Sixty years ago, Adolphe Meyer went to work for the National Theatre. He was about 15, and his position was not very exalted: program boy. That meant he handed out programs. It was 1924, and the show was "Tip Top."
Today Meyer is selling tickets for "Cats," which at $40 cost 4,000 percent more than those for "Tip Top." Instead of the old racks filled with pieces of color-coded cardboard, there are small video display terminals in the ticket office, and all the tickets are the same color. But there is still Adolphe Meyer, unassuming and durable.
There is a party today for Meyer to celebrate his 60 years of labor. It's not that he's retiring -- no, he doesn't know what he'd do if he retired. The theater has been his home. " Often he slept in the box office stockroom, working with a small crew around the clock to fill mail orders. "You have to get those tickets in the mail on time. You just have to work until it's finished." He worked seven days a week until the box office staff unionized in 1938. Then he took off one day a week.
When "Hair" came to the National in 1971, the number of mail orders was so huge -- 50,000 -- that the producers told Meyer to do whatever was necessary to get them filled on time. He rented a hotel room nearby, and hired a few extra people and a security guard. "Then we had to watch the guard, because we didn't know him," he recalls.
Before 1924, the theater closed during the summer because it was too hot, but that year a man named S.E. Cochran started a summer stock company that operated even in the sweltering heat. (Clark Gable worked for Cochran for a week -- until he was fired). They had "water boys" in those days, who filled three-tiered trays of paper cups for patrons to gulp during intermissions. Meyer was never a water boy -- he advanced directly to usher. They were paid 75 cents a night and had to buy their own tuxedos.
He remembers escorting Grace Coolidge to her seat, and also Eleanor Roosevelt ("She was very democratic -- she'd talk to you all the way down the aisle"). Shortly after Coolidge had announced "I do not choose to run" for reelection, he came to the National to see "Hit the Deck," starring Queenie Smith. There was a scene in the show in which Smith and her maid were caught in China during a revolution (musicals were quite fanciful in those days).
"The maid had a line, 'Somebody carry me -- I do not choose to run,' " says Meyer. "Everyone in the house looked at the presidential box. Coolidge tried to cover his face with a program."
From ushering, Meyer went on to taking phone reservations in the box office. Before long he was "assistant treasurer," which meant sticking around to count the money and balance the books. "I remember the day Kennedy was inaugurated," he says. "I was still here at dawn when the snow plows started clearing the streets. We were here for a week that time." "Man of La Mancha" was playing, and it was a big hit.
For many years, Meyer went to school and worked at night. Immaculate Conception, St. John's High School, Georgetown University, George Washington. He completed a few years of medical school before he had to quit for lack of funds, and he still regrets not being able to become a doctor.
But the theater has certainly filled his life. When it was dark, he had to find jobs elsewhere, and he has worked in the Carter Barron box office, the old Playhouse movie theater (soon to be demolished), even in the old drug store at Union Station. A bachelor, with an adopted son and grandson, Meyer lives alone near Brookland in Northeast Washington.
He remembers the Depression, when Cochran accepted IOUs from government workers for tickets, and the war, when the demand for tickets was so great that thwarted buyers in the lobby booed him. He doesn't quite understand why, now that most of the business is done with credit cards, he faces a thick plexiglass window -- in the days when he dealt in cash it was an open grille -- but that is one of the mysteries of the day. He doesn't really remember Warren Beatty being an usher, but he does remember that Florenz Ziegfeld would not allow mail orders for any of his shows, so that he could take a picture of the line at the box office on opening day.
These are some of Adolphe Meyer's memories. And he'll have more before he rings up his last sale.
"The theater always comes first," he says.