Leadership / 04.20.22
The Founding of Ticketmaster, Part 2: How a Mexican Restaurant Saved Early Demos, Naming the Company and More
In this piece, INTIX is honored to conclude its special exclusive two-part interview with Ticketmaster co-founder and VP Company Culture Ambassador, Albert Leffler. In part one, Albert began sharing the never-before-told story of Ticketmaster’s first years, revealing how the piano, the 52nd Army Band, a lasagna dinner meeting and a young couple’s love led to the founding of the legendary ticketing company.
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Christine: In the first installment of our two-part series, you shared some of Ticketmaster’s differentiators over other early computerized ticketers, such as better, faster and less expensive systems, rapid ticket printing, the ability to select exact seats and more. Can you give us an example as to why the programming also played such a vital role in helping Ticketmaster rise to the top?
Albert: I strongly believe that it was the brilliance of Peter’s programming that made the difference. I recall that when Select-A-Seat printed tickets, full information for each ticket was sent to the ticket printer, even if the only change might have been the next seat number. Peter instead wanted to send full information for the first ticket, and then only send updated information for the next ticket. To do that, Gordon contracted with Hartronix, a local IT company in Tempe, Arizona, to design and produce a microprocessor to provide buffering as well as communicate with the ticket printer. That original microprocessor was huge and was mounted in a 19-inch metal rack in a ticket printer cabinet. It contained five large boards, each loaded with different resistors, transistors and other components, all commonly known as chips.
Christine: There is a really good story about that microprocessor from the early days that reveals how you and your fellow co-founders never let anything deter you from succeeding, even if it meant using unconventional means to find a solution. Can you tell us the story about the Mexican restaurant?
Albert: I will never forget the time Gordon and I drove first to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and then to El Paso, Texas, for product demonstrations. We had our one and only ticket printer with us as well as our microprocessor and CRT terminal, which was the original computer monitor. We had a faultless demonstration for UNM’s Popejoy Hall, and then drove to El Paso for a demonstration to the city’s civic center.
In El Paso, we started setting things up just as we did in Albuquerque and used a slow acoustic coupler to dial into the computer system in Phoenix. Once everything was connected, we found that we could not print tickets. Through a process of elimination, we determined that the culprit was the microprocessor. We had been incredibly careful with those microprocessor boards, protecting each board with bubble wrap and packing them separately from the microprocessor metal ticket printer cabinet housing.
We needed to resolve the issue before our demo, so I called Tom Hart, president of Hartronix in Tempe, as they had designed and manufactured the microprocessor. I explained our predicament to Tom. As this was the only microprocessor, and the prototype at that, he was apologetic and offered a suggestion. If the boards could be literally frozen, he said the chips might start working again. So, I dutifully took out the boards and bundled each one in bubble wrap. It was nearly lunchtime, so Gordon and I headed to a nearby Mexican restaurant — with the boards. We asked the manager if we could put the boards in the restaurant’s freezer while we ate our meal and were grateful, as he said yes. After lunch, we let the boards return to room temperature, then reinstalled them. When we powered everything back up and dialed into the system, everything worked, and it was a solid demonstration.
I will always think of that episode as Ticketmaster’s version of “chips and dip!”
Christine: That is a great story! How big did you envision Ticketmaster would become — were you dreaming big or really big?
Albert: Really big, of course! Once I started doing the research on potential clients, I realized there were tens of thousands of venues still utilizing hard tickets — and not just in North America but also throughout the international marketplace. I firmly believed we were the perfect company to attract the right resources to take our computerized ticketing model worldwide. It did not happen overnight, but looking at the success of Ticketmaster today, dreaming really big did come true.
During 1977, in addition to our work at UNM, we were preparing for 1978 installations in St. Louis, at the Superdome in New Orleans, and the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. Besides our growth in the U.S., within a few years, we had operations in Norway, the Netherlands, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Australia was on the horizon and for a while, our international headquarters were in Zurich. I spent months in all of those countries.
