Chicago Music Fest Bum Rushes Paying Audience So It Can Prepare For Fundraiser Dinner

Ravinia, a century-old Chicago summer music festival, is getting hardcore about raising money. This year it sold tickets to a concert performance of songs by composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, sung by Broadway veterans and played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Sondheim is always a big deal for musical theater types, and the event seemed like a home run for both the fans and Ravinia–until the concert ended after 65 minutes with no encores, and the general admission audience was told to leave so that Ravinia could reward their core supporters with a gala dinner.

Offering exclusive perks to donors and supporters is nothing new, of course, but even the Chicago Tribune’s critic Chris Jones was surprised by the abruptly short performance, and by how rudely the paying audience was treated:

When you take away the self-congratulatory speechifying and a slightly delayed curtain, that made for about 65 minutes of show. There were no encores — just some embarrassed bows from the performers and awkward glances from the members of the CSO who clearly understood they’d just upset the people at the back. The show ended a good 15 minutes sooner than the sign at the door. I don’t recall ever seeing a show like this without an encore — or two, or three.

[…]

The issue here was that this was a benefit for the festival — and someone had decided that dinner should be served after the show for those 800 guests. If you were at the benefit, that might have been fine. Often such events feature brief entertainment. But Ravinia also sold most of the show-only seats to the general public — $125 pavilion tickets that were purchased by arts lovers out of their own pockets.

(Prices for the show ranged from general seating at $25 to the $125 pavilion tickets.)

Ravinia responded by saying, “Obviously we can’t start the precedent of giving a refund for a concert that happened, and that got a bad review.” Instead, they’re offering “buy one get one free” tickets for their upcoming concert performance of “Annie Get Your Gun.”

“Sondheim at Ravinia: Anger on the North Shore at truncated birthday celebration” [Chicago Tribune] (Thanks to Steve!)
“Ravinia responds to Sondheim outcry, offering ‘Get Your Gun’ tickets but no refund “ [Chicago Tribune]

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  1. Nighthawke says:

    A local auditorium, (named in the honor of a recently deceased singer) gouged a private school for setting up a projector (two tables and a miserable projector that needed to be retired), and a “clean up fee”, both coming to the total of 2500 bucks. And to top it off, they nick 5 bucks for “parking fees” from every vehicle that comes to the graduation, so they are making a killing. The school moved their graduation ceremonies to a brand new entertainment venue not 15 minutes down the road.

    • Alvis says:

      Um… so? Any connection to this story?

    • Verdant Pine Trees says:

      Pretty crappy. Do you think this is part of a larger trend in theatre management / the more “longhair” performing arts?

      I find it interesting how difficult it is for people on the East Coast, particularly in Boston and New York, to even find a venue to perform in. You absolutely need to pay to play. I’m not talking garage bands; some friends of mine have toured Europe, been on TV, radio, etc. I think it was the NYT that wrote about people using illegal space in Brooklyn and Queens because Manhattan was impossible to break into, even when you would have hundreds or thousands of fans who would come.

    • Ben says:

      Michael Jackson Auditorium?

  2. Zoom says:

    I was one of the “general public” that attended the show, though I only paid $25/seat to sit in the lawn. I was a little surprised that the show only lasted an hour, though we were out of there and rushing to the parking lot before we even realized that the people there for the gala were staying after the show for dinner. I guess if I paid $120 for a seat in the pavilion I would have been pretty miffed about the short length of the show.

  3. nonzenze says:

    I don’t get it. The concert is a concert, they saw the concert, that’s what they paid for. They didn’t pay for 3 encores or the right to site around for 45 minutes on the lawn after the concert was over. If the concert did not meet their expectations, they are free to patronize any number of other musical venues in the Chicagoland area.

    Also, having worked for Ravinia in my teenage years, it was understood that the GA tickets were not a revenue driver. At best they were revenue neutral with the only actual revenue coming from the expensive tickets in the pavilion. So don’t pretend like the GA folks were really the important customers here. Without the donors, Ravinia closes its doors. Then there’s no music for anyone.

    Now, I suppose the Consumerist might not like it if they raised GA prices to the point where it was profitable to cater to their needs, but that’s what would need to happen to change the revenue balance. You get what you pay for. If you want “music for the regular guys” then the regulars guys are going to have to split the bill. I don’t think that’s a workable business model.

    • Mecharine says:

      Or just download the show from youtube.

    • SkokieGuy says:

      Yes, you are right, because the GA people (lawn seating) don’t patronize the expensive concessions to buy food, they are just a burden to the park.

      And think of how much more money Ravinia could make if they sold off a lot of their property, since why even maintain the majority of the park which is used for GA seating? Oh the money to be had!

      An encore is not an entitlement, but a show cut 15 minute less than expected is a reasonable issue to gripe about.

    • banndndc says:

      losing the goodwill of the public for an institution that relies on donations is not a good business model either. the simple fact is that those other tickets do bring in revenue, they may not bring in as much revenue but dont act like they cause a loss.

