It was the worst news anyone at Proctors could imagine. With a packed house waiting for a matinee of “Jersey Boys,” the sound system wouldn’t work.
Five minutes after the show was supposed to start, engineers were desperately trying to isolate the problem, but the sound computer couldn’t even get started. It would boot up, detect an error in the system and automatically reboot.
The management team that handled the disaster sat down this week to discuss something they’d never done before — cancel a show at the last minute, with 2,400 patrons already in their seats.
In the decades that Proctors officials have worked at a half-dozen different theaters, only one of them has ever before seen a show stopped before the end. In that case, the performer collapsed onstage, mid-show, from a stroke that later killed her.
This time, the show didn’t even get started.
The “Jersey Boys” sound crew had been having intermittent problems with their equipment, to the point where they’d installed their backup during intermission the night before. A representative from the manufacturer was already flying in from the United Kingdom to troubleshoot.
But he wasn’t there yet. The show had to go on — and they didn’t have any backups left. Fifteen minutes after the show was supposed to start, they told Proctors they wouldn’t be able to fix the sound in time.
That left Proctors with 2,400 unhappy patrons to appease. And many of them would want the seats they already had — seats that might not be available, particularly in the front. Large groups, of which there were several, might not be able to sit together.
“What could be a bigger disaster than 2,400?” Proctors CEO Philip Morris asked, imagining the unending line as people tried to get refunds or exchange tickets.
Director of Operations Dan Sheehan quickly suggested that the show run an extra matinee on a “dark” Thursday, allowing Proctors to simply tell the audience members to come back with their ticket stubs then.
“But there’s a lot of OKs to make that happen. There’s unions involved,” Morris said.
For 13 minutes, they tried to get approval. Finally, they decided it just wasn’t going to work. The show was already a half-hour late. How much longer could they expect people to sit there without any explanation?
“We could be waiting another half-hour, and people are going to scream,” Morris said.
So they called every employee to the theater. They staffed 20 phone lines and all six box office windows and put employees at every theater exit.
Marketing Director Richard Lovrich said he was chilled when Morris called him downstairs.
“I had heard that tone in Philip’s voice only once before, when a coworker passed away,” he said.
Acting on instinct — he was a journalist for a decade — he grabbed his camera and hurried downstairs. Then he called back up for the entire marketing team to come down, along with anyone else they saw on the way.
Another worker began programming the Proctors box office computer system to accept exchanges without any fee. As he did that, Morris walked onto the stage and delivered the news.
“Jersey Boys” could not go on as scheduled.
He had never before tried to deliver a speech, without sound equipment, to a room this large. But the theater, which was built to magnify the spoken word long before sound systems, carried his words to the very back row.
As patrons filed out, 26 employees began exchanging tickets. In three hours, they reseated 700 people.
At the same time, the musical’s engineers were trying to get the sound system running for the 8 p.m. show. They called to New Jersey for a new sound console and to Boston for a programmer who could get the system working in time.
Ninety minutes before the show was supposed to start, four workers came running into the arcade with the new console.
“It was like a scene from ‘ER,’ ” Lovrich said, referring to the popular television drama from the 1990s. He posted pictures of it on Facebook as he chronicled the entire event.
Ten minutes later, the programmer arrived. The system was still being wired in, and he knew they were running out of time. He warned Morris the show would likely start 10 minutes late.
At 7:10 p.m., with 50 minutes to go, the system was programmed. Then the programmer began testing it, running through all of the special effects and animations that the system had to run, as well as the sound itself.
No one could be seated during the test, so thousands of people waited in a line stretching to the far end of the building.
Twenty-five minutes before the show was supposed to start, the programmer stepped away from the console.
“Open the house,’” he said.
Getting a full house seated in 25 minutes isn’t easy. But the monthlong run of sellout “Lion King” shows, none of which could be seated until 20 minutes before the show began, had served Proctors well, Sheehan said. Everyone was seated in time.
That caused a slight quandary, though. Morris had warned patrons the show would start 10 minutes late, so they could find a place to sit down rather than standing in line. Now, they had to wait for those patrons to return.
As the last few people trickled in, Sheehan waited anxiously to see if the problem was truly fixed. Morris wasn’t worried, but Sheehan wasn’t ready to trust electronics.
“You’re never convinced you’ve found the problem,” he said. “I was worried until the show was running.”
It turned out he was right to worry — the problem turned out to be a multi-pin cable that was intermittently shorting out. They didn’t find that out until the next day, when the U.K. expert arrived and couldn’t get the sound system to fail again. It worked fine — until it was hooked to the show’s equipment, Sheehan said.
The cancellation wasn’t a disaster for everyone. Some patrons were delighted to be moved from the topmost, cheapest seats in the theater to orchestra pit seats by switching to the show that night, Sheehan said
One of the three school groups in the audience that day also got a special treat: they got to meet the entire cast for a question-and-answer session. Their bus wasn’t available to take them back to school immediately, so they needed something to do, Morris said.
Sales staff also moved all three school groups to the next matinee immediately, to preserve a block of seats so they could sit together.
Other patrons skipped the ticket line and headed to local restaurants, which were slammed only moments before they had intended to send home their lunch staff.
Those patrons switched tickets after the line died down.
As of Thursday, there were only 150 patrons who had not exchanged tickets yet; only about 100 asked for refunds. The other 2,200 have been reseated, at a loss that will mostly be incurred by “Jersey Boys,” Morris said. Proctors receives only a small amount of each ticket sale.