“Hey, send me the link to your blog,” said Allen McCallum one day. Allen is front of house manager here at Strathmore, the performing arts center and concert hall where I work. I sent him the link and had a brilliant idea – would Allen allow me to interview him? He spent many years as the front of house manager at the Meyerhoff, the home base of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and now at Strathmore he works not only with BSO but with any number of artists.
I’m excited about this interview because I think people don’t tend to think about the behind the scenes machinations of symphonies the way they might a rock concert. I grilled Allen about the inner workings, and here’s what he had to tell me. Read on to find out about customer service, chicken McNuggets, symphonic intermarriage, where to tuck your coat under your seat, and more…
Jenn German: Thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed!
Allen McCallum: It’s my pleasure.
JG: When did you first start working – was the Meyerhoff the first of that sort of job?
AM: When I was twelve my sister worked in the summer in the BSO ticket office at the Meyerhoff. During the summer they have concerts at Oregon Ridge, so when she was working there, I went. And after about a year and a half of being there they finally said, “You’re here all the time. Why don’t you just work?”
So at thirteen I started working for the BSO part time out at Oregon Ridge. It’s a nature park where they do the outdoor concerts with fireworks during the summers, and they don’t do it this way now but they used to park the musicians in the back section along with special needs patrons, and there was a little road that allowed access. So I worked on that road essentially either allowing access to the musicians or taking the money for special needs patrons to the booth for tickets – they called me the troll of the road for awhile – and then I started working full time when I got into college, so I guess nineteen or twenty I started working part-time first and then full-time in the ticket office.
I did that for seven and a half years. I originally that it was going to be, y’know, a little part time job, and seven and a half years later I came out and went on to become the front of house manager at the Meyerhoff; I did that for five and a half years. So at forty I can honestly tell you almost two-thirds of my life I’ve worked, in one form or another, for nonprofit arts.
JG: Did you go to any sort of school to augment this experience, or did you just sort of soak in all the knowledge as you went?
AM: Ironically, I went to college for mass communications and journalism, so I guess what I would tell you is that everything I know I’ve learned through experience, doing the job.
JG: So when you were at the Meyerhoff, they mostly, with some exceptions, just hosted the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, correct?
AM: BSO owns the Meyerhoff, so yes, it is the house primarily for orchestra concerts. They have various series from celebrity to favorites to pops, so they provide different genres of style for what you’re looking for. But there was a healthy number of rentals, money-making opportunities – we had a whole week every year where we had graduations, so we probably did something like six graduations in seven days, or more on occasion. There were other things that happened there, but the primary function – I’d say probably two thirds of what happened when I was there – was about the BSO.
JG: So what did the symphony need from you?
AM: Like I said, I served in a few different capacities. I spent a lot of time in the ticket office – seven and a half years in there – I learned about a lot of things. Customer service, our patrons, the rhythm of the orchestra season. I didn’t have quite as much experience with the musicians themselves until I become house manager, but figuring out how things happen, why they happen, what people need – my background in patron service came dramatically out of that. Learning to be patient – learning to listen to people – and helping people find what it is they’re looking for out of the concert season.
JG: And what are they looking for?
AM: The glorious thing about people is that everyone’s an individual. You have the person that absolutely loves the piano and must be on the orchestra on the left-hand side, or maybe on the first balcony on the left side so they can see every movement a pianist makes from his hands. There’s the person who wants to be so close they can feel the rhythm of the music running through their body; not just experience it through their ears. There are people that, for special needs purposes, enjoy the experience, want to be amongst people, but are concerned about the opportunity to have access that makes sense for them as opposed to the best viewing space. Some people just want to go and be amongst people and they like the environment.
The weirdest thing I ever heard – maybe the most interesting – during a subscription season, a gentleman called. He had seats in the highest balcony in the last row on the aisle. And I was taking his subscription one year and he said, “Do you know why I like this seat?” And I said, “No sir, I can’t say I do.” And he said, “Because there’s a little space right under the seat where I can put my coat. I don’t have to check it and it makes me really happy.” Those were his exact words. And I’ll never forget it! I just said, “Okay! I’m glad we have something that can provide what you’re looking for.” So everybody has a thing.
People ask me all the time, both when I was at the Meyerhoff and now at Strathmore, what are the best seats? And I honestly say to them, “You could ask a hundred different people and they’d tell you a hundred different things.” For some people it’s the music; for some people it’s the absolute one thing – we had a patron complain that they couldn’t hear the second chair violinist during a piece of music from the balcony, and he wanted to hear that the way he heard it on his CD. Well, the live experience doesn’t always translate that way, but everybody’s looking for something, and it’s just a matter of helping them find their way to it in the best possible way we can.
