Three visits to Overture Center


Overture Center is an elegant entertainment complex in downtown Madison, home to traveling Broadway-style plays that stay for a few weeks, and home to Madison's Symphony, Opera, and several professional stage companies. Its construction was funded by a millionaire's donations, and building the place cost something like $200-million dollars. It opened in 2004, a beautiful facility with fine acoustics, and arguably the snazziest, most upscale place in the city.

Not surprisingly, tickets for most shows at Overture are expensive, but they also schedule old movie events several times every year, labeled the 'Duck Soup' series, which are (or were) quite reasonably priced. 'Duck Soup' was intended to be more affordable than Overture's other shows, with the implication that Overture, being a public facility, was reaching out to folks who might not have a mink stole or tuxedo in their closet. It was $3 per ticket ten or twelve years ago, a price we could afford.

Twice we thought we were attending a 'Duck Soup' screening, and both times we didn't even get into the auditorium. The first time, Steph waited in line to buy the tickets, and was treated brusquely by the person working the ticket window. I was standing right behind her, and this is a fair account of their exchange:

"I'd like two tickets, please."

"Two tickets for what?"

"For tonight's show. For the 'Duck Soup' show."

"Well, you could have said so. We sell tickets for all shows here."

"I'm here to buy the tickets. You're here to sell the tickets. Could we please do that, instead of you scolding me?"

"I am not 'scolding you'. I am explaining how the ticket booth works."

"I'm a grown woman, and I understand how a ticket booth works. It involves you taking my money in exchange for tickets. Can we do that please? We'd like two tickets, for tonight's 'Duck Soup' show."

The woman stared at Steph and didn't move, didn't answer the question. After perhaps ten seconds of silence, Steph politely asked to speak to a manager.

"I am the manager," said the woman in the ticket booth, which was almost certainly a lie. She was a gum-chewing white kid, perhaps 20 years old, with a facial tattoo and green hair, none of which really suggests 'management.'

"I'd like to speak to your supervisor," Steph reiterated.

"My supervisor isn't here, and won't be here until the day after tomorrow. Now, do you want tickets or don't you?"

"We don't," Steph replied, and thus ended our first visit to Overture Center.

That employee's tone was confrontational right from the start, and she became more surly and snarly as the conversation continued. Steph, though, remained pleasant throughout, even as we left the building. In situations like that she never raised her voice or used profanities, which are my go-to strategies, and which is why, having learned from experience, I said nothing and simply watched as Steph handled the situation perfectly. We went home and saw the same movies they were showing at the Overture, streaming off the internet, for free. Steph wrote a polite letter to Overture Center's management, explaining what had happened; they never responded.

A few years later, Stephanie and I made a second attempt to attend a 'Duck Soup' screening. This time we successfully bought tickets from a very nice lady in the same ticket booth, but we were a bit early and they weren't letting people into the auditorium yet. Steph had come straight from work and wanted to sit down, but the benches in the lobby were all occupied, so we sat on the steps to the balcony. A guard or usher promptly approached and said, quite loudly, "You can't sit on the stairs!"

We apologized, stood up and walked away from the stairs, and the guard or usher (the distinction at Overture was unclear) continued scolding us, still quite loudly, talking to our backsides as we walked away. "It's a fire hazard to sit on the stairs!"

I turned around and said, "We're going to stand over here by the window, OK?" I didn't say it rudely or loudly. I didn't mention that since no-one had been going up or down the stairs, we hadn't been much of a hazard. I didn't point out that the stairway was quite wide, and we wouldn't have been an obstacle to anyone, even if someone tried traversing the stairs. We were being cooperative, not argumentative, but almost immediately, another sentry approached, and sternly informed Stephanie that she would need to leave her purse at the security desk.

"I can't have my purse with me during the show?"

"No, as I already said, leave your purse at the check station. You will receive a tag, and you'll be able to reclaim your purse after the show."

"In what setting," Stephanie asked, "is it ordinary to separate a woman from her medicine, her wallet, her ID, and her house keys, all of which are in my purse?"

"This is a security precaution, ma'am, and it is not optional."

With grace and without sarcasm, Steph walked to the ticket booth and quietly asked for a refund of our tickets. The refund was provided, and we left the building, again without seeing the show we'd come to see. Again she wrote a letter; again they didn't respond.

A few months after the second 'Duck Soup' incident, Stephanie won a quiz call-in on a radio station, earning two free tickets to the Symphony, so we attended a concert at Overture Center — and we had a wonderful evening. An usher escorted us to our seats, quite politely. We noticed that women were carrying purses, and nobody attempted to take Stephanie's purse away. We saw people sitting on the stairs before the show, while others were climbing the steps mere inches away, and no-one demanded that the sitters stop sitting. The audience — including Steph and I — was much better dressed, the Symphony's performance was excellent, and the Overture experience was completely different than we'd seen at the 'Duck Soup' shows. Why, it's almost like the policies and procedures are different on $75 nights than on $3 nights.

If you want to see old movies in Madison, there's Cinematheque, which screens classics frequently and never charges admission. The libraries often have screenings, usually providing free popcorn along with the free admission. Old movies are sometimes shown at the film festival, or at the westside multiplex, or on screens set up at dusk in the park. Between these venues, Steph and I probably saw a dozen old movies every year, and we'd always leave $5 or $10 in the donations box.

Overture still schedules three or four screenings of old movies every year, branding these events "Duck Soup." Curious, I just checked their website, and they're now charging $50 for tickets to three 'Duck Soup' old-movie nights — that's about $17 per seat, per show — yikes! Despite being enthusiastic fans of old movies, Stephanie and I never saw an old movie at Overture. We figured they don't want folks like us in their nice building.