The mini flashlight is a mega responsibility. New ushers wield it like a lightsaber, beaming a tiny spotlight on faces, walls, seats.
George Powell showed me the way. Aim at the floor while helping guests to seats, he said, and cover the beam to control the light with your free hand. Advanced ushers can do it one-handed.
With my flashlight, I was official. I’d come to the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa to be a guest usher on opening night for Cats, an absolute fever dream of a feline cabaret.
But this was not about Cats. This was about the theater’s significant usher shortage. Before the pandemic, volunteer ushers numbered around 730. Now, it’s down to 500.
When the theater reopened to limited performances in October 2020, some ushers didn’t return. Some had died. Some still don’t feel ready to be in groups. And about 50 ushers declined to get the COVID-19 vaccine or divulge their status, which violates Straz policies.
“Boy, that hurt,” said Deborah Ferree. “Most of these ushers have become friends. I hate having to cut people.”
Ferree is the Straz’s guest services manager, which means she does… a lot. Way more than I can tell you. She is an actual rocket scientist, a retired engineer with the Air Force. Now, her duties include running the very usher program where she got her start.
“I became a volunteer because I didn’t know if I liked people,” she said, deadpan. “I was behind so many doors in my career.”
She never followed the script, instead testing her own colloquialisms on guests. “Hey, come on down, here’s my first contestant on The Price is Right!” I asked if she ended up liking people.
“I think I do,” she said. “People are OK.”
Ferree, the most relatable person in the world, paired me with Powell. He and his wife, Susan Powell, have volunteered at more than 1,000 shows over 12 years. Volunteers commit to at least two shows a month. The Powells, retired teachers, usually work eight.
On Tuesday, 66 ushers reported as 1,900 ticket holders poured in for Cats. Ferree can breathe when she has 65. She was looking ahead a few days, when only 39 had signed up for a weekend show.
Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater and the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg are not down volunteers. It’s worth noting that the footprint of the Straz is expansive. Five theaters could be active on any night with everything from student ballet to Paw Patrol Live! to, you know...
“It wasn’t bad to see Hamilton seven times,” said usher Ellen Rasmussen.
Ushering has perks including discounts on Straz food and tickets. But the biggest perk is seeing free shows. Everyone wants Jerry Seinfeld, she said, but someone has to go next door to the opera. Ferree puts that puzzle together.
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New ushers take a three-hour class that includes a backstage tour. They learn how to interact with guests and find seats. They get uniforms. There is sensitive stuff, too, like what to do in an emergency. And they promise not to violate the magic by posting insider photos.
An hour before showtime Tuesday, house manager Ralph Porzio rallied the crew, explaining what a “Jellicle cat” is, if that’s possible. The next part was crucial. Each production has its own rules for late entry, and ushers have to enforce them. Sometimes, it’s fairly relaxed. Not so with Cats.
“There is a hold,” Porzio said. “You’re not going to like this. It’s 15 minutes. It’s a hard hold.”
The ushers gasped in unison. They would be the bad guy for folks who lollygagged in the wine line or got stuck in traffic. Porzio would flash house lights during The Old Gumbie Cat song, signaling latecomers could enter.
It was time to work, which Powell was intent on making me do. No mollycoddling! He had me keep track of wheelchairs and canes, which felt kind of big for a fake usher, but I wasn’t about to argue with him.
We stood at busy Orchestra Door Three, near a disability ramp. Andrew Pendergast, who had just proposed to his girlfriend now volunteering across the theater (she said yes!), was our third usher. Pendergast is 28. Powell is 73. There’s a stereotype of ushers being elderly, but in recent years, they have skewed younger.
Powell reminded me to be friendly. Friendliness above all! You can tell anyone anything if you’re friendly!
And they have to. Ushers ask people to pull masks up. They tell people not to bring drinks in. They help those who have imbibed too much. They keep light out of the performance when someone goes to the bathroom.
Powell, of course, handled our latecomers flawlessly. Then we watched, and that was extremely cool. It was a lot of standing, yes. On nights with open seats, ushers can trade off sitting. But I stood the whole time because it felt... usherly.
What struck me most was seeing the theater through new eyes. I have been to the Straz dozens of times but never knew there was a viewing room for crying kids and people with special needs. I’d never noticed the conductor on a screen above the audience. I’d never considered what could go wrong without ushers.
Grizzabella the Glamour Cat sang Memory and everyone burst into applause, including the ushers. After a debriefing, they walked out together, crossing to the parking garage with help from an officer.
“You all made it happen!” the officer said. Yeah. We did. And that deserves an ovation.
To read my scientific explanation of the musical Cats, sign up for my free weekly newsletter, Stephinitely.