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Misadventures in the Ticket Trade

How do ticket brokers obtain the choice seats they sell at exorbitant markups? A lawsuit filed over Miss Saigon tickets has suggested some intriguing new possibilities.

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Intentionally or not, Hoffman Estates-based ticket broker Barry Fox is helping to shed a little light on the shadowy business of ticket brokering. Brokers rarely discuss their trade, but last month Fox in essence decided to talk by filing suit against Time Out Entertainment Ltd., a Deerfield-based ticket-packaging concern that's a relative newcomer to the business. Fox's suit alleges that Time Out--headed by Charles Williams and Anders Nyberg, two former Chicago-based executives with the defunct Ticketron company--reneged on an agreement to sell him more than 1,200 choice seats to producer Cameron Mackintosh's hit musical Miss Saigon at the Auditorium Theatre. Thus far Fox's charges have raised more questions than they've answered, but that may change as his suit proceeds through the courts.

According to theater industry sources, a common modus operandi for brokers is to obtain choice tickets by developing connections with theater box-office personnel. But Nyberg and Williams don't seem to have tarried around any box office when they started Time Out Entertainment in the fall of 1991. According to Fox's story, which has been substantially corroborated by Auditorium Theatre executive director Dulcie Gilmore, they went right to the top, making good use of a business relationship with Gilmore that they'd cemented during their Ticketron tenure. (The Auditorium was one of the last clients to leave the ailing Ticketron operation in the summer of 1991, and though others interviewed for this story were critical of Williams's and Nyberg's management of the Ticketron office here, Gilmore last week said she believed they had performed their duties as well as could be expected under difficult circumstances.) Nyberg and Williams cut a deal with Gilmore to gain access through the Auditorium's ticket office to as many as 100 prime seats for each performance of Miss Saigon. The deal also called for the Auditorium to receive $3 for its restoration fund for each ticket Time Out purchased.

Nyberg and Williams purportedly planned to sell these tickets to out-of-town buyers as part of "value-added" (Williams's term) ticket packages that included various discounts at hotels, restaurants, museums, and gift shops. According to newspaper display ads that Time Out subsequently placed, at least some of their Miss Saigon packages were priced as high as $125; top-priced Miss Saigon tickets cost $60 at the theater box office.

Evidently Gilmore felt that Time Out's plan amounted to something other than ticket brokering. The Cameron Mackintosh organization lays down strict rules governing the sale of tickets for resale, and the Auditorium itself has a policy against selling to brokers, according to Gilmore.

But Barry Fox, a veteran of the ticket brokering business, finds Time Out's so-called "package" laughable. "A rose is a rose is a rose," maintains Fox, "and what you are really selling in this kind of deal is the theater ticket." When Fox heard about the arrangement between Time Out and the Auditorium, he saw it as a potential gold mine and he wanted in. Last February, his suit alleges, he sat down with Nyberg and Williams and struck a deal to buy 1,230 Miss Saigon tickets (and a few others) at $100 each. For Nyberg and Williams such a deal would represent an immediate profit of at least $45,000 over the face value of the tickets.

Eager to make a profit of his own, Fox forwarded $132,600 to Time Out in three installments, only to discover after two of his checks were cashed that the deal was dead. A letter to Fox from Time Out dated February 25, 1992, said the transaction had not been approved and that all his money was being returned. Fox claims he was led to believe that the Auditorium's management had put the kibosh on the transaction, but Dulcie Gilmore says she knew nothing of any deal between Time Out and Fox.

Nyberg and Williams went on to organize another unusual ticket selling scheme involving the American Diabetes Association. As recently as last Sunday, small display ads in the Tribune's Sunday Arts section were touting choice Miss Saigon ticket packages for $105 to $125. A note in the ad indicates that "a portion" of the ticket price benefits the Diabetes Association. According to sources at the ADA it receives on average about $25 for every ticket package Time Out peddles in this way. Like the alleged plan to sell tickets to Barry Fox, this arrangement seems to contravene at least the spirit of Mackintosh's and the Auditorium's policies regarding ticket brokering. Last week ADA executive director Jerry Woolly said Time Out had sold only 238 tickets by this means, netting the Diabetes Association $6,111. Time Out stood to gain about an equal amount from the ADA ticket packages, though a precise figure could not be obtained.

Last summer, according to Shubert Theatre general manager Ken Shaw, Nyberg met with him to discuss an arrangement for upcoming Shubert shows, including the pre-Broadway run of the new Nell Simon-Marvin Hamlisch musical The Goodbye Girl. Shaw says he listened to Nyberg's pitch but made no commitment and has not dealt with Time Out since then.

Barry Fox says he wouldn't have stirred any of this up if he hadn't discovered that Nyberg and Williams recently sold Saigon tickets to another Chicago-area broker for $85 apiece. Early this week Gilmore estimated that Time Out had sold only about 500 Miss Saigon tickets through her office and said that she intended to terminate the arrangement effective January 31. Williams, who was not talking much on advice of counsel, said the termination had been discussed but to his knowledge not finalized.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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