I was a seat-filler at Barbra Streisand's Tampa concert. Here's what it was like
The last thing I expected to do Wednesday night was count the pores on Barbra Streisand's face.
Just kidding. There are no pores. She's flawless. But for just a few minutes, some lucky friends and I did get that close.
Of course, I'd wanted to go to her show at Tampa's Amalie Arena. It was the first and -- you never know -- maybe last show she'll ever do here. She's an absolute legend who rarely tours. But with tickets starting at $99 and going into four figures, it wasn't realistic. I spent the morning coordinating coverage of the event with our pop music/culture critic, Jay Cridlin, and sighed at the experience he would surely have.
Then, I got this group G-chat from a friend.
"Would y'all like to be seat fillers at Barbra tonight?"
I blinked a few times. Seat filler? At BARBRA? What did this even mean? We here in the arts and entertainment side of the newsroom had never really heard of a local concert having seat fillers.
Jay Cridlin asked the Amalie about this. According to arena spokeswoman Angela Lanza, having seat-fillers has not happened for a concert there, but they do it sometimes for WWE, so the crowds always look full on TV. Related: Next goal in life is to be a seat filler for WWE.
We wondered if perhaps Barbra was filming the concert for a DVD or a TV special. Lanza told us Streisand was not filming the Tampa show, but was filming her show in Miami on Monday. We wondered if this was a dry run for that taping. The other seat fillers in the crowd also quietly wondered if Barbra's notorious stage fright played a role in this oddity. But Amalie reps said the seat fillers were a venue decision, and that it may be something they do for similar black tie style shows in the future (think Andrea Bocelli, Jay says, not Five Finger Death Punch).
My friend got an email from a friend, who had gotten an email from the marketing department at Amalie Arena. The department was surveying broadly for people to fill up seats left empty by latecomers in the first 10 rows (!!!!!!!!!). The Amalie was reaching out to local businesses, people who knew people. The payment was getting to watch the concert. There were some rules to the agreement:
You had to arrive by 5:45 p.m. You had to dress nicely, no jeans or flip flops. You had to follow along and go where you were asked.
For the record, you don't say "no" to this kind of offer, unless you want to live in regret for the rest of your days. You make it happen. And so, we did. Since there was no time to go home and change, I ran into a St. Petersburg boutique and bought a little black dress. We wolfed drive-through food in the car, trying to make it through rush hour traffic for the 5:45 p.m. arrival time.
Once we got there, we were greeted by a man with a clipboard, who checked off our names and gave us a wristband. We were ushered into an area the Amalie sometimes uses as a parent waiting room when they have teen crazy concerts, like Justin Bieber.
We sat until 6:30 p.m., mingling, murmuring with excitement. There were several dozen seat fillers, all unable to believe this insane luck.
Some representatives came out and gave us the rules. We would get a ticket to the show, no matter what. If we were asked to fill a seat up front, we were to go to it. If someone showed up to claim the seat, we were politely and quickly to get up and go back to our assigned seats. If no one ever came? Well, lucky you.
They distributed the assigned tickets.
That's when we died.
The seats we would be forced to return to were in row 29 on the floor. Hardly a poor view!
We got to row 29 by 7:30 p.m. and thought, if we never get moved we'd be more than happy. But about 8:15 p.m., right as the lights were dimming, the folks in charge started tapping us and releasing us to to the front rows. I got split off from my friends and ushered into the first row of the 100 section, at the side of the stage.
Erin Null, a 29-year-old digital media coordinator from Ruth Eckerd Hall, was the seat filler next to me. We looked at each other with a deer in headlights expression, trying to explain to the ladies next to us who were waiting on the rest of their party to arrive that we were temporary guests. They wondered, why? Would Barbra be mad if she saw an empty seat? We gave her one of these: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
In the aisle, a woman showed a ticket to the ushers. There were people in her seats. She had paid too much for these tickets and wasn't leaving.
"I waited my whole life for this!" she said.
Erin and I looked at each other nervously. This woman had seats 5 and 6, and we were in 3 and 4.
"This is stressful," Erin said. I agreed, although it actually seemed to be going fairly smoothly around us.
Someone from the tour came over and calmly retrieved the seat fillers next to us in 5 and 6. The woman and her date slid into their seats just as Streisand emerged in a sparkling black jumpsuit and starting singing The Way We Were. Cameras panned over the crowd, full and lush, every seat taken, fans screaming wildly. I saw the faces of other seat fillers standing and clapping as the cameras washed over them.
It was one of those surreal moments when you question everything. Is anything really real? We always knew shows like the Academy Awards used seat fillers (by the way, new life goal second only to WWE). But other concerts, shows, live events, sporting events, fashion shows -- were they filled with smiling people who didn't really have tickets, too? What was life? Were were in The Truman Show?
The glory was short-lived for us. After the first song, our seat holders arrived and Erin and I headed back to row 29. It was kind of a relief, to be honest, to be settled.
One friend in our group found herself in the fourth row on an end seat, next to a gentleman whose partner was not able to make it at the last minute. She got to watch the whole show there. She sang Don't Rain on My Parade at the top of her lungs and, she says, Streisand made eye contact with her said exclaimed, "SING WITH ME!"
She texted us: "This is my home now."
At intermission, it was a compare-notes frenzy of who got to stay and who had to go. We talked to another lucky lady who got to see the whole first act from her up-close seat. Back in row 29, she glowed, almost crying. We high fived. Erin Null's mother also got to stick around in the front and came back for the encores. By now, she had switched from being stressed to being overjoyed. Everyone had.
As Barbra sang, sometimes it's weird Being Alive.