Gus Bessalel hurried his family to the entrance of the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater last March, a few minutes before the "Chacabuco" performance began. He looked forward to exposing his 3-year-old daughter and 8-month son to a culturally enriching concert of Latin American music.
But the usher wouldn't admit little Jordan because he didn't have his own ticket. When Bessalel's mother bought the six tickets by telephone, she was assured the baby didn't need one. But they heard a different policy at the theater doorway, says Bessalel, the Bethesda-based founder and president of Transmedia, an advertising specialty firm.
"I explained that he would be in our lap during the performance and that no one had informed us of the policy," he says. "The usher and the head usher both pointed to the sign at the door stating that all attendees, regardless of age, would require a ticket."
While his other family members took to their seats, Bessalel raced to the box office with Jordan to buy another ticket. But the clerk refused to sell him a discount ticket. Jordan was too young to qualify for the student discount rate Bessalel's 3-year-old daughter received, he was told. Already late for the show, now angry and disappointed, Bessalel sat in the lobby with Jordan for two hours until the concert ended rather than pay $30 for another full-priced ticket. "My evening had already been ruined," he says, "and it had become a matter of principle."
Accommodating babies at movie theaters, concert halls, airlines, even sports stadiums, becomes an issue now and then not only for parents, but for others in attendance and management. Should venues allow "lap babies" free entrance or charge everyone? The National Theater and the Arena Stage, for instance, don't admit children under ages 4 and 5, respectively, and require tickets of all others. Like most movie theaters, the Regal Cinemas do not charge children under age 3 and charge discount prices for ages 3-11. But Bessalel thinks the Kennedy Center "dropped the ball on this one" by failing to communicate its ticket policy first over the phone, and then on the ticket and at the box office.
Kennedy Center management later apologized to Bessalel for the "unsettling experience." But its policy regarding children and tickets is long-standing, sensible and well-known, insists a spokeswoman.
"We do have a policy that everyone who goes into the theater must have a ticket," she says, suggesting a miscommunication must have occurred when the Bessalels purchased theirs. "That way, we don't have to get into an arbitrary age cutoff or anything."
Mentioning one extreme Concert Hall incident where a performer stopped in mid-performance to scold front-row parents for allowing their child to run about, the spokeswoman says requiring tickets of infants provides an end-of-discussion response when other patrons complain about kids in the audience: "They bought a ticket just like everyone else."
Since Bessalel's complaint, Kennedy Center management has considered how it could clarify its policy beyond all doubt -- including posting more signs at the Kennedy Center.
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