First in a series of features showcasing the staff behind the scenes at Symphony Center:
Charles Braico thought he wanted to study journalism when he enrolled in 2005 at Columbia College Chicago. Instead, the Naperville native discovered he had a passion for the hospitality industry, so he switched his major to arts, entertainment and media management. While in college, he started working part-time as an usher for Broadway in Chicago and quickly fell in love with that realm. The switch paid off. In 2012, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra hired Braico for the crucial post of house manager.
He had exactly the kind of resume the orchestra was seeking. Along with his degree in the field from Columbia College, Braico had worked himself up the ladder to become a house manager with Broadway in Chicago by the time he left in 2011. In addition, he served one summer as a house manager for the Oak Park Festival Theatre. Before coming to the CSO, he took something of a career detour, working for a year at an airline, including a six-month stint as a flight attendant. While it took him away from the arts, the job provided him additional experience in customer service and safety.
Now finishing his third season, Braico, 28, observes that “you have to be ready for anything.” He typically works six days a week, covering seven to eight events. He’s on duty for all the CSO’s concerts and varied offerings of Symphony Center Presents, as well as occasional open rehearsals and fund-raising events. (In exchange for the long work weeks, the house manager gets an extended summer vacation.)
On a typical day, he arrives three hours before a performance and begins his shift with a half-hour walk-through, during which he inspects all communal and seating areas in Orchestra Hall. After preparing notes on the event for the ushers, he greets the first round of ushers for the pre-concert lecture (if there is one) and makes sure the speaker is in place and ready to go. He then meets with the staff and volunteer ushers and remains on duty until at least a half-hour after the event.
His primary responsibility is to provide management support for the ushers, and he hires, trains and oversees the ushers and their four supervisors. “But one of the coolest things about this job is that I work with everybody in the building,” he said. “I work with our marketing department and folks in ticketing. Most positions cross departments, but I think the house manager at this venue probably works the most with everyone under this roof.”
What’s different about working as house manager for the Chicago Symphony as opposed to working for a theater?
I think the big difference is that here there really is the traditional house-manager format. I’m the one person in that role, whereas in other capacities, I’ve shared that title with a few people.
What are some of the surprising challenges of your job?
I feel like I always say this, but when you fill a building with 2,500 customers, you should just about be ready for anything. I think the biggest challenges for us are events that are, I don’t want to say abnormal, but a little atypical for what we run, such as general-admission events. We work some off-site events, too, so preparing for those takes a lot of time. Our standard CSO or Symphony Center Presents routine is pretty much the same, but there are certainly little things that come up that we need to jump into and respond to.
Like many Chicago venues, Symphony Center employs staff and volunteer ushers. How many are there of each?
Certainly, those numbers change a bit, but we have a significant number of staff ushers. That usually hovers around the 70-75 range total, but they don’t work every single event. We have on a given night usually about 30 staff ushers. Then we complement that team with another 15 to 20 volunteer ushers per night. The volunteers that we work with are part of The Saints organization. They provide usher support to countless venues throughout the city.
What are the differences in duties between the professional (often called red-coat, referring to their trademark uniforms) and volunteer ushers?
The red-coat ushers are focused on the real meat of everything. They will take tickets, whereas our volunteers generally don’t take or scan tickets. Our red-coat ushers are the response personnel for the entire evening. If there is a ticketing matter that comes up, a customer-service matter, a building-safety matter, they are the team in place for that. The volunteers are here to help support that. They’re here to hand out programs, help with way-finding, but their primary focus is before the concert and intermission, whereas the staff ushers are here for duration and they help respond throughout.
How much pressure is there to start concerts on time and how much of it falls on you?
We like to be very prompt. I guess “pressure” is a fine word. We definitely try to start as close to on-time as we can. A lot of it falls on us. I would say it is a 50-50 responsibility between myself and stage management or production backstage. There’s a lot of pressure for us to work with the box office and work with the ushers to get will-call [tickets] cleared out and folks in and seated quickly. And we try to do that.
