The Day the Earth Stood Still (finally)

A big scare in the Bay Area the other day. Just a few days after the 20th anniversary of the terrible Loma Prieta quake that was the biggest since 1906, there were a series of jigglers, the largest a 4.0. (we are so used to quakes that we throw away ones that size)

But it did upset a lot of people. I didn’t feel it at all (nor the aftershocks). I was in Sonoma and then in Palo Alto and it was centered southeast of Berkeley.

Image by Sigurd Decroos from

But it did take me back to those terrible days 23 years ago. I was mainly in Los Angeles at that time working at Ticketmaster but had come back up to the Bay Area to visit Judi and for the World Series between the A’s and the Giants. Although we had suites at both the Giants and A’s ballparks, I wasn’t going to the first game. At 5 o’clock I was standing by my office talking and getting ready to leave when the Bermuda building suddenly starting lurching back and forth. BASS Tickets Headquarters were on the 9th (top) floor. I was almost knocked to the ground, and held onto to the doorway. Everything was crashing around me and our people were screaming.

I immediately yelled “Everyone out of here now!” and we all headed to the stairway in a very orderly fashion and hurdled down the 9 floors.

Most left their purses, belongings, etc. and we stood in the middle of Franklin street to get out of the way of falling bricks and debris. We knew it was bad; we had no idea how bad and that we would never get back in the building again.

Ironically, our computers kept running, churning out the ticket transactions. Inland areas such as Sacramento and Stockton were not affected and the outlets continued selling tickets. We gathered in the delicatessen across the street, which would become our unofficial home for the next several months.

Our GM had rushed to the subway (BART) station to get to his family, but soon came back as obviously it was not running. BART shut down until all the tracks could be surveyed to determine the damage. The freeway several blocks away had crumbled in places; the Bay Bridge had one portion of the upper deck fall on the lower.

I was staying in Sausalito, but the authorities had closed all the bridges across the Bay and I remember driving completely around it (check out a map) and somehow ended up there.

It was a really traumatic time for all of us, and that is a subject for another post. Our friends at Ticketmaster in Los Angeles responded immediately, working on diverting the phone lines from our offices to theirs. We put about a dozen of our best phone operators on a plane to Los Angeles where there was a special setup in the TM phone room for them.

Our computers kept functioning (miraculously) in spite of no operators or updates or maintenance. Finally Denise, our operations manager, was able to remotely shut it down (not that easy 20 years ago) and Ticketmaster had transferred the data to one of their computers. Luckily, every night we had saved a data “tape” of all transactions and our GM had taken it out as he did, and we sent that to LA. The fire department permitted two of our people to go into the building for 1 hour a week or so later to grab what was necessary, and that was it. The building was condemned; Ironically, the new owner had purchased it just weeks before and did not have adequate insurance yet.

Eventually we opened new offices in Concord several months later. We kept whomever we could on limited pay (Hal Silen and I always prided ourselves on how we regarded our employees, at least 4 of whom were carryovers from our Roller Derby days.)

Although we were virtually out of money, we continued. We actually gave $10,000 to the Great American Music Hall, one of our first clients, in order for them to stay in business. We never asked for repayment.

And we later that year booked a weekend for all of our employees who had been with us that day at a resort in Napa County and brought in a psychologist so everyone could work it out the best that they could.

So those Mayan calender watchers who keeps predicting the end of the world this December don’t bother me. I have been there.

Tickets, please…..maybe not

Event entry has changed so much in just a short time.  Now we have (ok, I am representing them) which requires only a phone to buy tickets and a phone with an app to read it for entry…..Now being used by some of the Derby Girls.

Photo by Keith Syvinski from

When I first promoted Roller Derby, we could only use “hard” tickets, which had to be ordered from a bonded printer with the approval of the venue, so the ticket printer knew you had the right capacities and seating maps if it was a reserved house.  We are now so used to instant ticketing that of course at that time you had to order tickets well in advance.  We always ordered blank (not dated) sets in case we would add some unscheduled dates.

And then distribution was the problem.   Ticket buyers would either have to go to the venue or to designated locations that were privately operated box offices who handled many different events.  We always used Downtown Center Box Office in San Francisco and two other box offices in the Bay Area.  Of course, if a customer wanted a certain section or seat, chances are they were at the wrong box offices.  So it wasn’t easy…..and you would have to pull back all tickets the day before so you could have them on sale at the arena the day of the game.

So Ticketron started by setting up computerized ticketing, with outlets at Sears.  For quite a while, you could not get exact seating as it could only sell “best available” supposedly determined by the promoter.  They charged an inside fee of 35 cents to the promoter or venue for each ticket sold, and a service charge to customers of 25 cents per ticket;  plus there was a “set up” charge to the promoter to build the event.  The advantage obviously, events could go on sale within a few days, rather than weeks,  and ticket customers could go to a location near where they lived to by advance tickets.