JG: Are you generally actively trying to pursue that information from everyone you hit, or is it something that you wait for people to volunteer?
AM: That’s a great question – I would say that when you’re in the ticket office, you have to actively seek that out from people, because much of what happens at the ticket office happens before they get into the experience. From what I do now, in the front of house, it’s hard to extract that from everybody when you don’t come in contact with everyone. But I would say as opposed to seeking it out in the ticket office, when you’re in the front of house, it’s about listening to people when they’re trying to tell you. They’ve already set up their experience before they get here, so if there’s something either really good or problematic that they need either to let us know about or have us solve, then it’s about listening, interpreting what they’re saying, and finding what the best option is to make what they want possibly if we can.
JG: Now when you became house manager you had a new, split experience I would imagine, where in addition to having to worry about customer service at the front, you’re also, I guess working with musician service? Trying to find that happy medium?
AM: When I was at the Meyerhoff, I was the front of house manager, and I also ran security. So in terms of security, probably the most interaction I’ve had with an orchestra came from that aspect, in terms of people getting in and out of spaces, something went missing, just the overall security of their property and their person – that is probably where I had the most contact with them. That in itself is a balance, because as a customer service manager you’re trying to make things as accessible and open to people, and with security, the flip side of that is that you’re often trying to maintain a level of effectiveness that some people may seem as closed. There has to be some level of protection, and that means putting up barriers in some situation. So yeah, it’s a little bit of dichotomy.
In terms of the orchestra, most of the time it was about them feeling like… obviously their instruments are incredibly valuable, often we had people coming through for them, and while the individual musician may be comfortable with those people, someone else in the orchestra might not have been. We always just wanted to know who people were. On the occasion when a musician was no longer with the orchestra, sometimes it was a matter of making that transition as smooth for them possible. So there were several aspects that were very different on the back end as opposed to what I did out in front of house.
JG: I don’t know how comfortable you’d be naming any particular names – probably not very – but do you have any anonymous interesting stories of what musicians may have needed?
Or name names! That’s fine!
AM: Let me tell you, at some point in the future I will have a great tell-all book that I’ll publish, but that’s forty years down the road.
JG: As a jumping off point: I noticed once that someone from programming had put a fruit pie in the fridge with a sign that said “This is for programming; don’t eat,” which means that there must have been some musician or performer who wanted a fruit pie according to their rider. And it occurred to me that every single place this person goes, they are immediately presented with a pie! Everywhere they go!
AM: I can tell you that – this was not an orchestra musician, but there was a young artist, probably fifteen years ago, that insisted that wherever they went they had twenty-piece McDonald’s chicken McNuggets there. This artist was probably fifteen at the time, so that was in the rider.
I’ve heard everything from an artist not wanting any raw or cooked meat in the facility while they were there. M&Ms, that kind of thing. In terms of orchestra musicians, I guess some soloist that have that kind of thing sometimes, but usually it’s more about parking, it’s about having access at certain times to the building at certain times of the day. They want to rehearse, they may have a student that they want to give the experience to during a rehearsal. It’s about the balance between feeling like they have access to the space and can feel comfortable there, while at the same time feeling like the space is maintained so that while they are there – and for that matter when they’re not – they feel like they’re walking into a safe environment.
JG: Is there anything that symphony people ask for that almost no one else every asks for?
AM: Wow. Um, it’s a hard question to answer. I will tell you that relationships inside an orchestra can be rather… interesting, in the sense that… I feel like I can say this because my mom is a classical trained musician. There’s a quirkiness to an orchestra musician, just in the sense that if you spent the kind of time pounding away at your instrument through your entire childhood and your developmental years that make you the world renowned artist that they all are – there are elements of social understanding that sometimes get missed. And I’m not saying this about everyone! I’m saying for some of them, social interaction can be an interesting thing.
So having a hundred people with that same experience, together, all the time, there tends to be a very familial kind of relationship that comes there. As a result, you sometimes see relationships pass from one set of orchestra members to another. So you see relationships that end in one place and will start in another, and when that happens, it can get rather interesting in terms of how the community responds to it.
So if there’s anything I would say is pretty unique to an orchestra itself it’s the energy and relationships tend to feed off one another. And everybody sort of knows – there’s a grapevine, but it’s a very small, connected, internal grapevine, and sometimes someone needs to step in when that gets a little intense.
JG: And is that you?
AM: When I was security manager, there were a few times when I had to do that, yes.
