One evening a few minutes before showtime, the cast was putting finishing touches on makeup when Linda, the stage manager, came into the dressing room.
I glanced up.
"What kind of a house do we have?" I asked.
"That's why I came in. Ken, it's 10 minutes to curtain, and all we've got is two little kids. Are we doing the show?"
Nobody likes to play to a small house, particularly when audiences have been so sparse that the cast's morale is slipping. So it was tempting to say we'd take a night off. No doubt it would restore spirits and some of our flagging energy would return.
Just as I was about to tell Linda to refund the youngsters' money and invite them to come back tomorrow, I remembered Jess Gern and Marty Hatcher. They had been my teachers and friends when I was an undergraduate.
Both had very strong feelings about professionalism and had held forth on the topic more than once.
One tenet was that a ticket is a contract between the performer and the audience. The seller implies that he will provide an experience for the buyer that's equal or superior to his ordinary pursuits during the time he's in the theater. Another was that an actor's task is to engage an audience's mind and imagination - he's not there simply to indulge his penchant for showing off.
But most importantly, an actor puts his audience ahead of his private wishes. In short, whether one agrees with the old saw or not, the show must go on.
"Well, what do I do, Ken?" Linda asked. "Are we doing the show?"
"Did you sell 'em a ticket?"
"Then we're ready to go. Places everybody!"
The kids enjoyed themselves, and I was very pleased the cast performed right up to the mark, the special circumstances even giving us fresh energy perhaps.
A few days later, I was sweating over the books, wondering if there was any way I could get through the rest of the season without going broke.
In a few weeks I was due back in Kansas City to begin the second year of my master's degree program, and I didn't relish the idea of writing my thesis while subsisting on a diet of begged-for crusts.
Just as I was about to conclude that the only thing to do was to pay off the cast and close down, the phone rang.
"This is Miss Markim calling for Mr. Theobald, secretary of state for Colorado. He'd like to speak with the director."
Click. A new voice.
"Good morning, Mr. Booth. I understand you folks gave a show last week for a rather small audience." A chuckle. "Just two kids?"
All I needed was a practical joker to rub it in. But I managed a polite "Yes."
"Well, they were my kids. We've got a cabin up your way just outside town. Anyway, they said they had such a great time, I'd like to bring a busload of my friends up from Denver on Saturday. Can you let me have reservations?"
Reservations? At that moment I'd have given him the whole theater.
Saturday arrived. So did more people than we'd seen in many days.
We ended the season in the black, but more importantly, I had been reminded of a basic tenet that's served me well ever since.
The customer is always the boss - no matter how tall he is.