Let me tell you about the night my love for Stephen King almost cost me my toes.
Those piggies were completely numb by 5:40 p.m. last night. My husband and I had been standing outdoors in freezing temperatures for almost two hours, shuffling along in a slow-moving line that wrapped around a former mega-church. Why? We had landed tickets to a rare live appearance by Stephen King in our own hometown!
The event was hosted by Watermark Books, Wichita’s only independent bookstore. Since the store wasn’t nearly large enough for an event this popular, it was staged off-site at Wichita State University’s Hughes Metropolitan Complex. Ticketholders were notified that the first 1,700 at the door would receive wristbands for auditorium seating, and the rest would be granted seats in overflow rooms with Mr. King on a big screen.
Watch him on TV? No way. We wanted to see him in the flesh. Wristbanding started at 4:00. We were on it.
My husband dropped me off so I could get a place in line and he could park. Turns out the line was virtually a circle around the 75,000-square-foot building (check the footprint of this beast). The end nearly touched the beginning when we got in it, and soon it snaked into the parking lot. To the Canada geese honking overhead in the gunmetal gray sky, we must have looked like a large capital Q. But we were giddy and game. Stephen King, fer the love! What’s a little chill?
At 4:00 a cheer went up from the front of the line. Wristbands ahoy! Everyone grinned: this is it! The line inched forward. Any time now!
I wrapped my scarf around my head and pulled up the lapels of my wool coat. The soles of my boots weren’t super thick, so I stood on the grass next to the sidewalk for marginal improvement. We joked about offering a dollar a minute to people still parking their cars, just to sit inside and warm up a bit. A woman just a little ahead of us left the line briefly, then returned with a blanket — for her companion in a wheelchair.
But as 4:30 ticked by, then 5:00, we were barely halfway through our journey to the front door. At 5:15 I lost feeling in my last toe. The fun was replaced by grim determination.
The moment we realized they were still wristbanding ticketholders, our spirits were lifted — it wasn’t too late! But there were still hundreds of people in line behind us. And then we realized why it was taking so long: security. Three security guards were assigned to the task of affixing wristbands, three more inspected coats and bags, and then a few more wielded handheld metal detectors. It was a tedious process that had to be repeated more than 2,000 times.
As we found seats in the blessedly warm auditorium, my husband and I reflected on our two-hour odyssey. Once I was no longer in survival mode, I realized, to borrow a favorite phrase from the Man of the Hour: “This is bullshit.”
We weren’t in line to GET tickets. This wasn’t some Black Friday promotion. We had ALREADY BOUGHT TICKETS, for $30 and change, and yet we were forced to wait in freezing twilight to be granted entry one by one. Why? Because Watermark had chosen a venue without assigned seating. Because they opted to offer the overflow option so more tickets could be sold — and yes, more fans could be served. But that also set us up for this absurd March of the Penguins as paying customers were banded one at a time. It was a ridiculous and unnecessary step that slowed everything to a trickle. We are literary fans, for crying out loud. The average age of the crowd, and this is just a guess, was probably 40. This wasn’t going to be another Altamont.
Watermark’s staff lacked the foresight to see that this was a recipe, if not for disaster, then for deep discontent and loss of good will. Once the adrenaline rush of “we made it!” wore off among the frozen chosen, we realized just how poorly this whole thing was planned.
Shortly after he took the stage, Mr. King himself acknowledged what we’d gone through. “Don’t blame me, I was just hanging out backstage,” he said with a grin. And we didn’t hold it against him. Because he spent the next hour casting a spell of story, love of the craft, and excellent profanity. I have a whole other post queued up about that, because it was magical.
But even as he said this, there were still ticketholders queueing up for little green bracelets. The event was delayed 22 minutes, so I assumed that everyone made it inside, but friends later reported this wasn’t the case. There were also empty seats in the upper decks of the main auditorium even as fans were redirected to overflow.
With a paid ticket, fans also got a hardback copy of King’s new book, Revival. King left a few signed copies in the stacks that were distributed as we left. But even this was poorly managed. As a friend of a friend posted on Facebook, “The woman from Watermark was delusional to boot. ‘We’ve got a great system for everyone to get their books and get out of here orderly.’ I was in an overflow room with a couple hundred people, and they all just flooded the door where there was a single person handing out books.”
Wichita isn’t blessed with many great performance venues, but I have to believe there were better options than this. The real point is: even if it had been a perfect 72-degree sunny day, paid ticketholders shouldn’t be expected to wait outside for hours.
My friend Brian Johnson, himself a horror writer, noted quite a few different state license plates in the parking lot. As he said, the King appearance was a huge regional draw. It was an opportunity to show our little city in the best light, and it was squandered. Tickets to this event sold out in a day. That should have Watermark’s first clue that more crowd control was needed. Instead, they took advantage of the devotion of King’s fans to do whatever it took to spend an hour basking in his glow. (At least some didn’t — Wichita Eagle reporter Deb Gruver tweeted that some people left before King even took the stage. Gruver herself was ticked at the rude treatment she received from WSU staffers once inside.)
King’s fans, Watermark’s loyal customers, and guests of the WSU campus deserved better than this misery.