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Confessions of a Box Office Manager: A boozy surprise at stage door

Our box office mole reminisces about pre-lockdown life

Box Office Manager

Here we are then: lockdown week number...erm, actually I can't remember. All I know is that enough time has elapsed for my hair to take on a terrifying life of its own, which will need sorting out before I can face the paying public again. On the other hand, when I'm on the sofa in the early evening, just at the time when I would previously have been taking in that night's show, I still get a vaguely uneasy feeling that I should be elsewhere.

In between the endless bouts of ticket exchanges and refunds, I've been sifting through my programme collection. I'm not a massive hoarder but I do try and keep the programmes from shows I've worked on over the years. It's been an occasionally teary (that'll be the wine) but really rather lovely stagger (the wine again) down memory lane. It also reminds me just how long I've worked in the theatre industry. I've literally never done anything else.

Despite the aforementioned vino, some of the memories are extremely vivid. When I was starting out, I worked as a casual for one of the big West End theatre chains, filling in where box office clerks were absent due to illness, holiday or hangover (!) It was quite the badge of honour if as a casual you were requested by a box office manager to work a special occasion, such as an opening or closing night, or an anniversary performance. It proved that they knew you could do the job efficiently under pressure, and wouldn't get unhelpfully starstruck (although that did definitely happen on occasion).

Until I found the programme a few days ago, I'd forgotten this particular play had even happened (it didn't run long, as I remember) but there I was, by special request, ensconced in the box office on the afternoon of its press night. The leading lady was almost as famous for her baking as for her –admittedly superb – acting, and the BOM and I were just discussing this when the foyer door swung open and in she comes, with a personal assistant in tow. Both of them looked a little dishevelled and were carrying large boxes from within which came the unmistakable sound of glass bottles clanking together.

"Go and give the poor bastards a hand, darling" purred the BOM who was unavailable having just lit up (this is how long ago it was, even a non-smoker like myself would frequently go home from work stinking like an ashtray).

Out I went and relieved our star of her burden (she was clearly a lot stronger than her slight frame would suggest, as I nearly buckled under the box's weight) while the PA lurched along behind me, and we dumped everything on the office floor. I remember thinking there must easily be two dozen bottles (turns out there were, from a very exclusive wine merchant).

The star of the show leant against the box office counter, smiling, and gasping for air (but still looking utterly exquisite). Finally, she got it together to actually talk to us, albeit somewhat breathlessly.

"Hello loves" she panted elegantly, "just a little something to say thank you for all your help."

"Thanks so much, that's really kind" returned the BOM, barely visible behind a veil of smoke, "toi toi toi for your opening."

Our star blew kisses and made for the door. She suddenly turned around, colliding with her PA and surprising the BOM who was already wrist-deep in one of the boxes to see what vinous delights were within.

"Sorry darlings, just to say...I'm sure you were expecting a big cake...am I right?"

We looked a bit shifty and were on the verge of mumbling something suitably non-committal when she continued...

"Yes well, I'm afraid you've got f***ing wine instead, ok? Ciao!" ...and with a cheeky wink and wave she was gone, leaving us in the box office staring at each other in astonishment.

That night I went home with a couple of bottles of wine that were superior to anything I could have afforded to buy at the time; I think the drinks supply in the box office actually outlasted the run of the play...

Another programme I recently rediscovered reminded me of another fabulous leading lady. A couple of decades ago I worked full time in the box office of a major musical hit: from before 10am every morning until we closed up at night we just didn't stop (this was also back in the day when there were no ‘phone rooms' so all telephone bookings were done ‘in house').

The female lead in the show at the time was a wonderful character: very funny, extremely eccentric, and with a rambunctious enthusiasm for often foul-mouthed banter that was at complete odds with her demure onstage persona. We all adored her, not least because she spoke to everybody the same, whether they were the all-powerful senior producer of the show or the lowliest of box office clerks (i.e. me).

Unlike many of her castmates, she always came round in person to sort out tickets, rather than calling through from her dressing room. The BOM at the time loved her so much that she was given special dispensation to come knock at the box office's private door to gain entry rather than queue up in the foyer. (She often brought cake too.)

For someone who looked so beautiful on stage, she displayed remarkably little vanity in "real life": if she popped round between shows on matinee days she would leave her full make-up on, whip her wig off, exposing a skull-tight black hairnet, don a dressing gown and fluffy mules, and wander in. Furthermore, if she saw that we were short staffed, she wasn't adverse to hopping onto the COBO window and handing out tickets. I'll never forget the punters' bewildered expressions when faced with this bizarrely attired glamazon wearing more make-up than a drag queen, doling out envelopes and trilling "enjoy the show, I've a feeling that you will!" I wonder how many of them had a ‘Eureka!' moment later in the evening, watching her stunning performance and realising the onstage beauty they were applauding was the same crazy woman who'd handed them their tickets a couple of hours earlier.

All this was before the advent of social media. I doubt that she'd get away with it now, and nor would we, as box office staff, for unleashing her upon an unsuspecting public. Fun times though; I long to get back to them. Right, better get on with those ticket exchanges. Or I might just go through one more box of programmes...