The process of methodically buying up good seats to rock concerts and then selling them at ten times or more than their face value is not a particularly noble profession, but it is a profitable one. Fans decry scalpers' practices, but too many support the business. On the record, artists, promoters, and ticket agencies say they discourage scalping and profess not to know how scalpers invariably manage to come up with the best seats. But a group of Grateful Dead fans recently got a good lesson on how the process works.
The story that follows is based on the accounts of fans who lined up on the morning of Saturday, June 3, to get tickets for the Dead's July 8 and 9 Soldier Field shows. The scene: the Ticketmaster outlet in the Carson Pirie Scott department store at the Merchandise Mart. The rules: fans had to stop by a day or two before tickets went on sale and have a Ticketmaster employee affix a numbered band to their wrists; the day of the sale fans were to be at the store at 8:30 AM, at which time a random number would be drawn; fans would then line up according to the numbers on their wristbands (this procedure obviates long lineups before tickets go on sale). The rules also said that if you weren't there at 8:30 you lost whatever advantage your number gave you, and you had to go to the end of the line.
Lew Thomson came with his roommate and a group of friends, figuring that at least one of them would get a good place in line. A Carson's employee came down before 8:30 and announced the starting number. Thomson had number 71, which put him about seventh in line. Right behind him was another fan, Mike Beahan.
According to both Thomson and Beahan, fans noticed early on a group of stragglers standing around outside the store. "They didn't look like concertgoers," Thomson says. "They were kind of a motley crew." As the hour of sale drew near--Beahan says about 8:50 or later--a man and a woman began organizing the stragglers. They say they saw the woman hand out wristbands to the group just before the doors opened, and the scruffy bunch, who all seemed to have wristband numbers in the 40s and 50s, went to the front of the line. "And they were holding [the wristbands] in their hands," notes Beahan (once affixed, the wristbands can't be taken off without ruining them).
The fans complained vocally, but they say they were met with hostility from the linebusters and indifference from the Ticketmaster staff. Once inside, near the actual Ticketmaster office, it was plain to the fans what was going on. Thomson says a man who seemed to be in charge had "set up shop" on a countertop, and was handing out money and collecting tickets from the people who'd gotten into line late. "They were obviously not buying tickets for themselves."
Thomson was mad but figured he was still close enough in line to get the tickets he wanted. Others weren't taking it so well. Thomson says Beahan "was going out of his mind. He was saying, 'Those guys are getting better seats and they're not even fans.'"
Beahan, who'd been pushed from 8th to about 17th in line, was livid. He complained enough to draw the ire of one of the presumed scalpers, who finally snarled at him, "You better shut your mouth or I'll lay you out right here."
While that threat got the attention of a security guard, Beahan says, the employees did nothing to stop the presumed scalpers. Thomson concurs: "There were people appealing to the Ticketmaster people, 'This whole line is telling you these guys are scalping tickets,' but no one did anything."
Beahan eventually got some tickets, but remained upset enough to start a letter-writing campaign. If Carson's has an explanation, its employees aren't sharing it. The store manager of the Merchandise Mart Carson's didn't return repeated phone calls from Hitsville. The employee running the show, Marilyn Estrada, would say only that "nothing unusual happened that morning." She referred me to another Carson's manager, who was out of town.
Reader contributor and Tribune Concert Line columnist Chris Dickinson has been hired as the pop music critic at the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch. She leaves town mid-July....The Coronet Theatre in Evanston went out with a whimper last Friday night: what was supposed to be a rocking farewell with Bill Monroe, who'd opened the club last December, fell flat when the 85-year-old bluegrass giant went into the hospital with pneumonia. The club is now closed, brought down, owner Chris Schuba said, by hostile factions on the Evanston City Council.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.