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I Want Your Job: Box Office, Part 2  
In the second instalment of our interview, Markus Ritzmann shares a few stories from his time in the box office...
Markus Ritzmann

Markus – the London Palladium‘s Assistant Box Office Supervisor and one of our own bloggers – talks famous faces, quirky managers and strange requests, as we continue to discover what goes on behind the box office window…

What interested you in pursuing this career – did you have ambitions to work in the theatre?
I wanted to be an actor for a while, when I was a kid. And later on I wanted to be a singer. I almost produced a show once but it never quite happened – it’s not something I’ve ever really pursued. I never got as far as auditioning for drama schools or things like that – maybe I should have done!

You’ve written a number of features for us on this website. Do you have any ambitions to write?
I’ve enjoyed the writing, and I’ve done quite a lot of it. I would like to carry on with it. I’d also like to try my hand at some fiction – I’ve got a few ideas. They say you should write about what you know and – less so now, but certainly in the past – there were a great number of eccentrics working around the theatres. It’d be nice to write something which paid tribute to some of those characters. There was one of the box office managers who’d always, when he was talking on the phone, say “I can’t hear you my dear boy, you’ll have to press me to your lips…!”

And there was one colleague who was a fan of a very famous male musician, and she once went to the theatre dressed as this male musician, taking it so far that she actually went into the gent’s toilets… one theatre manager, when he used to come down to deal with the men making collections would come down in a hairnet and a very, very short dressing gown which only just covered everything, and ladies slippers…

So there’s lots of stories… you do see a lot of eccentrics and it would be nice to write something that found a way of celebrating these people.

Have you ever had any famous faces at the box office window? Has anyone ever made you starstruck?

Over the years there’s been hundreds. My theory now is, if you’re dealing with someone who you really revere, the best thing to do is just say, “here you go, have a nice evening.” If you get in conversation, a) they can shatter your illusions – and you don’t really want your heroes to be tarnished – and b) you can make an idiot of yourself! Like giving them the wrong ticket, which I’ve done before now… so for instance when Steven Sondheim came in, who I am a great admirer of, I just said, “There you go, have a nice evening.” I thought, I’m not going to make an idiot of myself, what can I say to him? So I didn’t!

But there are some wonderfully quirky people who come in. Evelyn Laye, who was a big star in the 1930s, came to see a show at the Apollo Theatre and came into the box office to collect her tickets. She would have been in her early 80s, and she said, “You’re terribly busy here aren’t you?” so we said “Well, yes…” and she opened up a window and started giving out the tickets for collection, to help us! She stayed there for the entire incoming! I can also remember one instance, back on Phantom, when we were very busy and the lady who was playing Christine at the time actually sat at a window and covered for someone who had to go to the toilet – and of course no-one knew it was her because she didn’t have the wig on with all the curls! At that time on Phantom all we kept saying to all the people enquiring was “sorry, we’re sold out, please write in,” over and over again.  Shirley MacLaine… Sigourney Weaver… Tony Bennett… Victoria Wood… you lose track really, over the years!

What’s the strangest request or complaint you’ve had from a member of the public?

The strangest things are people coming in and saying things like, “why is there more than one price?” And for some reason, at the Palladium, it’s not unusual for us to get people coming in to buy stamps because they think we’re a post office. Which is odd, because although it doesn’t look unlike a box office once you’re in it with all the counters, from the outside we’re definitely a theatre!

Some people don’t understand the seating plan, that there’s more than one floor and things like that… some people come in and don’t understand that we only do one show in most theatre because we only have one stage – they imagine it’s like a multiplex cinema and they’ll come in and say, “have you got The Lion King on here as well?” and we’ll have to say, “no, that’s at the Lyceum Theatre.”

Have you ever had any box office disasters during your time?
Kind of, but we usually sort them out. When you’ve been doing it as long as I have, sometimes you can solve a problem without ever knowing how you’ve done it, and just flying by the seat of your pants. I do remember in the early days when we were moving over to computers, not everything was sold by the computers then, so there were manual plans with allocations given to the call centre to sell over the phone. And one day the call centre, on a sell-out show, had managed to sell lots of tickets they’d never had. This was particularly difficult because it happened on a day when there was a memorial service for the then-box office managers’ husband, so none of the regular staff were in the box office until 6.30. So I get back to take over the reins and discover that there’s a double booking of more than thirty seats, so we had to find thirty seats from somewhere. We were very lucky that a group cancelled, so we were able to use those tickets – if not we would have had a big problem because that was not a day any of us wanted to have to be dealing with 30 angry people!

A disaster we had in this particular theatre was when Chitty Chitty Bang Bang opened. It opened to really great reviews, the car was working fine, had a wonderful opening night, then the first night after it opened the car broke down and the performance got cancelled! So we’d all been up rather late the night before at a nice showbiz party, and then 8.30 comes around and we’re all here in the box offices with a crowd of people yelling at us!  We didn’t know if there was going to be a show or not… And another time on Chitty, Westminster Council decided it would be good to have a Formula One event – and our audiences couldn’t get to the theatre because there were Formula One cars racing around Argyll Street… so that was another day we were late going up!

You guys are on the frontline for the audience then…
Yes! Generally I find that as long as you’re polite and keep your sense of humour, that usually works. Unfortunately there’s some people for whom it doesn’t matter what you say, they’re never going to be placated – as in any other part of life. But most people respond to a smile and a bit of gentle humour. Ideally we’d work in a world where you’ve got really successful shows which don’t quite sell out! Because if they don’t quite sell out, then there’s always a little bit of breathing space!

Check back later this week for our final chat with Markus.

Posted on: 4th August 2009

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