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Published: Sunday, 11/20/2005

The best seat in the house

BY ANN WEBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Stranahan Executive Director Ward Whiting sits in the balcony. Stranahan Executive Director Ward Whiting sits in the balcony.
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Location, location, location.

It matters in the real estate of theaters and concert halls just as it does in the bricks-and-mortar world. No one wants to spend good money on a place in the slums where the view of the stage is obscured, the sound is mushy or dry, or you have to swivel your head as though you're watching a tennis match.

Sit too close to the stage when someone like the watermelon-smashing comedian Gallagher is performing and you'll have to wear a raincoat and goggles. Sit too far back and you'll miss the facial expressions, subtle body language, and sense of intimacy you experience up-close at a live show.

Next time you find yourself scanning a seating chart for the best available vantage point, keep in mind the following advice from people who run entertainment venues in the area - and who, by the way, like to say there are no bad seats in their house.

There is no "best seat," said Ward Whiting, executive director of the 2,424-seat Stranahan Theater. "It's very subjective."

Generally, however, "People love to be down close," Whiting said. "Season ticket-holders want to be in the first 10 rows on the floor and the first four rows of the balcony, all the way across."

Being in the first two or three rows on the floor is ideal if you're there to hear a speaker, singer, or pianist. "The closer the better," advised Whiting.

Not so for theatrical presentations that span the 60-foot-wide proscenium, "You want to sit back far enough to see the whole stage - in our theater, four to five rows back and further," he said.

You'll pay more to sit closer to the stage, Whiting continued. The most expensive seats are always the ones down front, he said, noting that promoters set the prices for shows at the Stranahan.

There's a lot of demand for seats in the first four rows - the VIP area - at the Ritz Theatre in Tiffin, said Bruce Hannam, marketing manager. "Typically, if there's an artist that has a fan base or a following they want to be as close as possible," he said. "We charge a premium for those seats."

At one recent show, VIP area tickets cost $10 more than those in the "A" section behind it. Generally, the price is 10 percent to 15 percent higher, Hannam said.

But people are willing to pay more for a spot where they can make eye contact with their favorite artist, or be serenaded, or be picked on by a comedian. Generally those are the people who get invited to go up on stage.

No season tickets are sold in the VIP area of the 1,260-seat theater, Hannam said. Season tickets are located in row five and beyond.

Hannam said he sat in the front row of the VIP section at the "My Sinatra" show by singer Cary Hoffman in September. "There is not a better perspective to see a live performance," he said. "That is where I want to be."

The Ritz sells the majority of its tickets over the phone, he said, with most people asking for the closest seats available in the center or on an aisle. As center seats fill up toward the back, patrons will opt for side seats closer to the stage, sacrificing a straight-on view for proximity.

The loge area - at the Ritz, the first three rows in the balcony - also is very popular, Hannam said. "People who like to sit up there really have an affinity for it. Some people specifically ask what is available in the loge."

"The balcony is a really neat place to watch a show. A lot of people believe the acoustics are best in the loge," he continued.

Others believe that the loudest place to be is down in front - a misconception, Hannam said, unless a show brings in its own amps and sets them up on stage.

"Actually, the loudest place is about halfway back on the lower level," he said, although "the house sound system is set up so there aren't too many hot spots. It's set up to fill the house. The theater is very acoustically friendly. You don't need a lot of volume to get the best mix."

Dale Vivirito, executive director of the Valentine Theatre in downtown Toledo, said he sat in every one of its 901 seats to make sure each was installed properly during the building's $28 million renovation.

The rake of the floor - the rise from front to back - was reconfigured in every area of the theater to insure that patrons' views wouldn't be blocked by those sitting in front of them, he said. The rows in the back of the theater and balcony were built up additionally to offer unobstructed views.

Acoustically, Vivirito said, architect Charles H. Stark III improved sound in the hall by designing an open ceiling, a wood-covered convex surface on the first balcony, wood on the back of seats, and other measures.

He said the seats that are snapped up first are the box seats along the sides of the theater, perhaps because they still carry a status that dates to the 17th and 18th centuries when they were occupied by royalty and prosperous merchants.

