Waiting for ‘Jessie,’ the Toughest Ticket in Town

(Photo: Jenny Lawton)

Ninety minutes until curtain. The queue of ticketholders extends halfway down the block, three-deep. Most shows at the Hollywood Fringe performance festival just up the street would kill for a line like this.  They’re here for a premiere that’s had buzz all over the blogs, but has yet to reach the mainstream media. For most of the members of the audience, it’s their first time coming to this type of theater.

Thirteen-year old Danielle Lambert came all the way from San Jose, and she’s desperately hoping to meet the star. She’s an actress too, and has been doing community theater and school plays since the second grade. “I want to see how the process goes – do they have lines or do they make them up?”  she wonders. But perhaps the unbelievable could happen too: “to be picked out of the audience as a future Disney star!”

Debby Ryan, star of Disney's Jessie (Photo: Disney promotional photo)

Lambert and about 200 others are here to see Jessie, a new Disney television sitcom starring tween starlet Debby Ryan, an apple-cheeked strawberry blond best known as Bailey Pickett on The Suite Life on Deck (a spin-off of the uber-popular The Suite Life of Zack & Cody). But Jessie – which will premiere to home audiences this fall – shows Debby as an almost grown-up. According to the studio, she plays a “starry-eyed teen” who’s left rural Texas for New York City and “soon finds herself living in a multi-million dollar penthouse as nanny to a high-profile couple’s four children.” And could her new friend — “the 20-year-old doorman, Tony” — be a love interest?

For many visitors to Los Angeles, a live taping of a television show is the closest thing to live theater they’ll see. Websites offer tourists easy access to an array of free tickets, from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno to more family-oriented programs like Jessie.  They’re willing to wait hours for the chance to look behind the curtain.  But the opportunity to watch a star at work is only offered on a first come, first served basis.

Today’s crowd is predominantly young teen girls accompanied by a variety of good sports – mostly moms, some dads, a handful of squirmy little brothers in oversized T-shirts – all standing at attention, ticket in hand. They’ve each been assigned a number, not unlike an audition.

Danielle Lambert and her parents Nicky and Ken are numbers 74, 75 and 76. Danielle is a budding stage actress, but when the family came to Los Angeles on vacation, it wasn’t to see plays. They had other priorities. “We had to get to the beach and Disneyland,” Nicky says.

A television taping would normally be impossible for them. Ordinarily, “when the kids are on break, filming is on break,” Nicky explains. Today represents a special opportunity.

Forty minutes until curtain, and games of Rock, Paper, Scissors break out in several spots down the line. The little brothers are getting restless. The line inches through the gate, but only in shallow, sporadic swallows.

“Guess that’s the way television is; hurry up and wait,” says Rocky Langston. She’s here from Tehachapi, Calif., with her daughter Nadene and two granddaughters, Morgan and Brooke – numbers 64-67. Morgan, age 16,  is so over this kind of television – she’s into CSI and Xbox. It’s her little sister — another aspiring performer — who’s brought the family out today.

Brooke Langston, age 13, waits in line (Photo: Jenny Lawton)

“Debby Ryan is a good actress, funny, outgoing,” Brooke, 13, explains. “People say I’m outgoing too.” Her hair is tinged with pink and she’s adorned with homemade jewelry: plastic beads laced into her shoes, a blue and white beaded necklace with a pacifier on it. (Think a hipper, edgier Hannah Montana.) Brooke also played Mary in her church Christmas pageant, demonstrating considerable range.

Brooke says Debby got her big break on The Suite Life on Deck after winning a contest. Not entirely accurate: Debby’s website suggests she grew up in Texas and started booking jobs as a young teen. Regardless, Debby’s down-to-earth charm gives Brooke a reason to hope. “It shows that you can be found from the middle of nowhere and be famous around the world.”

Thirty minutes until curtain. People allowed to enter the lot to use the bathroom emerge whispering about glimpses of the set. There’s a living room with a couch, a table, and pictures on the wall. A spiral staircase, except you can’t see the upstairs.

Fifteen minutes until curtain. Shoulders are sagging but the show starts soon.  Murmurs emanate from the front of the line.

And then it’s all over before it even begins. A grandmotherly usher gently delivers the announcement. There are no more seats today. There are vouchers for future performances. There are no exceptions.

No one moves.

The dazed would-be audience waits for their vouchers, though many will surely never use them. They have to leave with something.

“That’s hard on us too,” laments usher Jerri Diprima, who routinely turns people away. Sometimes it’s because the studio has taken extra tickets for themselves, but mostly it’s just bad luck. The audience was warned in the fine print, though that doesn’t make much difference. Diprima has been delivering this kind of bad news for 14 seasons and it never gets easier.

“A three-hour drive just for for this,” Nadene Langston sighs. The Lamberts decide to kill time in Hollywood before the sun sets, when they’ll head to the Griffith Park Observatory.

The last mother and daughter left are Diane and Alyssa Powers from Trabuco Canyon, Calif. They got separated from their group – the group got in, they didn’t – and no amount of pleading with the ushers will get them inside.  Fourteen-year-old Alyssa dissolves into tears. She’d said hello to Debby Ryan at a meet-and-greet at a local outlet mall. This just doesn’t follow. “She’s really talented,” she reasons, sniffling. “When I met her she was super-nice to me.”

What good is a ticket when it doesn’t get you a seat?

Diane holds her daughter, tall enough to be an adult but reduced to a child’s sobs. “We’ll come to another show,” she coos. As she leads her away from the theater and down the street, she deploys phrases so familiar, they could be lifted from a sitcom: “It’s a life lesson when these things happen. We had no control. These things happen in life.”

(Photo: Jenny Lawton)

Jenny Lawton

Jenny Lawton hails from the Second city and lives in the First, where she produces stories about theater for the public radio program "Studio 360."

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