We translated the system into Norwegian and Dutch, and even had to change some of the American English to the British version for the U.K. And “big” was more than just the number of clients. It was also the size of the events we could handle, whether a small theater or a huge stadium and everything in between. Our first professional sports team was the NBA’s New Orleans Jazz during their last season at the Superdome before relocating to Utah.
One of my roles was pursuing special projects, which, for the most part, was focused on the Olympic Games. Ticketmaster will always hold the record for being the exclusive ticketing provider for three back-to-back Summer Olympic Games: Athens 2004, Beijing 2008 and London 2012 — the largest and most complex sporting events in the world. We were undoubtedly the only ticketing company able to assemble international teams to provide comprehensive on-the-ground support for those Olympic Games.
Many of our international Olympic Games ticketing staff have said that among their most cherished and lasting memories are those of their time working and living those Olympic Games. That is true for me as well with one special experience: running in the Olympic torch relay in Greece, the birthplace of the modern Olympic Games. Most of our software support for those Summer Olympic Games was with our TMOS software, since renamed the “Host” and greatly enhanced over the years — but still with many of the features originally created by co-founder Peter Gadwa.
Albert running in the Olympic torch relay in Greece, 2004.
Christine: It is well-documented that you and Kathy came up with Ticketmaster for the name of the company. Surely there is a story behind that?
Albert: Questar was the name of Gordon’s company in Phoenix. It was primarily an office automation company. But as previously mentioned, Gordon also had an OEM license with DEC, and he could purchase DEC hardware that became the system for Peter’s software. Once we were developing what would become Ticketmaster, we used a generic placeholder name “Computer Ticket Service.”
Sometime in October 1975, Kathy, our young daughter Ambre, and I had driven from Tempe to El Paso to visit Kathy’s family. On the drive back to Tempe, I suggested we come up with an appropriate name for our ticketing company. Between us, we established that the name needed to identify what we do. At one point, Kathy mentioned that in El Paso her family used Master Valet, an innovative dry cleaner that provided drive-up service. She suggested Master Ticket. I countered with Ticketmaster. We knew we had the perfect name.
When we arrived in Tempe, I phoned Gordon and said I had a name for our new company: Ticketmaster. He said, “Sounds good to me.” The next morning Gordon and I drove to the Arizona Corporation Commission and registered the name. About 30 days later, I received notice that the name was not in use, and it was ours. I still have that piece of paper. It was dated Nov. 12, 1975.
Christine: You are still with Ticketmaster and are Employee No. 1. Whatever happened to co-founders Gordon Gunn III and Peter Gadwa?
Albert: A few years after we had operations up and running in Albuquerque and El Paso, Gordon left to pursue other business interests, and he became the branch manager for Wang Laboratories in Atlanta. He subsequently returned to Phoenix and started another business. Now he is retired and lives in Albuquerque and we, of course, stay in touch.
Peter was with Ticketmaster for nearly 25 years. After turning over programming duties to new staff members, he focused exclusively on designing and manufacturing communication peripherals that were critical in helping our systems expand and communicate at greater speeds. He also established an in-house group to design and build our own ticket printers. Peter’s contributions were critical to our growth and success. After retiring, Peter moved with his family to Charlottesville, Virginia. He concentrated on raising his kids until they were on their own. After that he expanded upon his long-term interest in current events and foreign affairs, taking full advantage of the academic resources that are available in the Charlottesville community. Needless to say, we also stay in touch, and I always look forward to his visits back to Phoenix.
My official hire date is May 10, 1975. This May 10 will mark my 47th anniversary with this amazing company. As part of Live Nation Entertainment, we are having our best years, and our very best years are just ahead.
Christine: About the piano being the thread that ultimately led you to become a co-founder of Ticketmaster, do you still play the piano?
Albert: Of course! When Kathy and I moved into our first home in Albuquerque, we also moved her family’s spinet piano. That piano then went with us from Albuquerque to Tempe, back to Albuquerque, and then lastly to Phoenix where it, and we, have been since 1979. A while back, we purchased a wonderfully rebuilt 9-foot Steinway grand piano, of course with a longer bench more comfortable for playing duets.
Christine: I know that Ticketmaster has been a longtime partner, exhibitor and sponsor of BOMI/INTIX. Do you recall that first interaction?
