Leadership / 04.14.22
The Founding of Ticketmaster, Part 1: How the Piano, the U.S. 52nd Army Band, a Love Story and a Lasagna Dinner Started It All
At a time when the vast majority of live event tickets events were still being sold from individual box office racks — their stubs set aside for manual reconciliation — three young men sat down for a lasagna dinner in Tempe, Arizona. Their meal together would spark a global revolution. It marked the beginning of Ticketmaster, a pre-internet tech startup that went on to become the world’s largest ticket marketplace and part of Live Nation Entertainment, with billions of dollars in annual sales.
I had the honor and opportunity to speak with one of those men, Ticketmaster co-founder and VP Company Culture Ambassador, Albert Leffler. In this special INTIX-exclusive two-part series, Albert shares the never-before-told story of Ticketmaster’s first years, revealing, among other things, that the auspicious lasagna dinner meeting would never have happened had it not been for the piano and a young couple’s love.
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Christine: What led to your decision to create a computerized ticketing company?
Albert: Easy — to get a better job! In 1974, I was very fortunate to have been selected as an Administrative Intern (Arts) and House Manager for the famous Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Gammage Auditorium on the campus of Arizona State University (ASU). As a continuing student, I had a modest salary that was supplemented by the G.I. Bill, which helped U.S. veterans with the costs of education and training. It was a two-year internship to prepare me for a position within the arts community, whether with a venue or a production company. As there were not many job postings during those two years, and with a young family, I was on the lookout for alternative careers.
I was the box office manager at the Santa Fe Opera during an earlier summer. It was there that business manager Edward Purrington showed me a brochure from Ticketron. This was my first exposure to anything having to do with computerized ticketing. It was only a brochure, but I could see the advantages computerization could bring to a manual “hard” ticket box office. I kept thinking of that Ticketron brochure as I sold opera tickets from racks and detached small ticket audit stubs for later reconciliation.
When I arrived at Gammage in the summer of 1974, they had just upgraded their box office from pre-printed and rack-mounted “hard” tickets to computerized tickets using software from the new Phoenix-based company Select-A-Seat.
I kept thinking to myself “Select-A-Seat — wow!” Its innovative approach was the brainchild of programmer and ticketing pioneer Dorothy McLaughlin, who was the 1996 recipient of the INTIX Lifetime Achievement Award. Truly, it was an appropriate name for the company, as box office staff and retail outlet staff could actually select exact seats for customers — something that Ticketron really did not seem to do as well at the time.
I never worked in the Gammage box office or with legendary box office manager Vivienne Gardner — the 1988 INTIX Lifetime Achievement Award recipient — I just observed. But as house manager, I could see how effortlessly patrons adapted from a pre-printed “hard” ticket to one generated literally on the spot by a computer system. With the lack of job postings in the arts community, I thought perhaps I should apply for a job with Select-A-Seat. I never did because my career, and my life, took a much different turn.
Christine: I assume that “different turn” was actually founding Ticketmaster as a competing computerized ticketing company? How did that come about?
Albert: Ticketmaster owes its existence to the two most influential people in my life, not surprisingly my mother and my wife. But, as they say, “Wait, there is more!” The thread that ultimately ties this all together began when I was about 7 years old, and my mother had me start taking piano lessons. She played the piano, and even though budgets were tight, my parents bought a rebuilt upright piano. I never dreamed where practicing and playing the piano would take me.
Years later as a music major, I was studying applied piano at the University of New Mexico (UNM). In 1969, the Vietnam War was in full swing and, during that era, there was a military draft. I had a very low number, which meant I would probably be drafted. I visited the U.S. Military Recruitment Office in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to see if there were any enlistment options. The recruiter, learning of my background in music and piano, let me know that an army band was giving a concert at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, and he arranged an audition. I auditioned and received a written enlistment offer ironically on the same day that I received a draft waiver. But I decided to “get it over with,” and I was soon on my way to El Paso, Texas, to join the 52nd Army Band at Ft. Bliss — as a piano player.