If you have read the earlier blog on Ticketron, you know why Hal and I went into the ticket business.  Of course we overestimated potential revenue, bought the wrong system, were supplied with stolen software which we didn’t use, and it took years of hard work to start to make any money…..outside of that, a hell of a business.

In 1982 we hired a very bright Stanford business student (John Harris, now killing them on Wall Street) to go to Los Angeles and survey customers and entertainment and sports providers to see if it made sense for us to expand from Northern to Southern California.  John wrote a great report (which later we used as part of a business plan) and we found out that another ticket company called Ticketmaster had made inquiries into the market.  (We were BASS Tickets:  Bay Area Seating Service).  So I contacted Lou Dickstein who was utilizing Ticketmaster in Dallas, and he told me the company had been bought by the Pritzker family (Hyatt Hotels, among other businesses) and some very good guys were in charge.  I met them at a trade show, and Fred Rosen, Bob Leonard and I became the unholy triumvirate that led the ticket assault across America.

Fred was in New York and trying to get a company called Charg-it to be the company used for phone orders.  I had two things going for Los Angeles:  an arrangement with Century theaters to sell advance tickets for movies (yes, BASS started that) and our San Francisco sales rep found out that Steve Wozniak (Steve Jobs partner at Apple) was unhappy with the way Ticketron handled sales for the US Festival the previous year and wanted a non-computerized (?) company to handle the upcoming 2nd Festival.  I called Fred who was starting to get pissed at Charg-It and when I told him we could have the US Festival he said great, and then I said we had to be on sale in 6 weeks.  When he got done screaming that we didn’t have computers etc, I explained we would use hard tickets (general admission) and he immediately strategized:  we would open an office in Los Angeles, get 40 phones and 70 ticket locations and print and distribute hard tickets;  and Lou Dickstein would handle it.

So we obtained a leading record store chain (remember those?), a sports store chain, and went to work selling out 3 days of the US Festival near San Bernardino, CA.  The US festival gave Ticketmaster a million dollars worth of advertising, we then in opened 9 computer outlets in Orange County, and sold tens of thousands of tickets for “The Empire Strikes back” which was playing at one theater in Orange county.

So the nation’s leading computerized ticketing company’s initial foray into Southern California began with non-computer hard tickets for the US Festival and computer tickets for “The Empire Strikes Back”.  You take the opportunity when you can.

On the next part of the story, how Ticketmaster captured the US, how ticketing has changed dramatically, and what will happen tomorrow.

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The story behind ticketing and why Hal is upset at the Beatles

I had lunch today in San Francisco with some wonderful people I worked with in the Ticket business when BASS started.  Hal Silen, of course, Doug Levinson who managed BASS Tickets so successfully, and our two attorneys who steered a good course for us starting back in 1974, Art Shartsis and Tony Leuin.  Their law firm is now one of the most  prestigious in San Francisco, and we were among their very first clients.  (Art reminded me of my reaction when he won a very important case for us:  I called him and said “you are worth every dollar we owe you”)

Hal was a great lawyer, but because he was a principal at BASS, we had to use outside counsel when we had trouble (which I realize today was pretty frequently).

The ticket business is different than you might think.  It is based on the principal that unsold inventory (tickets) have a great value, and you try to get clients (promoters, clubs, sports teams, arts, universities, etc) based on their potential ticket sales.  Even though we were capable as a computerized company of providing the software for season or subscriber tickets for events, our revenue stream depended on the ability to sign clients who had tickets not all tied up in subscriptions, so that we could get service charges on the individual tickets available.

To give you kind of a backward view of the world as we saw it, we liked working with sports teams who had been so unsuccessful in prior years that they had lost their subscriber base as many more seats would be available for all games.  Thus the Oakland Raiders were of greater value to us than the very successful 49ers as the ‘niners virtually sold out by season tickets, and we had only a few thousand single tickets (i.e. not adjoining each other) to sell for each game, whereas with the Raiders, we might be able to sell 10 or 15,000 depending on whom they were playing.  (Peggy Brown came in laughing one day when we put the 49er tickets on sale for the season:  caller “I would like 4 tickets for the Green Bay game”.  Peggy: “they are all single tickets”.  Caller:  “well give me 4 of the singles together”.)

The Cleveland fans don’t want to hear this, but from the ticket company viewpoint only, the Cavaliers become a more attractive client because so many season ticket holders will cancel.  I told you it is a backward view.

When I was running Roller Derby I discovered Ticketron in the mid 60’s.  It really was not a very good system, but it was the only one.  What was great for us was that on our telecasts instead of having to give 10 ticket locations or telling people to come to the box office, we could say in the markets where they were (San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, New York, etc) that they could get tickets through Ticketron at Sears, or wherever.  And we could get an immediate sales account from our reporting printer so we could determine what needed to be done to make the game successful.