Albert: I actually do not recall that very first one, and I understand that, sadly, those early BOMI programs may have been lost. But whenever it was, we have been an exhibitor and sponsor continuously ever since.
In 1975, I, along with Kathy and Ambre, attended the International Association of Auditorium Managers (IAAM), now the International Association of Venue Managers (IAVM) District 7 Conference in Pasadena, California. We were there with Gammage Associate Director Tim Van Leer and his wife and young daughter. It was my first exposure to IAAM, which has since been renamed the International Association of Venue Managers (IAVM). A visit arranged by IAAM to the Major League Baseball California Angels box office cemented the idea for me that computerization of a box office made great sense. Their box office was huge. I cannot remember how many windows were at the front, but I do remember there was this large back area with at least 81 ticket racks mounted on many A-frame wagons with perhaps three to five racks on each side of the A-frame. A box office team member had to write down the customer request or requests, then walk to the racks to pull tickets, then walk back to the counter to make sure the tickets matched the customer’s request. I could see how much better and more efficient that box office would be with a computerized ticketing system.
When we launched Ticketmaster, one of the goals was to exhibit at the main IAAM Conference to be held in July 1976. If I had not been at the IAAM District 7 Conference, we might not have known about that upcoming conference in New Orleans, where we were first introduced to the industry. We have since been an exhibitor at many IAAM/IAVM Conference Trade Shows.
Ticketmaster’s booth at the July 1976 IAAM trade show held at the Fairmont Hotel in New Orleans. Photo: International Association of Venue Managers Records, 2000-103/5, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.
Aerial view of Ticketmaster’s booth, right, at the July 1976 IAAM trade show. Photo: International Association of Venue Managers Records, 2000-103/5, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.
It is interesting that BOMI came about after that first conversation between Patricia Spira and Richard Carter during the 1980 IAAM District Meeting in Milwaukee. After its actual founding in 1982, BOMI first invited industry exhibitors and vendors to its London Conference trade show in 1983, then to its U.S. conference trade show in 1984. That was in Los Angeles. Ticketmaster was an early exhibitor, and we have had a presence ever since.
Albert, far left, with Ticketmaster colleagues Caroline Green, Barbara Arnold, Dennis Scanlon, JT Teppolt and David Willis at the INTIX 2007 Conference Trade Show in Houston.
Patricia certainly recognized the importance of having a companion trade show similar to IAAM and many other nonprofit associations. Of course, a major part of our attendance was to showcase Ticketmaster products and services to current and potential clients. As BOMI/INTIX grew, we also had the opportunity to have our own user meetings while many of our clients were in one place.
I am sure that all along Pat knew this would happen and that we would all be better because of it.
From left, Patricia Spira, Albert and Connie Nelson at the 2003 INTIX Conference in Denver. Albert had just been named the 2003 recipient of the first Patricia G. Spira Lifetime Achievement Award.
Christine: Thank you for sharing these memories and stories from the early days of Ticketmaster, Albert. Is there anything else you would like to share that we have not covered?
Albert: Earlier, you asked how big I envisioned Ticketmaster would become — was I dreaming big or really big? My answer was, of course, really big! But we were limited by the parameters of that startup era where we could only provide point-to-point tickets for singles, groups, season/subscribers and so forth, with basic customer account information when required. What amazes me today is that for basically 20 years communications were strictly point-to-point, there was no ethernet or internet. We developed cutting-edge technology to support our growth under those relatively primitive conditions. Once the internet became commonplace, it was an entirely different communications environment and, in a way, much easier for rapid growth, especially in international markets.
Ticketmaster is now a truly global company, in part enabled by our ever more sophisticated technology. However, our great success has always been due to our people, individually and in teams. We are now operating across 32 countries and expanding. Our clients have undoubtedly contributed to our success as they continue to push us for the best service and technology we can provide.
Throughout my 47 years, it has been an honor and privilege to have worked, and continue to work, side by side with so many great Ticketmaster team members and, of course, many awesome clients.
Tags: Ticketmaster , Leadership