"Would it be my choice? No, because they're on the sides. I like to see things fairly frontally," Vivirito said. He prefers the center - toward the front for a musical, up in the balcony for dance so he can see the choreography.

At the cozy, 206-seat Toledo Repertoire Theater on 10th Street, all the seats are the same price. Walk in and choose one.

"People like to sit in the fifth or sixth row," said Gloria Moulopoulos, artistic director. "I personally like the seats in the first row behind the main section."

She said she likes the leg room provided by the wide aisle that separates the front and back seating sections of the theater. She likes the view, too: far enough back to get a nice panorama of the stage, but not so far away that you feel detached from the action.

"To me, you lose a little bit of the magic when you're too close, but it depends on the production. Some productions pull you in and engage the audience and others don't," she said.

The nearly 80-year-old Rep, built long before the Americans with Disabilities Act, struggles to accommodate patrons who have disabilities that make it difficult or impossible to climb stairs and navigate through rows of seats. "We're doing our darnedest," Moulopoulos said. "It's so expensive to put an elevator in, so we're looking at getting a chair lift."

Seating for people with mobility challenges is available but limited in other venues. The Stranahan and the Ritz, for example, have areas where seats can be removed to make space for wheelchairs, or where the side arm of a chair can be taken off so the patron can be transferred into the seat.

The Valentine, which has an elevator, has places on the main floor and balcony for wheelchairs. The Peristyle at the Toledo Museum of Art, which also has an elevator, has spots on the main floor and upper rim where wheelchairs can be accommodated, according to Connie Calmes Szakovitz, marketing manager for the Toledo Symphony.

The symphony presents its Peristyle Series, Classics Series, and Family Series at the elegant, 1,710-seat Peristyle, while the Pops Series takes place at the Stranahan, the Chamber Series at the Toledo Club, and Mozart & More at the Franciscan Theatre & Conference Center of Lourdes College.

If you're attending your first concert in the Peristyle and you could buy a ticket anywhere, go for raised sections "D" or "E" at the back of the house, at the center and left of center in the horseshoe that extends from the sides of the stage and surrounds the floor seats, Calmes Szakovitz recommended.

Those sections are the most expensive tickets in the Classics Series: $46 to $48, compared with $31 to $33 on the floor, where the seats in the center and left side of the middle rows are also popular.

From those center and left seats, the audience can see a pianist's fingers on the keyboard, Calmes Szakovitz pointed out. That's why seats in the raised section "F" on the left side cost $3 more than those in the raised section "B" directly across the horseshoe, on the right side.

Calmes Szakovitz's favorite seat in the Peristyle is in the raised sections. "I feel like I'm getting the full effect - the music, the visual ... so, it's kind of a complete seat for me," she said. From that perspective she's also able to see the instruments and musicians' hands above their music stands.

Yet floor seats have their appeal, including lots of leg room and proximity to the stage. Some elderly patrons prefer a place on the floor because there is no center railing to hold while climbing up to the elevated seats, Calmes Szakovitz said.

And although she thinks the acoustics are fairly even throughout the Peristyle, she said some people say the center section of the main floor is the best place to be.

Depending on the type of performance, some of the least expensive seats in the Peristyle - two rows of free-standing chairs along the upper rim of the bowl - may offer a better view than those in the more expensive seats that butt up against the wall adjoining the stage, Calmes Szakovitz said. A recital at center stage won't be obstructed, but if the full orchestra is performing, the view from the edge seats isn't ideal.

In a movie theater, some people love the center so the screen is in balance, some favor the back row, others grab a seat in the first two to three rows so their entire field of vision is taken up by the screen, said Brian Callaghan, a spokesman for National Amusements, the Dedham, Mass.-based chain that dominates the local market. "Asking what is the best seat in the movie theater is almost like asking what's the best movie. It can vary from movie-goer to movie-goer. It's a very subjective call."

No matter what your visual preference, "the sound is pretty much fantastic in any seat," he added.

The "best" seat is simply the one you like the most, Callaghan said. "I'm totally an aisle person myself."

Contact Ann Weber at: aweber@theblade.com or 419-724-6126.



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