A little off the top

Seattle's Paramount Theatre and its 143 seats that aren't there.

EVERY TIME an artist plays to a sellout crowd at Seattle's Paramount Theatre, their satisfaction is tempered by one annoying fact—143 of the people enjoying the show haven't paid to do so.

Haven't paid the artist, that is; they've paid the Paramount plenty.

The audience members in question are members and guests of the so- called Paramount Club: an exclusive group who not only get to sit in the best seats in the house—the first three rows of the balcony—but also have free parking, their own private entrance to the theater away from the riffraff, and access to their own private no-host bar.

Depending on how broad a package they sign up for, Paramount Club members can shell out up to $26,000 a season for their reserved seats and privileges. At those prices, it's mostly corporations with tax-deductible entertainment budgets who can afford to buy into the program, although it's open to well-off individuals, too. But whoever's paying, not one nickel of what they're paying goes to the artist they're paying to see.

In the world of professional sports, the public's grown inured to the idea that while they're crammed in down in the bleachers, some lucky corporate types are sitting in air-conditioned comfort high over their heads in skyboxes. But Seattle's own Seattle Theatre Group (STG), which manages the Paramount and Moore theaters, is pioneering the concept in the broader field of general entertainment.

How do artists feel about seeing their talent sold for someone else's benefit? Most of them probably don't even know it's happening. The contract they sign with the Paramount says that the theater has 2,803 seats; the other 143, which bring the building's capacity up to 2,946, are "unmanifested"—they're not even mentioned as existing.

But from time to time an artist does find out about the nearly 5 percent of capacity that the Paramount treats as nonexistent, and some of those times the shit hits the fan. It last hit in late March of this year, when Harry Connick Jr.'s managers found out about the skim and refused to accept it. The Paramount refused to dicker. Connick's managers took him to Benaroya Hall instead.

The Paramount Club started innocently enough as the management's way of saying "thank you" to the wealthy Seattleites who backed the $20,000,000 or so in bank loans it took to save the theater from possible demolition and to renovate its antiquated stage and auditorium. Such backers were (and still are) allowed a certain number of gratis loge seats for any event that plays the hall.

But wealthy backers tend to have wealthy friends, and a legacy facility like the Paramount can't have too many wealthy friends, so the gesture to the folks who backed the theater when the going was rough soon was extended to other "benefactors"—i.e., anyone willing to pay a premium price for premium seating and privileges to one or another of the Paramount's many subscription series.

CONNICK'S PULLOUT didn't faze the Paramount management. In fact, they've opened up the club to an even wider membership. Last month, a widely circulated e-mail invited anyone who was thinking about attending an upcoming Elvis Costello concert or Steven Wright stand-up show to join the club for one night only, for about a $30 premium over the scheduled price of tickets—as always, with none of the proceeds going to the performers.

When the Paramount management justifies its club policy, the artists don't even get mentioned. Josh LaBelle, executive director of Seattle Theatre Group, puts forward two basic defenses.

The first boils down to "Everybody does it." In Seattle, "everybody" boils down to KeyArena, which leases 70 or so 16-seat suites on an annual basis. Though the main advantage at KeyArena is comfortable access to all Sonics games, suite holders can still, without paying extra, turn over their facility to 16 friends of their children for a Weezer concert if they like. Benaroya Hall has no club seats; neither does STG's own Moore Theatre. And none are (so far) envisioned for the Seattle Center's new opera house—McCaw Hall—either.

LaBelle's other defense is simple need. "We cover 80 percent of our operating costs through earned income, which is remarkable for a nonprofit organization, especially one operating in a high-maintenance historic facility. The income we receive from the club seats is crucial to our continuing in business."

Maybe so, but as Harry Connick manager Wayne Sharp says: "People go to see the artist, they don't go to see the building."


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