Monday, October 19, 2015

Papering the house -- Twentieth Century style

As a follow-up to our previous post on "crowd-casting," this excerpt from a 1996 column by Mark Evanier gives you some idea of the harsh economics of "papering the house" and of the always questionable ethics of show business. Also note the role asymmetry of information plays.
The members of The Rock Group were in the green room, finalizing some details when the Entertainment Director sauntered in. This was the gent who'd hired them and was in charge of keeping the casino's showroom filled with the top acts. I will call this man Mr. Beef and if you'd seen him, you'd understand the name. Just trust me on this: The man was Mr. Beef.

"Sad, sad," Mr. Beef was muttering. Everyone asked him what was so sad.

"I just checked some of the other hotels," he said. "Johnny Mathis is sold out over at Caesar's. Don Rickles is sold out down at the Sahara. The Everly Brothers are just about sold out over at Bally's. Everyone in town is selling out tonight…

"…except you guys. I just checked and it looks like we're only gonna be at about half-capacity for both shows tonight…and on a Friday. Looks like you guys ain't a draw no more."

The group's manager immediately jumped in and complained that the hotel had done insufficient publicity. They always say that. In show business, from a performer's standpoint, there is no such thing as sufficient publicity.

"We did the same amount we did last week for Lou Rawls," said Mr. Beef. "The same amount we do for everyone."

The leader of the group spoke up. "When we played here last January, we sold out every night."

Mr. Beef grunted. "That don't prove anything. That was during the Consumer Electronics Show. With a convention that size in town, my Aunt Tillie could stand on-stage and knit for two hours and sell out. No, this week proves if your act has any drawing power and you ain't close to sold out. If you were sold out, it would be a different story. But as it is, I don't think we can ever book you again. And when word gets around of how badly you did, I wouldn't count on you ever playing Vegas again."

By now, the manager was turning the color of Ovaltine. "What do you expect us to do?" he demanded.

"Do whatever you have to," said Mr. Beef as he walked out of the room, having maintained his casual demeanor throughout the entire verbal assault and battery. He had just pulled the pin on a grenade and he knew it.

It was 7:00 — one hour until the first of their two shows that night. The Rock Group had just been put on notice that if they didn't sell-out this week (or come darn close), they would never play The Big Hotel again and might never get a booking in Vegas. The Small Crisis on stage was put on hold for a moment while all the principals in the operation huddled there in the green room, considering what to do about The Big Crisis.

They talked for no more than five minutes. There weren't a lot of options to consider: They could hope for the best…or they could buy their way out of this.
Let's do the math on that second option together, shall we? The showroom could house 1,200 people for a performance. They were about half-sold for each show tonight so that's 600 empty seats to fill each performance.

But maybe 100 seats each show are reserved for guests of the hotel, guests of the performers, reviewers, etc. So that left 500 per show to fill.

The tickets were twenty-five bucks (today, they're probably forty). So we're talking about $12,500 worth of admissions.

That's per show.

There were two performances that evening so double it. To  buy out their own house, The Rock Group had to pay $25,000.

That's just for one night.

They were in for a week, remember. They'd probably sell a little better Saturday night and the hotel wouldn't expect them to go absolutely clean on the mid-week nights. But packing the place for the week could easily run from $100,000 to $150,000. So to keep the Vegas door open would be expensive.

They debated quickly. The consensus was that this week was not indicative of their true drawing power. Several conventions were in the city, their themes unlikely to attract the kind of audience that would flock to see The Rock Group. "It's just a bad week," the manager said. "Next time we come back, we'll be more careful about checking what's in town…and we'll spend a few bucks of our own on advertising."

They decided to buy their way out of it. The manager sat down and wrote out a check for that night's tickets. An assistant ran to the box office and completed the transaction.

But that was only a partial solution to The Big Crisis. The hotel, being a Vegas hotel, was less interested in selling those seats than they were in having people sit in them — especially people who would gamble on their way in or out.

Instantly, every spare member of The Rock Group's entourage was summoned and the tickets were divided up. "Give them out to anyone who promises to use them," the manager shouted. "And make sure you give out the eight o'clock tickets first!" They all scattered in different directions.

Some headed out into The Big Hotel Casino. Others ran to nearby hotels to pass out their freebies. Still others approached tourists out on the Strip, out on Las Vegas Boulevard. "Would you like to see The Rock Group tonight? Absolutely free?" they'd ask passers-by. Inevitably, some thought it was a scam of some type…but lots of folks go to Las Vegas for the freebies, few and far-between though they may be.


On my way out of the hotel the next day, I ran into the manager of The Rock Group and he told me that Mr. Beef was quite pleased with how they'd filled the room the night before. He also told me that they were contracting with one of the bus-tour companies to distribute some of the tickets they'd likely be giving out for the rest of their run. "What you're doing here is kind of expensive," I said.

"True," he replied. "But if it buys us a contract renewal here, it will have been worth it." (It didn't. In fact, I think that week was the last time The Rock Group ever played Las Vegas.)

 Ten days later, The Stand-Up Comic sent me an article that had run in one of the Vegas papers. Headlined, "Seasonal Slump Socks Showrooms," it discussed how poorly all of the shows in Vegas had fared the previous week. It noted that, of Johnny Mathis, Don Rickles, the Everly Brothers and The Rock Group, only The Rock Group had filled its seats and that they had only accomplished this by "papering the house" (i.e., giving out free tickets). The other showrooms, they said, were all at half-capacity every night.

"What does this mean?" I asked my friend.

"It means," he said, "that Mr. Beef found a way to get his showroom filled and to get The Rock Group to pay for it."

The Big Hotel didn't get to be The Big Hotel by being dumb.

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