      • nonzenze says:

        They are revenue neutral. In order to make up operating expenses on just the GA tickets (let alone capital improvement and other major expenses) they would have be $100 lawn and $200 pavilion. Meanwhile, the big donors are putting down $10k per season

        The bills need to be paid. Consumerist is full of fury but curiously lacks a workable model to actually balance the books.

        • MMD says:

          A donor model requires cultivation of future donors. To do that, you have to build goodwill in your audience. Sweeping non-donors out of the door is not a great way to do that. So maybe no one here is proposing an alternative business model, but you’re ignoring a problem that threatens the business model you’re defending here.

          • nonzenze says:

            Future donors don’t sit on the lawn. People that sit on the lawn don’t drop $10k donations. Nuff said.

    • danmac says:

      Yes, yes…and if those scofflaw riff-raff don’t like the bones we throw them, then let them eat cake! Don’t they know that we use their $25 bills to wipe our asses and light our cigars?

    • OnePumpChump says:

      I don’t get it, why would people pass on information about shabby treatment by a concert organization? They can just not patronize it in the future, why do they need to let other people know? Those people can just find out by being treated shabbily themselves!

    • coren says:

      They did pay for a concert that would go 80 minutes though, as theirs ended 15 early.

  4. Wireless Joe says:

    Of course, we had to sweep out the hoi polloi because the ice swan sculptures were starting to drip, and the caviar was getting a little to close to being above 34 degrees. Do you want our major donors eating warm caviar!?!

  5. Mecharine says:

    Why couldn’t they have the benefit in a different, yet close location? This is some exceptionally poor planning.

    • Billy says:

      Or they could have scheduled the gala on an “off” night. They don’t have a performance every night of the year at Ravinia.

  6. JMILLER says:

    I would be the happiest person ever if I got out of 15 extra minutes of Steven Sondheim.

    That being said, I don’t see anything that says you are entitled to X number of minutes and this many encores at any concert. I went to a concert as a teenager where the guitarist got sick on stage (puking) after about 4 songs. The band left the stage, the singer came out and said the show was over, and they apologized. There was no refund or other compensation.
    I also went to see a concert for a headline act that lasted all of an hour. Turned out that was her standard show and I would have to live with it.

    • dolemite says:

      Honestly, if I paid $125 for a concert that lasted 60 minutes, then told to get out so the big spenders can eat…I’d be more than a little pissed.

      • BStu78 says:

        They weren’t told to get out so the donors could eat, they were told to get out because the concert was over.

        Obviously, they handled this spectacularly bad, but I that doesn’t make the complaint really valid, either. The concert described wouldn’t have been cheap to produce and you can’t just do a couple more numbers. That would have cost thousands in rehearsal fees.They should have found a better way to present the evening, but 65 minutes of show isn’t really that bad. Had their been an intermission, that could have easily been an hour and a half event. I presume they tried to run it right through to schedule the post-show dinner, and that was obviously a mistake in terms of appearances, but not product.

        • coren says:

          Ending 15 minutes early (which is about a fifth of the performance time if it ran 80 minutes total it was advertised as rather than the 65 it did) is a significant chunk of time.

  7. humphrmi says:

    I think Ravinia’s response was correct – 25 to 125 bucks paid (depending on seat quality) for a concert, and said concert was delivered. If you didn’t like the concert, you have all manner of recourse (including posting the complaint here) but not a refund.

    • TheGhostshark says:

      Your definition of “recourse” is different than mine.

    • Propaniac says:

      “Recourse” doesn’t mean “complaining to no effect.”

      • humphrmi says:

        The effect of “complaining” (I.e. posting bad reviews or complaints in an online forum such as this) is a market force. If enough people agree with you, they will withhold future purchases of tickets from Ravinia, and Ravinia will be forced to change their practices in order to reverse that trend.

  8. tailspin says:

    Poor, poor logistics planning on their part. If I paid $125 for a ticket and the show ended early, I’d be pissed too.

    • nonzenze says:

      Early relative to what? Does the ticket entitle you to a fixed number of minutes?

      • coren says:

        It does if the show is advertised to go on to a certain point (and then doesn’t)

      • CarWontGo says:

        @nonzenze and narcolepticgirl: How short would a concert have to be before you’d say Ravinia didn’t give their paying customers their money’s worth?

        Obviously 65 minutes isn’t short enough. How about 45 minutes? If the concert lasted only 45 minutes, would the audience be justified in being upset?

        How about 25 minutes? How about 15 minutes? If the concert only lasted 15 minutes, would you still ask “Does the ticket entitle you to a fixed number of minutes?”? You must believe that paying admission entitles you to *some* minimum amount of entertainment. If so, I’m guessing your threshold is lower than that of the folks who are upset about 65 minutes.

    • Blueberry Scone says:

      No kiddiing. Granted, I’ve never been to Ravinia, so I don’t know the set-up, but would it have been possible to serve the dinner beforehand, or serve it in another location that was off-limits to the general audience? And surely Ravinia has hosted something like this before – what did they do differently this time?

