There is an underappreciated role in theatre everywhere, that of house manager. The House Manager is the person responsible for the well-being and safety of the audience, artists, and facilities. Most recently the Guthrie’s house manager had to employ that organization’s policies and practices when an audience member had a severe mental health crisis that disrupted that theatre’s return to performance after 20 months of dormancy. From active shooters to medical emergencies to tornadoes to mask enforcement, the house managers have tough jobs. You may not think of tipping them, but you should appreciate them.
Like a flight attendant, it seems as though House Managers’ jobs are to check your ticket and seat you, but the real training is for when things go south and they become your lifeline.
1977 was an amazing year in the history of America. Not only did the Vikings lose their fourth Super Bowl, but Carter became president, Star Wars and Roots were released, Rocky won for Best Picture, and a string of celebrities died: Elvis, Bing, Groucho, Freddie Prinze, and many others. For Minnesotans, on January 1, 1977, the President was Ford, the VP was Rockefeller, our senators were Muriel Humphrey and Wendell Anderson, our Governor was Rudy Perpich, and the Lt. Governor was Alec G. Olson, none of whom had been elected!
Also noteworthy was a string of murders in NYC by “Son of Sam.” People were terrorized and many died. His name was David Berkowitz.
In 1977 Mixed Blood, a whole year old, had a staff of one – me. I was working the box office on Halloween when a call came in from a woman who had just been released from the hospital and wanted to see our show, an Ed Bullins world premiere entitled JoAnne. She lived in St. Paul and needed to know how to get home. Eager to sell a ticket, I offered, “I live in St. Paul. I’ll gladly give you a ride home.” Then I took the reservation…for Berkowitz!
When she arrived, I wished I hadn’t paid such attention to my parents’ teaching “don’t judge a book by its cover.” She was a sight. At show’s end, we piled into my 1961 Falcon with three-on-the-tree and she told me she needed to go to a haunted house in the Masonic Temple in downtown St. Paul. Realizing I was the last one seen with this troubled woman, who had been released from the psychiatric ward of the hospital, I obeyed. I took her to the Masonic Temple, waited while she and people half her size went through the haunted house, and drove her to her boarding house on Summit Avenue. She insisted I walk her in, which I did, and fled when the door to her unit opened to reveal a hoarder’s domain, replete with rats.
I raced to Taco Bell and called my long-time (and still) friend Steve Yoakam from the payphone, who met me and I relayed the wild story. (He’d been in the show that night and had seen her.)
Fast forward to 2003. The security practices in the Hennepin County Government Center changed forever when a defendant and her attorney were gunned down by the plaintiff before a hearing. That plaintiff – the same Susan Berkovitz – murdered her cousin, who was executor of her father’s estate, and badly injured her attorney in the restroom. Susan is serving a life sentence. People are now safer when they go to trial. And I make sure that house managers are prepared for the many and disparate events that can change the life of a theatre and its inhabitants. I may have dodged a bullet on Halloween of ’77, but I’ve prepared many house managers since then to anticipate the myriad types of literal and figurative bullets that confront them.
– Jack Reuler