I had worked in a theatre either, as I had worked at the Palladium as an attendant for the previous three school summer holidays, however I had left school and moved to London full time. The time was 1987 and the place was Her Majesty’s Theatre on the Haymarket. Oh the glamour of it all!!! Oh the naivety of youth!

As anyone who actually works in a theatre would realise, glamour is usually in short supply for those of us who work front of house and behind the scenes. But this was 1987 and working at Her Majesty’s was never less than exciting. The previous year had seen “The Phantom Of The Opera” open to rave reviews, and the beginning of a phenomenon the like of which I doubt we will ever see again. Almost every day the news papers would run a story connected to the show. Wogan would have cast members appear on his TV chat show. Memorably, even “Eastenders’” Dirty Den got in the act when he said “I’m going to see the phantom of the opera – and I’m taking ‘er to the theatre”. Poor Angie! Well Den may be dead and gone (twice) but the Phantom is still going strong, and back in 1987 I stepped into this world of endless masquerades and opera ghosts shortly before its first birthday.

So there I am young and naïve (as we have already established) and starting my first day in a job which I still do to this day. Of course, to a novice like me, I expected to walk in, sit on the box office window, and start selling tickets immediately. That is usually how it works but there was one big draw back! There were NO tickets. For almost a whole year! The show was well and truly sold out. Not sold out like now where you can often go in and get single seats etc. but totally sold out. Actually we did hold back some restricted views until the morning of the show but that was because if we didn’t there may have been a riot. Most mornings there were between forty and sixty people queuing for them and quite a number would have been there overnight. Now that’s dedication!

Anyway, after being introduced to the box office manager – bizarrely he was from Texas yet had an impeccable English accent – I was taken to head office. For a month! The head office of Stoll Moss Theatres (as we then were) was in Leicester Square and called Cranbourne Mansions. The whole building reeked of theatre (by which I mean atmosphere not the smell of the greasepaint!) and there was probably nowhere else that felt quite so theatrical without actually being a theatre. I had no clue why I was there but was to discover that when it came to selling tickets this was the hub of the operation.

The only way you could get tickets was by postal applications. Boy, were there a lot of those. I began my career in a room with fourteen sacks of mail. My first job was just opening them up and throwing them in plastic containers. Next they were sorted into “Weekends”, “Weeknights” and “Wednesday matinees”. Then they were attacked with a marker pen as all the most important criteria were highlighted. Next they made their way to the important and uberstressed Judy, Amanda and Steve (a.k.a. the “crumbly muffins” – lord knows why!) who were in charge of allocating the seats. In due course some of the applicants received letters offering them tickets and giving them a deadline to pay for them by. The largest proportion of the letters sadly ended up getting “N/A” letters – as in nothing available. So this was my lot for the next month. Chief letter opener!

One month in and everything changed. Finally I was in the box office and just in time for the shows first birthday. So ok, life wasn’t that glamorous generally but there were exceptions and the first birthday was one of them. The party was very swish and was held at the art deco Roof Gardens in Kensington. Champagne flowed, flamingos strutted and Sarah Brightman shimmied as a wonderful time was had by all.

Only a week or so later Michael Crawford left the show to prepare for the Broadway production. The queues for “returns” had begun a week before and some people had been camped out all that time. Now that really is close to insanity! I remember one lady called Geraldine who had seen the show over a hundred times in the first year alone by queuing for returns. Of course we didn’t know her as Geraldine but as Dolly, because she had, allegedly, built a life size papier mache mannequin of Michael Crawford. You couldn’t make it up could you? I was lucky enough to be in the audience for Michael’s last night and the atmosphere was incredible. However, sacriligious as it may sound I much preferred Crawford’s successor in the role of opera ghost. Dave Willets joined the cast at the same time as a fresh faced Michael Ball became Raoul. Ball’s predecessor Steve Barton was to join Crawford and Brightman in New York. Returning to the role of Christine was the lovely Claire Moore. Claire was much loved by those of us in the box office, you couldn’t meet anyone friendlier or more down to earth. On one occasion I remember her even taking over the window for a while (whilst wearing her dressing gown!) so I could pop to the loo! Without the titian wig the audience really didn’t have a clue! We had a great relationship with all the cast but particularly Rosemary Ashe the original Carlotta who was very camp and even wrote her cheques in pink ink! I should also mention the late Mary Millar who was so effective in her role as the original Madame Giry and a truly lovely woman.

So what of our work in the box office? Well, I was there another two years and it was pretty relentless. Quite often the back log of post could be over forty sacks. We were usually absolutely sold out a year in advance. People would even buy up all the single seats just for a chance to see this show that had so much captured the public’s imagination. I doubt the West End had ever seen anything like it before and the industry has now changed so much that I doubt it would be possible for a show to have quite that level of success. It truly was astonishing. In these days of call centres with large numbers of staff it’s amazing to think what we achieved with just a dozen people in two small offices. What seems particularly absurd is that all of this was achieved without a computer in sight. The tools of the trade back then were a pile of manual plans, a handful of brightly coloured crayons and of course those brightly coloured tickets that really did look like theatre tickets!

So the decades have passed, the way we do our jobs has changed, and indeed the landscape of the whole west end has changed. However one of the few constants is “The Phantom Of The Opera” which continues to thrill audiences at Her Majesty’s Theatre and long may it do so!

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