It turned out that the 52nd Army Band already had two piano players, and they had not counted on having a third one. They decided that besides being the Company Clerk, I should focus on helping with the amateur musical productions being staged at Ft. Bliss, where cast members were a combination of military and civilians, and of course with the 52nd Army Band “in the pit.” My first assignment was rehearsing the children’s chorus for “The King and I” where I collaborated with a beautiful civilian accompanist, Kathy. Other shows followed with me conducting “Oklahoma” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” of course with the same rehearsal accompanist. About that thread that started with my mother, yes, it went directly to Kathy, as we eloped between shows, on a Saturday morning. We had arranged for a minister, Carlos Lopez, a friend of the family, to meet us at a beautiful small chapel in the mountain community of Ruidoso, New Mexico. Our good friends Larry and Arlene thought we were just going on a picnic. They also knew Carlos and were surprised when he started arranging us and opened his bible. After the ceremony, we drove back to El Paso for the final dress rehearsal of “Oklahoma” that evening, followed by a cast party.
Albert and Kathy Leffler
Kathy’s family lived in El Paso across the street from a couple whose grandson, Gordon Gunn III, would come down from Albuquerque to visit during the summers. Kathy’s brother, Norman, and Gordon became good friends, and they had kept in touch over the years. Sometime in late 1974, Gordon was visiting El Paso and stopped by to see Norman. During that visit, Gordon asked about Kathy. He learned that she and I were in Tempe, Arizona, and that I was working at ASU’s famous Gammage Auditorium. Norman, knowing of the two-year term of my arts internship, happened to mention that I had an interest in a computerized ticketing company in Phoenix. Gordon went on to say that he was currently living in Phoenix and had a business that included selling computer systems. He said he would like to get in touch with me and asked for our phone number.
After an introductory call from Norman, Gordon and I connected. We discovered mutual interests that were worth exploring, and Gordon brought a third person into the conversation, a programmer he knew named Peter Gadwa. A few evenings later, I met Gordon and Peter in person for the first time in a meeting over homemade lasagna and sangria in our small duplex in Tempe. After many hours of great food and conversation, we all agreed there might be room for another computerized ticketing company and that we should pursue the idea.
Ticketmaster founders meeting circa 1976, from left: Coco Klinkenberg, a friend who Albert recruited as a model for brochure photos, Albert, Gordon Gunn III and Charlie Hamby, Ticketmaster’s first major investor.
The three of us subsequently started meeting regularly and divvied up the tasks. Gordon was to work on a business plan and secure financing. I had the only ticketing and live events industry background, so I was to prepare user specifications and do market research. Peter was to start writing his original from-scratch ticketing program, which he ultimately named TMOS — Ticketmaster Operating System. It was written in assembly language and was a combined operating system and application.
We did not consider directly competing for clients of other computer ticketing companies because the vast majority of potential clients were still using hard tickets and the market landscape was wide open. Once we got going, it was a relatively easy sell. We could demonstrate taking event ticket inventory from the rack and putting it on a computer screen and typing a command to get an immediate sales report rather than counting stubs. With equal access to the seat inventory, there would be no need to divide allocations of hard tickets for retail outlets, which were often delivered via shoe boxes or paper bags and similarly picked up when unsold tickets had to be retrieved.
I often wonder how different my life, and the lives of so many others, would have turned out if Norman and Gordon had not had that casual, and truly fateful, conversation that bought together Gordon, Peter and me.
Ticketmaster’s first newspaper ad for its first major ticketed event. The retail outlets were powered by Ticketmaster and Popejoy Hall served as the box office.
Christine: As the three co-founders, you first met over that lasagna dinner, perhaps in early 1975. Your first major event was an Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) concert at UNM’s 4,000 seat Johnson Gym in January 1977, then you also ticketed Fleetwood Mac, The Grateful Dead and War at the 15,000 Seat UNM basketball arena later that year. If I do the math correctly, say from January 1975 to January 1977, you created a company, built a system, hired staff and signed your first venue contract — all within a two-year period.
Albert: Pretty much. Those were an intense two years of development on many fronts. Actually, our first client was Popejoy Hall, the 2,000-seat performing arts center on the UNM campus. I had given an oral presentation to their Executive Director, William J. Martin, in early March 1975. He responded in writing that he would be willing to use our system when it was developed. In the fall of 1976, our very first ticket sales were at that venue and supported with four retail outlets in Albuquerque. Basically, it took about 18 months from that lasagna dinner to when we signed and installed the system at UNM.
Just prior to those first ticket sales, we had demonstrated our prototype system in July 1976 at the International Association of Auditorium Managers (IAAM), now the International Association of Venue Managers (IAVM), trade show held at the Fairmont Hotel in New Orleans. To do that, we were an incorporated company, had computer hardware and software, and we were printing tickets. I recall the only other ticketing company that had a booth at that trade show was Ticketron, the giant 800-pound gorilla that dominated the industry at the time.
