40 years ago this week a wonderful man, Ken Fraser, took the headlines with The Stage and with the theatre press announcing the invention of the very first computerised box office system ‘poised to change the face of the British box office’. At the time I was Assnt Theatre Manager at Bristol Hippodrome, spending many hours giving opinions to another system developer which would eventually create the rival RITA/RSC system, and running a 60 strong ticket agency system with paper tickets alongside our box office manager in the run up to Danny La Rue’s Aladdin.
Over Christmas I nearly left this side of the business and went off to work on Cats but that is another story. Instead I moved down to Plymouth Theatre Royal and became the go-to person in the building site for the installation of Ken’s new invention BOCS (The Box Office Computer System). BOCS went on to become the Industry leader for many years – but not before Karl Sydow (Barbican), Billy Differ (Glasgow Kings Theatre) and I as Chair of the newly formed BOCS user group became very unpopular pushing for improvements in the system so we could have the best possible life day & night as the computer system managers of our respective organisations.
Alongside BOCS another maverick of the computer dark arts, Peter Fuerling, was creating MailBOCS, an integrated database system to enable selective targeting of audiences based on their actual booking history. Now that seems so obvious. Then it was so so new.
Just a few memories:
The backup nightly of the box office took around 2hrs.
Lifting the master terminal over the builders closed gates and through the mud at night with Peter to get the first back up done in the air conditioned computer room was wonderful. Trying to balance a dust free environment and a building site was less fun.
The dyslexic box office manager who programmed all the abbreviations and hot keys – who would have thought JSC would take you into the plans for Jesus Christ Superstar. We never worked out what the Superstar abbreviation might have been.
And the system could not support the marketing segmentation and label printing system and the box office at the same time. So everytime I needed to run the labels for a major mailing I had to start at 10pm and, with luck, I was done by 8am when the box office team came in. So many nights locked in the theatre with just me and the nightwatchman.
Many memories. Over the subsequent years I worked with and for many different systems – I chaired the PASS users group and later went to work for Select Ticketing Systems. I watched Databox grow as an amazing marketing system. Synchro systems kindly donated a system to me when I was at Jermyn Street Theatre. I was GM of the Pleasance at Red61 became a new market leader. And now I try and get my head around the new systems as needed. It has been a fascinating 40 years of learning…for someone who knows absolutely nothing about computers.
And now, as I develop the DipCP as a cloud based training programme, and gain my stripes as a ZJ (zoom dj) for weddings, I am learning a whole heap of new skills. I am delighted to be exploring new toys/tools with Caron Jane Lyon who has been my go-to boffin since we started cloud-based Producers’ Pool. Together we explore how to caption and transcribe sessions with new rival programmes, how to use graphic tablets which might mirror my own crazy flip chart drawing in a class room.
In my teaching of Masters and Diploma creative producing I have always set one research assignment – What might it be like to market the arts in 5 years time ? I encourage each new producer to be apocalyptic in their visions. What if computers failed. What if the internet ceased to be a tool of our trade. How would we market theatre in the future. I am fascinated to see what my first cohort of future creative producers will predict for marketing the arts in 2025.
I’m from the old days. I’ve worked a manual box office with the 34hour year end audit at Bristol Hippodrome where every ticket and ever plan had to be counted and analysed by hand starting 10pm Sat eve at the end of March and hopefully completing by 8am Mon morning. A long weekend, but full of many laughs.
In the end we are theatremakers who know there is a community out there who want our creative experiences. If we end up on a cart going from village to village, so be it. Theatre will survive all government announcements, all computer glitches, and all internet failure. The show will go on. We will make others laugh and cry and think. Maybe this blog will do all three for you.
What a great read – thank you Chris!