Previously, we would have to distribute hard tickets to various box offices which meant that if you wanted to buy middle of the arena on the West side, you might live in Oakland, go to the San Francisco ticket office and find they didn’t have the tickets there.  Also, since we had no control of the box offices, we would find the some of them would act as brokers, holding back good tickets and if they could get additional money from the buyer, they would provide them.  Then we would have to pick up the tickets the day before the games so we could see what we had to sell at the building box office, often losing the last two days of sales which could be the best.   Somebody in Sacramento who wanted to attend a game didn’t want to drive all the way to the Bay Area to see the Bombers without a ticket in hand.

When we started BASS, our service charges were generally in the range of 50 cents, sometimes with a small charge to the promoter also.  As people got more and more used to computerized ticketing, they couldn’t understand why they had to pay a dollar per ticket to buy in Santa Rosa Tower Records or wherever.  Obviously, they could get the best seat available from the computer, just the same as at the Cow Palace box office, but without the hassle of the drive, their time, etc.  People still complained.  We also had a phone service so they could call in and get the best available seats  from the computer.

As it became more necessary for us to make certain we had the inventory, we would have to provide expensive computers and box office equipment for clients, as well as training their personnel, and more service.  These costs had to be put into the service charges, and also a percentage of the service charge would be negotiated and given to the arena or wherever.  Whenever I hear complaints on why a hot dog or coke or parking is so high at a ball park or arena, it is because a private company has usually installed its equipment, personnel and bid a high percentage of the price each food item as rent to the building….the same with parking, and with the computerization of the box office and the right to sell “outlet” tickets.

This was pretty much the shape of ticketing when Hal and I got out of it in 1997.   It has changed considerably.  As promoters raised the ticket prices, I think figuring if the $20 tickets up front are going to be sold to brokers and resold for often hundreds of dollars, why shouldn’t the acts, promoters, and arenas get the higher price, and of course the service charges went up right along with it.

Today virtually 85 to 90% of tickets are sold to customers not through outlets, box offices or phones, but on their home computers, iphones, droids, blackberries, etc.  And the business is heading towards a completely paperless ticket….you will buy it on your phone, come to the event, get the phone scanned and go inside; your ticket is recorded as attending the event and you will show your phone to get your seat.  This will certainly limit scalping.  Both American Airlines and United Airlines today are testing at some airports paperless e-tickets for their flights.

What your device will do in the future is almost beyond our comprehension;  you will be offered show merchandise, preferred parking, maybe even dinner at a place near the concert or sporting event.  Stay tuned as I will try and follow events in the future.

Now here is something for you lovers of a good could-have-been story.  Hal Silen, my long-time partner, also represented Donahue and Mitchell who were DJs on KYA radio in the 60’s and concert promoters.  The Beatles after a highly successful tour were convinced to do some stadium shows;  and in a last- minute promotion Candlestick Park in San Francisco was included.  Since there was no computerized ticketing for Candlestick, Donahue and Mitchell ordered 40,000 reserved seat tickets for the performance…..despite a very short time for promotion, 26,000 people were in attendance.  There were 14,000 unsold tickets (“deadwood”), so each of the promoters and Hal took a few tickets as souvenirs, and the rest were destroyed.  After this concert, the Beatles decided they would do no more shows for awhile, then they broke up and never played together in public again.  I often remind Hal he could have moved to the Riviera and lived a great life, having 14,000 tickets for the very last Beatles concert to sell to the highest bidders.


I decided to blog just to see if I am interesting enough to attract any readers.

I am in the older generation category but have managed to stay on the edge of the wave of life because of my entrepreneurial nature.

To start with, my father invented Roller Derby, and without my realizing it, it set the course for my life. I never intended to get involved in it but of course I did. After my childhood and schooling and Stanford and Northwestern (when I run out of things to write about I will of course give some facts about those days as well as my army life), I got married, was selling wholesale sporting goods, and suddenly I was the owner, promoter of the defunct sport of professional Roller Derby.

My father Leo Seltzer, perhaps the greatest promoter you never heard of, decided that Roller Derby had become too much of an exhibition and not the sport he always wanted it to be (he had visions of it in the Olympics – more on that later because it still might), and virtually closed it in 1958.

I had been doing some trackside announcing to pick up extra money for my growing family ($25 per game for 5 games a week doubled my income) when he told me he was shutting it down. In the world of coincidences two moons came in confluence at the same time: KTVU Channel 2 in Oakland California had come on the air and was looking for programming and a young man at Ampex in Redwood City developed video tape which made all programs look live on replay as opposed to the old kinescoping film technique (I won’t explain how and why).

So Bay Bombers Roller Derby appeared on channel 2 and I with a borrowed $500 put up bleachers in an unused auto repair garage on East 14th street in Oakland and created a studio for Roller Derby. I was 26 and didn’t know the odds against success.

In future blogs I will get beyond Roller Derby to the world of ticketing, Rock and Roll, the Hells Angels and me, my touring with Dylan, Bill Graham (the rock and roll one), film, my views on the world and much more. let me hear from you.

You can subscribe free to the blog by entering your email in the subscribe box in the upper right hand corner of the page.  And if I get enough of the blog written and appreciated, I’ll add some other chapeters and  put it together as an e-book.