For that IAAM trade show, Gordon built a portable display booth in his garage that could be easily transported in a van he had borrowed from a friend. Another friend who painted race cars did the artwork. Gordon, his wife and I made that drive from Phoenix to New Orleans and back. It was a seminal event, as out of that trade show came a critical lead: the 65,000 seat Louisiana Superdome would sign with Ticketmaster the following year.
The cover of Ticketmaster’s very first brochure. It was written by Albert and Gordon in time for the July 1976 IAAM trade show held at the Fairmont Hotel in New Orleans.
Christine: What were you doing that was distinctly different or advanced that gave you the edge over competing computerized ticketing companies?
Albert: We had better, faster and less expensive systems. As I mentioned, we called our system TMOS, and we could print tickets in just three seconds. This was very fast, especially considering that most communication speeds at the time were at 30 characters per second. The internet, and ethernet, were years away.
Pages 1 and 2 of the first Ticketmaster brochure highlighting, among other things, ticket printing in less than three seconds.
Other than the major clients Ticketron had signed, we did not consider them a true competitor based on their more or less “best available seat” technology. Select-A-Seat declared bankruptcy in late 1976 so, in a sense, we had most of the North American market to ourselves at the time.
Before we continue talking about Ticketmaster, I have to give kudos to Dorothy McLaughlin and Select-A-Seat. As far as I know, they were the first ticketing company that gave every operator on the system the ability to easily choose and print specific seats. We obviously assumed Ticketmaster would be the second company to provide this kind of functionality, so it came down to the “better mousetrap” approach. Thanks to Peter’s programming, our algorithms were perhaps more intuitive, and that made search and seat selection more efficient. We also did not have the overhead of a vendor-supplied operating system, and our custom microprocessor also made a significant difference in speed.
When Peter, Gordon and I really got down to creating Ticketmaster, we were still working our day jobs. Gordon, with a going business concern, was organizing Ticketmaster as a proper and legal company and was looking for seed funding. Peter was writing code based in part on ticketing specifications I was writing. On the funding side, we initially had a few small seed investors — even my mom and dad invested. We could not yet afford even a bare-bones system. Peter was developing his program on a PDP-11 computer at the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) office in Phoenix where they graciously allowed him access during off-hours.
One of the reasons Peter wrote TMOS in assembly language was because he knew we could not afford a larger mini-computer from DEC that came with an operating system. The least expensive computer we could finally afford only had 16 kilobytes (kB) of memory and no operating system — Peter had to create an original one. We were “thin” because we had to be and, through the years, that efficiency served us very well. Also, the decision to use systems from DEC turned out to be a huge advantage because we could keep up with every iteration of more powerful systems rolled out by DEC.
Ticketmaster’s first brochure details early features such as real-time inventory management, price types, presale and offer codes, season ticketing, real-time reporting and more. Albert Leffler is pictured at the bottom right.
Interestingly, computer hardware was never an issue because Gordon had an Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) license to resell DEC systems and Peter Gadwa was programming using DEC hardware. We stayed exclusively with DEC’s mini-computer systems, which was very advantageous to us in terms of cost and certainly as the DEC products were considered top-of-the-line in that era.
As mentioned earlier, the main computer memory, or RAM, for our first computer system in Albuquerque was 16 kB. Remember there are 1,000 kB in a megabyte. This is the system that supported sales for our first major concerts. The system also had two 2.5-megabyte removable disks, one for events and one for accounts, and 16 physical asynchronous ports at 300 baud, or 30 characters per second. This was the primary system, and the cost for this basic system from DEC was about $75,000. Every data center had a completely identical backup system running in a mirrored configuration that could continue to support all activity in case of a failure of any part of the primary system. Combined, the total system cost was over $150,000, which, after inflation, is equivalent to almost $800,000 in today’s dollars. We still had to pay for ticket printers, microprocessors and custom cabinets. The initial investment in hardware alone for that 16 terminal system was well over $1 million in today’s dollars.
Ticketmaster’s first brochure details how its choice of DEC hardware drove reliability.
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It was money well invested, as Ticketmaster would go on to earn billions in annual revenue in the decades to come. Next in our two-part series on the early years of Ticketmaster, learn about the programming decision that helped Ticketmaster print tickets more quickly than competitors, how the freezer at a Mexican restaurant saved the day for two of the company’s first-ever demos, how Ticketmaster got its name, where the three founders are today and more.
Tags: Ticketmaster , Leadership