JG: And how did that go?
AM: Most of the time it was fine! There was an occasion or two where, y’know, some other things had to happen. But most of the time it was fine. People are adults. But whenever there’s emotion involved in relationships it can be complicated. I’ll just say sometimes it can be complicated, but ultimately I find that adults will be adults and handle things in an adult fashion.
JG: Do you find this is generally a romantic relationship, or more of an annoying sibling sort of thing…?
AM: It can be both. It can be either. Probably the most interesting things are when someone gets divorced in the orchestra, and then one of the spouses marries someone else in the orchestra.
AM: You can imagine there might be some emotion involved in that. But absolutely – there are sibling rivalries, and it’s not so different from an environment. You just sort of handle differently – you have the class clown –
JG: It’s school!
AM: It is! You have the disciplinarian, you have the people that are trying to get away with as much as they can, but mostly the most impressive thing is when it’s game time, and people are expected to perform, and return to what they’re there for the always, always show up to do that.
JG: Being as you are on the outside and observing all of these interrelationships and entanglements, can you tell whether or not it’s going to be a good performance?
AM: I would tell you that in terms of orchestra performance it’s always a good performance. And no, I can’t tell you that I always know everything that’s going on. What I would tell you is that there were times when another artist, often with pops, would come in, and you could get a strong sense of how the orchestra responded to them. And in that sense, for some of the less conventional orchestra performances, probably more along the lines of pops, you could sometimes sense it was going to be an interesting performance in one way or another. But when you’re talking about straight classical experiences, I don’t think I could ever get a read on that per se, but yes, there were times when performers that came in to work with an orchestra, usually outside of the classical realm, you could get a sense that interesting things were going to happen.
JG: Now you were there when Marin Alsop took over, right?
AM: She was coming in as I was going, but yes, I was there at the beginning.
JG: Everyone currently loves her and thinks she’s the best thing ever, but I understand at the very beginning there was some resistance? A little.
AM: I seem to remember hearing something about resistance, yes.
JG: A little bit.
AM: Y’know, the orchestra had gone from David Zinman to Yuri Temirkanov… The transition’s pretty interesting. When I was in the ticket office, David Zinman was the conductor. And then as I moved from the ticket office to the front of house, Maestro Temirkanov was essentially taking over. So I feel sort of akin to him because almost the entire time I was at the front of house at the Meyerhoff he was there. We got introduced, actually, to the board at the same meeting. He always gave me a hearty handshake when he would see me because it was sort of a bonding moment.
And then right as I was about to leave Maestra Alsop was coming in. There were lots of things going on at the time – there were contract negotiations, the orchestra was going through some change, and they were bringing in a new meastra. And all of those things – I don’t think there was any one thing. I think it was sort of a perfect storm moment where a lot of things were happening and it gave rise to high emotion, and I think that while she might have been part of it a lot of that was sort of leveled at her feet when there were lots of things swirling that created that kind of angst.
JG: What made you decide to come over to Strathmore as opposed to the Meyerhoff? You weren’t really leaving the BSO behind; you were just sort of adding more things.
AM: Right, right. I’d been at the Meyerhoff thirteen years. Like I said, there were things that were changing. I felt like a lot of people that I’d cut my teeth with – a lot of the organization was changing and I felt like, as a professional, I felt like I’d gained a lot of experience, and I wanted an opportunity to take that somewhere.
I thought that Strathmore was a spectacular-sounding vision. I loved the idea of the Mansion and Strathmore existing there, that patrons were the number one thing, and that they were all about the experience and wanting to find a way to translate that onto a larger scale. I thought it was an opportunity to take what I had learned and fashion something that I thought would make sense, sort of create my own front of house and see how I could make that work. I was thirty-two at the time, I’d spent my entire adult life with the BSO, and I felt like this was an opportunity to take all the things I’d learned and see what I could do on another level. It was probably the hardest decision I ever had to make, but I can say now, almost a decade past it, that it was the right one for me.
JG: And how has it been different?
AM: Strathmore’s a harder building to run for a lot of reasons. It’s different – as you mentioned, the Meyerhoff is predominately for BSO, so essentially you’ll have a three or four night run of the same show, so after the first night you sort of know what you’re expecting from each event. Maybe not the patrons, but in terms of what the event’s going to bring, what you’re looking for. Here at Strathmore, we have a different show virtually every night, with different partners, completely differently audiences, different needs – so we’re reinventing what we do on daily basis within the same structure. So that’s an incredibly different challenge.