    • NarcolepticGirl says:

      It didn’t end early. it ended and it was time to go.

      • Rectilinear Propagation says:

        “The show ended a good 15 minutes sooner than the sign at the door.”

        Yeah, it ended early.

  9. Donathius says:

    Of course the free ticket with that BOGO offer will be required to leave halfway through the show…

  10. Ovular says:

    The message is: think twice before patronizing Ravinia on the night of a benefit dinner. If not skip the event altogether, this would at least get me to buy cheaper seats.

  11. Ben says:

    The apologists can make all the excuses they want. But if I’d paid $100 and was treated like this, I would not be returning to this venue.

  12. quirkyrachel says:

    I”m from the Chicago area. Ravinia is a pretty big deal. People plan out their evenings, sometimes coming in from further away. It’s something you don’t just go to, see, and leave. People usually come early and setup their picnics. I’ve seen some over the top things like a candelabra on the short picnic table, but most come with normal picnic stuff.

    Ravinia is an experience type of place. You usually plan to spend 3-4 hours there, otherwise Ravinia knows it wouldn’t be able to draw in people from the entire Chicago area. Or maybe it doesn’t know that.

    Technically, Ravinia didn’t do anything wrong. But it’s pretty bad in a customer service area.

  13. crb042 says:

    so everyone can expect the performance of “Annie Get Your Gun” to be replaced with a performance of “Annie”. Right?

  14. jim says:

    good luck to their following concerts next year.

  15. Rectilinear Propagation says:

    “Obviously we can’t start the precedent of giving a refund for a concert that happened, and that got a bad review.”

    They didn’t complain that the music was bad, they complained because the concert was cut 15 minutes short. That’s not the same thing. A partial refund of the tickets would be the thing to do here, not to offer people a chance to spend more money.

  16. razremytuxbuddy says:

    I made the mistake of traveling 750 miles to see a concert at Ravinia Festival. All I can say is, I will never make that mistake again. That was the most horrible venue I have ever attended. Completely unequipped to give the people who buy their tickets what they paid for. And they couldn’t care less. The place should be bulldozed, and the management put out to pasture.

    This Consumerist story doesn’t surprise me a bit. I’m just glad to see somebody reporting what Ravinia is all about.

  17. dg says:

    This isn’t surprising at all. Ravinia used to be all about the CSO and summertime picnics on the grounds. Then they installed a restaurant and started bringing in traffic destroying acts to rake in cash and irritate the neighbors. When something at Ravinia goes on – traffic around here is an absolute Cluster****….

    And the guy who runs the “festival” is one of those schmucks who is so self-aggrandizing about himself and everything Ravina that you just want to punch him in the face after about 10 seconds…

    Ravina has lost it’s original panache and appeal. It’s become a concert venue with all of the attendant deleterious effects. There’s nothing there that you can’t experience via the magic of your home stereo or iPod…

    I haven’t been to Ravinia for at least 15 years, and I hope never to return… Everyone that feels like they got ripped off should appeal to Ravinia and also go appear in front of the City Council during “Other Business From The Public” so the Council knows just what kind of crap the “Festival” that they support is pulling. Then the next time the “Festival” asks for special consideration for traffic and crowd control, the City can ask themselves if it really benefits the City or makes us all look like assholes…

  18. Alessar says:

    I think 90 minutes is standard minimum length for a concert of this type. If you go to a rock concert, you normally get a 45-60 minute opening act and a 90 to 120 minute main performance. I agree the Ravina people shortchanged the general admission audience with a 65 minute show. It was just crassly handled.

  19. skapig says:

    As long as the performance is delivered, the only recourse that you have is to not support the events in the future. There was no promised duration. It sucks, but that’s the reality. Crap concerts happen a lot. This just happened to be an expensive one.

    • dg says:

      Not necessarily true. By doing something a certain way for a long period of time, an implied contract can be formed. If the typical length was 90 minutes and had been that way for say 20 years, then they cut down to 60 – it could be argued that even w/o a length detailed on the ticket that the customer had a reasonable expectation of 90 minutes.

      How would you feel if you paid $125, went to a venue for a concert and it was 10 minutes? Would you be upset then? How about 20 minutes? 30? 40? What’s the cutoff for an expected time for a concert that you’re paying $125 for? (or even any amount for that matter).

      The best deal I ever got on a concert was seeing Styx at the IL State Fair. $2.00 for tickets. They came out on stage started playing… a few songs into the set, someone runs out on the stage and they stop… people start yelling, etc… The singer then says “Hey STFU – my wife just had a baby!” and they played for the next 3 hours straight! Went and bought some of their CD’s that night…

      Not sure what happened with the Ravinia fiasco, but sounds like it was handled in a poor manner, and I hope they lose a TON of business and donations as a result. Might help to bring those schmucks back down to planet earth…