What has been the biggest change in audience behavior?
Probably one of our biggest challenges would be electronic devices. We see an increase in those every single season and that is a challenge. Everyone has a cell phone out there, and we want to be mindful and react to any distractions in the hall. And we see that a little bit more often.
What do you do to make sure people aren’t pulling out their phones during a performance?
We’re not hesitant to prompt the ushers to remind folks as they’re heading into the concert hall. To be honest, a lot of us have our phones with us all the time, and we do need that gentle reminder, just saying, “Hey, phones off.” Or on silent or vibrate or however you want to handle it. So we do that a lot. Certainly, we train the ushers to keep an eye out for not just this but any distraction in the hall. If they see something that is distracting either to the performance or patrons in the vicinity, they respond or come to find me and as a team, we figure it out. We also have visuals and signage in place and pre-concert announcements that we run.
How do you deal with unruly patrons?
Every customer-service environment is going to have your share of difficult customer interactions. That is the nature of the business, and that’s certainly not something that we avoid here. It happens. One thing I talk to the ushers about all the time is: Make sure you’re understanding where the frustration is coming from and then react to it appropriately. As you know, we have an amazing subscription base here, an amazing donor base, and so a lot of folks who come through the doors are used to our policies. But some, not so much. So if we’re enforcing something, we want to explain why we’re doing that. It’s just a situation where if I’m dealing with a prickly conversation, I digest where they’re coming from and I try to explain where we’re at as well.
What’s the most unusual request you’ve fielded?
Every once in a while, we’ll get a request from a patron to propose marriage to their significant other here at the hall. We’re always thrilled with that. It’s an amazing place to do that. But it does sometimes surprise me. Recently, I received one [request] where someone wanted to propose in the middle of a concert onstage. Obviously, that is not something we can facilitate for a number of different reasons.
How do you facilitate reasonable requests?
I’ve done it in a number of different ways. I’ve set up situations where I tell the couple I’m taking them on a backstage tour, and then I’ll just take them to really nice spot in the venue. Symphony Center is a beautiful place and not just in the concert hall. We’ve got private dining facilities. We’ve got our ballroom. And so, a lot of those places are, for lack of a better word, really cool to go into. Especially when they’re cleared, it’s a nice, private spot that is memorable.
What is the biggest crisis you’ve faced as a house manager?
Regardless of when you’ve got an audience or not, when you’re running a facility like this, you have to be ready for just about anything. I would say probably say that one of the biggest potential crisis moments that we faced was not even here. We did a community concert in one of the suburbs 1½ years ago at a local high school. It was going to be a packed evening. There were torrential rains throughout the day, so a lot of people were delayed getting in. That always presents a challenge. Then the torrential rain set off a building alarm about five minutes before the concert started. Suddenly, here we were in a high-school auditorium that we were familiar enough with to have a concert there, but we didn’t work the space everyday like we do here [at Orchestra Hall]. Fortunately, it was corrected pretty quickly, and we alerted the patrons that the building was fine.
Does Symphony Center have contingency plans for an electrical blackout or a tornado warning?
We have plans for just about everything you can think of. We do building evacuation drills with the ushers a couple of times a year. Having worked as a flight attendant, 90 percent of that job is being conscious of your safety environment, so I really promote that with the ushers. I say to them every day, “Look for your exits. Be ready to listen to my calls over the radio if something happens, and be ready to react.”
Are there still snafus, even after the switch to electronic ticketing?
Yes, there are definitely are, but it’s getting a whole lot better. We started using electronic ticket scanners here several years ago and that has almost taken away any ticketing problems in the concert hall.
The difference is we catch tickets that are invalid right away. There never has been a time when we didn’t work with the box office closely, but now when we scan a ticket, and it doesn’t read correctly for whatever reason, we can send those folks over to the box office to right the situation before they get into the hall.
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic for the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts writer.
TOP: House manager Charles Braico checks on an event at Buntrock Hall. | Todd Rosenberg Photography 2015