Back in 1987, the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center opened for its first season. Barbara Brooks and her lifelong best friend Sharyn Brookins took seats in row HH — fewer than a dozen rows behind the orchestra — for the hall's first Broadway series.
They were elementary school teachers. The $110 to $166 for five shows was a splurge. Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats took the stage, and they were in love.
"When they came dancing up the aisles from the rear," Brooks said, "it was just incredible."
Over the years, as the venue became the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, they kept their seats. They saw a roller rink for Starlight Express and the color-drenched Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. They danced to the Gloria Estefan story On Your Feet! and wept with the music of Carole King in Beautiful.
They kept their seats through recessions, frozen salaries, a real estate crash and retirement's fixed incomes. They brought on more educator friends and now have a group of 15 that meets on Tuesday nights when a show opens.
So Brooks, 71, was stunned to get a letter this month from the Straz informing her that the grandfathering was coming to an end. She'd have to pay $750 on top of the nearly $700 for her season tickets just to keep her usual seat.
Subscribers are allowed to choose seats at the start of the season. New subscribers can pick from what's available, with a price point this year of $301 to $1,639, depending on the seat location and time of show. Returning subscribers can choose to keep the seats they had in previous years.
A number of long-time subscribers are now crying foul over being asked to pay more to keep the seats they've sat in for decades.
Alan M. Feldman, a 71-year-old portrait photographer from Apollo Beach, and his wife, Melanie, paid $696 each to see eight shows this year, including the much-lauded Hamilton. They've had the same seats in Row DD for 31 years, Feldman said, and became close friends with patrons who have sat around them.
"It felt like blackmail," Feldman said. "They call it a donation."
The "donation" puts subscribers in the Straz's Broadway Circle. The policy has been in place since 2006, said Straz Center spokesman Paul Bilyeu. Any new subscribers have had to tack on an additional $750 donation for a seat in rows DD through J, the fourth through the 18th rows of Morsani Hall.
At this point, about 57 percent of the hall's subscribers in the Broadway Circle are making that donation, said Bilyeu, so the change affects the remaining 43 percent.
Other halls have similar policies, Bilyeu noted, like the Tennessee Performing Arts Center ($500-$2,500), The Bushnell in Hartford, Conn., ($750 and up) and the Playhouse Square in Cleveland ($600-$1,199).
They, like the Straz, offer donor benefits such as the chance to buy tickets before they go on sale to the public and an invitation to the Straz's annual Broadway Season Kick-Off Party.
"We aren't taking away their subscription," Bilyeu said. "We are very happy to help them find the best seats for their experience. I know people get very attached to their seats, but what's happened is it's really become an issue of equity. We have a number of people supporting the center as donors sitting next to people who don't."
Brookins, 72, was teaching at Sanders Elementary in Land 'O Lakes when she first became a Broadway subscriber in 1987. When the donation policy went into effect, she was happy long-time loyalists were grandfathered.
"Just getting the ticket is costly for us. We are not the elite, so they appreciated our loyalty. I think it's disrespectful to do this to us after all these years."
And she's not buying the notion that it's unfair to those paying more.
"When they got those seats, they knew about the $750 and they chose to do it. That's different than coming back and making us pay more after the fact."
Brookins, who keeps the books and orders tickets for her group, said some are going to move farther back to avoid the fee. But she and the Feldmans say they are not likely to renew their subscriptions out of principle.
Feldman said he could afford to stay in the Broadway Circle, "but to do that to people who have supported you that many years, why?
"My wife says, 'Why don't they just wait for us to die?' We are all in our 70s. Then sell it to somebody else."
Brookins doesn't expect any of her group to pony up the $750. Some will change seats, others will give them up altogether, and she expects to seek out individual tickets to shows she likes.
"There are other venues or individual tickets. I'll just make changes," Brookins said. "But the sad thing is, my group will disband."