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My Manic Week of Ushering

Shel Horowitz's Monthly Frugal Fun Tip for April, 2004

It all happened because I don't use a regular calendar. Mine is one-page-per-day, and that meant I didn't notice.

I usher frequently at a large theater that books amazing talent. I've seen Willie Nelson, Chuck Berry, Richard Thompson, and many others, for free this way. I figure the value of the free tickets I've gotten in the last year and a half or so is at least $800 by now. It's a beautiful 1300 seat Art Deco place, fully restored a few years back.

But because I only see one page of my calendar at a time, when the head usher called me to ask if I would work back-to-back shows on Wednesday and Thursday night, I didn't realize that I'd signed up months before to work that Friday. And then, while we were setting up on Thursday, there was a "your country needs you" moment; she told me she was desperate for the second show on Sunday--Bill Cosby--because almost everyone had signed up to work the early show. I certainly wasn't going to turn down a chance to see Bill Cosby, so of course I said I'd help. I'd get to hear a terrific two hours of comedy, and earn a bunch of karma points at the same time. Not to mention save the $70 cost of a best-seat ticket.

Now--here's the great thing about ushering. Sometimes you get to see awesome shows that you'd have never gone to as a paying customer. Wednesday was Les Ballet Africans, a traditional African dance and music troupe from Guinea. this is a show I might have gone to anyway, because I'd seen them before (as a chaperone for a school performance--another freebie). The house was only half-full that night, and we decided everyone would be happier if we moved people up front. The performers would get more energy, the people who bought bargain seats would get a free upgrade. The only people who weren't happy were a few people who'd paid full price for the good seats--and the set of four people who somehow held seat assignments in the front row that were also held by another group that got there first. The computer had made a mistake. Still, moving everyone up was definitely the right decision. The dancers took a lot from the small but wildly enthusiastic crowd, and gave a performance worthy of a packed house at Carnegie Hall.

But Thursday's would never have been on my list. The Shanghai Circus was completely different from any American circus. Everything was done as an acrobatic dance, beautiful to watch--at times more like ballet than the "ballet" of the night before. There were no animal trick, no fire-eaters, no sideshows. Just one act at a time, emphasizing the beauty, grace, and sheer power of the performers. One example: several male acrobats spun themselves through narrow hoops, then kept adding height. At the end, the hoop was taller than the performers, and it was something to watch them launch themselves way into the air, spin as they went through the hoop, and land on their feet. Another smallish crowd, so I was able to sit in the fifth row.

Oddly enough, the Mary Black show I'd signed up for back in January was the weakest of the four. It was a decent performance, and she has a beautiful voice, but the material was too much alike. It was a good show, just not as good as the other three. My wife had really wanted to see her and I'm not sorry we went, but I was amused that the shows I did as a favor turned out to be better than the show I begged to do.

And then there was Cosby. He played two sold-out houses, each for over two hours. I got to hear a chunk of the first show, since he ran past the time the ushers were supposed to show up, and even past the time we were supposed to begin seating the next show. He is still amazingly funny. This is one of the two shows where I had to stand since I became an usher--but I got to be way in the front, near the best seats.

And what did I do Saturday, on my "day off"? Dina and I went to a friend's 50th birthday 60s dance party, and danced our brains out to our favorite music. I was tired by Sunday night after five nights out in a row, but it was worth it!

So...are you ushering yet? Contact a promoter who puts on regular events, and get on the list. You may see some amazing stuff, for free.

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