At the Meyerhoff there are more seats, but the building lays out in a different way. And I learned very quickly that it’s not how big your building is, it’s how it’s laid out that determines how you want to make some decisions to do things. So we have some different decisions to make here on a regular basis.
We have volunteers who are the most amazing people in the world. I would’ve left long ago if they weren’t here! But volunteers bring different challenges. And the other piece is that because we are close to DC, you have a very diverse group of people that are going to be coming through the building all the time, and that changes your outlook on what you need to provide, because it can be completely different.
At the Meyerhoff, even though different people were coming into pops then, say, your classical series where different things are going to happen, when you have an orchestra show one night and then a rock show the next day, it can be a completely different kind of series the next day, and three completely different sets of audiences, from different walks of life, different perspectives come in. It’s an exciting, vibrant environment, and you have to be prepared for everything. Like I said earlier, the ability to listen, the ability to interpret, and the ability to be patient with people as they’re telling you what they need truly comes into call here on a daily basis.
JG: If someone wanted to be a front of house manager, would you recommend going to a school, or just sort of hopping into a ticket office and working from there?
AM: I didn’t go the school route, so – I know that there are arts programs that can help prepare you for various things. Most of the people that I know that either work in ticket offices or front of house management have gotten the experience from the experience. I certainly think that there are International Association of Venue Managers – there’s an incredible amount of knowledge you can gain from your peers who are doing, if not the exact same thing, certain similar things in different environments; they’ve had similar or different experience that you can come together and gain knowledge from. That was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. You can always gain from education – I would never tell you not to do that – but I’d say that the best education for this environment is really to be in it, to start from the ground floor.
JG: So come volunteer at Strathmore!
AM: Volunteering is a great entrance in. The house manager at the Meyerhoff now was first an usher, then my assistant head usher, then my head usher when I was there. I’ve been gone for about eight years, and she’s been there ever since, and I often say it’s the best hire I ever made. And she worked in a doctor’s office before that. So her experience came through, much like me, the ranks of experiencing concerts, patrons, problems, working them out.
You do not need to be a rocket scientist or a neurosurgeon to do this – I wouldn’t tell anyone that you do – but it has its own set of skills. Patience and listening are the first ones, and then good common sense; street smarts goes a long way here. Not panicking in moments of strife. Whatever’s going to happen, being able to think on the fly and come up with good solutions, and learn from mistakes that you’ve made, and be willing to listen to other peoples’ perspectives come in. Being able to be a consensus builder goes a long way. Hiring people that have diverse experience, who can bring their own abilities to it, I think goes a long way. So I’d not tell you that you need to be a genius, but you need to be someone who is a consensus builder, who can bring people together to create the best possible solutions for things.
JG: Two more quick questions. One: who is the person you were most excited to meet in your many years of shepherding famous people through the doors of your establishment?
AM: Well, I’ll say this – the first thing I’ll tell you is that one of the things you find out very quickly is that you can’t be a fan. You can’t be a fan doing this. I’ll tell you, actually, I worked for a radio station part-time in Baltimore, and I started doing that a little before I took over as house manager at the Meyerhoff, and my job was to get athletes on the air. And probably one of the best things that prepared me for doing what I do is that you couldn’t be a fan while interviewing people. Or at least you had to hide it really well. So I learned to stifle that in advance of doing this, which has helped me immensely.
But to answer your question – I’m an amateur musician; I’m a fan of all music, but particularly sort of acoustic folk and indie music, and I’ve had the opportunity to meet Duncan Sheik, Shawn Colvin. When I was a kid I was a fan of Dukes of Hazzard, and Tom Wopat performed here a couple times, so I had an opportunity to meet him. Stevie Wonder. I’ve walked former first ladies through the building a couple of times. Cal Ripkin. I’ve had some interesting experiences while doing this.
JG: And finally – one thing. Just ONE thing. That is your favorite thing about this job.
JG: That you work with, or just all of them?
AM: I love people. They’re what keep it from being boring every day. The opportunity to work with people makes every day different and new and exciting. They always keep you on your toes. They show me that people at their core are inherently good. I love music and having that exposure every day is a very close second, but the people that you come in contact with – you can’t do this alone, and I feel like there’s a community here and a family experience that exists here that is something very special to me.
JG: You’re very good at being interviewed. You should do it more often.
AM: I’ve done a few in my time, so – thank you!
JG: Thank you!
Thank you so much, Allen! You can find him at Strathmore almost any concert night if you want to tell him how awesome you think he is. Oh, and if you’re interested in volunteering at Strathmore, click here! Edited to add: You can also catch him with his band, E.M. Spencer.