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Theaters strategize to keep their seats full

Sunday, November 9, 2008
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The Depression-era grandeur of the Palace Theatre’s ceiling and walls can be seen from the balcony behind David Allan Miller, conductor of the Albany Symphony.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
The Depression-era grandeur of the Palace Theatre’s ceiling and walls can be seen from the balcony behind David Allan Miller, conductor of the Albany Symphony.

— In an effort to boost ticket sales, Proctors will try to harness the power of word of mouth next year.

Fewer residents are buying theater tickets in this tough economy, and both Proctors in Schenectady and the Palace Theatre in Albany are seeing more last-minute sales. So Proctors CEO Philip Morris plans to schedule longer runs for next year’s shows, banking on the theory that interest in the shows will grow as the first viewers talk it up.

At the Palace, the lineup will continue to be heavy on concerts, which have consistently sold out despite inflation and the rise in unemployment. Palace spokesman Sean Allen speculated that the rock ’n’ roll shows appeal to such a large audience that even if half of the fans can no longer afford to come, there’s still more buyers than seats.

“Whereas before maybe we had 400 people outside looking for [scalped] tickets, now we have 100 outside and it’s still sold out,” Allen said. “In general, anything on the more artistic side tends to have a slimmer base. A larger fan base still sells out.”

Morris hasn’t been struggling to corral hundreds of hopefuls trying to buy tickets to sold-out Proctors shows. Many of the theater’s shows this year didn’t sell out — but he emphasized that they all did about as well as he expected. Many of the shows aren’t expected to fill a 2,700-seat theater.

“Things are going fine,” Morris said. “My sense is that until now, tickets have been tied to oil prices. As oil prices went up, tickets were harder [to sell]. We saw a decline in sales, but it was in the spring.”

Ticket sales have slowed, though. The Broadway tour of “Mamma Mia!” sold out, but many Saturday night tickets were still available the night before the show. Even the cheapest seats in the house were available 24 hours before the curtain rose. In years past, those seats sold out well in advance.

The ticket sales at the Palace didn’t even shudder when gas prices skyrocketed.

“We haven’t seen any effect on ticket sales this year. Our ticket sales have not dropped at all,” Allen said.

being cautious

But he’s taking steps already to ward off the disaster that might be coming.

The Palace lowered the cost of concessions for its family movies and dropped the cost of its family event series by $5.

Children’s tickets are also half-price now for the series. The changes were made because ticket sales have slowed noticeably for family shows.

“We’re seeing a lot of people wait till the last minute to make purchases,” Allen said.

Morris does not plan to lower ticket prices at Proctors, but he isn’t ruling that out.

“We’re prepared to watch it [ticket sales] every day,” he said.

He isn’t lowering concessions, either. “I think we’ve been pretty affordable. You’re not being asked to pay stupid money for popcorn,” he said.

A large popcorn at Proctors costs $3. At the Palace, it costs $2 at movies and $3 at events.

Both theaters have taken the step of lowering some ticket prices already — but Proctors did it two years ago as a way of making theater affordable.

The Palace is cutting prices for some shows now in response to the economic downturn.

Two years ago, Morris began selling back-row balcony seats for $20 for every show at Proctors, including the expensive Broadway musicals.

For every show, 320 seats are available at the bargain-basement price.

“We wanted to make sure everything was available at an affordable price,” Morris said. “We did it for Alice Cooper, who was sold out one way or the other.”

$25 seats

Recently, the Palace started offering $25 seats for some shows.

“We know folks probably have a little less money than they had in the past,” Allen explained.

But he’s not cutting prices for big acts that will sell out even in a recession.

Proctors is also dealing with some friendly competition from the Palace. The Palace is scheduling two to three Broadway shows this spring, although dates and titles have not yet been announced.

The Palace stage limits it to shows with smaller sets, and Morris said he’s not worried about competition from “one-night stands of the second, third, fourth year of a Broadway show.”

He added that he doesn’t think the Palace is treading on his turf.

“It’s a smart move. We totally support it. It’s a good strategy,” he said.

Palace organizers talk with him before setting any dates to make sure their Broadway shows don’t conflict with Proctors’ big shows.

Allen said such orchestration keeps both sides happy.

“Crossing over a little bit, as long as it’s done respectfully, should not be viewed as competition,” he said. “Our doing a couple Broadway shows a year is no different than Proctors doing an Alice Cooper.”

But primarily, Allen said, the two theaters thrive by focusing on different shows.

“Yes, it’s a small market for two large theaters, but I think we both bring something different to the table,” he said.

So the Palace will continue to focus on its concerts, Proctors will continue to bring fancy Broadway shows for long runs and both will survive.

“After all, we were both built during the Depression,” Allen said. “They always say the last to get hit is entertainment. A college kid with $20 in his pocket is willing to blow that and eat ramen.”

 
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