Scalped Again!

One year after he was wrenched out of the loving arms of the only parents he’d ever known, the five-year-old child we are calling Baby Richard still cries every night. Meanwhile the birth parents who abandoned him continue to–

Oh, wait a minute. My apologies; I got my columnistic crusades mixed up for a minute. I meant to continue to harp on the subject of scalping.

It turns out that the scalper shenanigans that angered customers at the downtown Tower Records a few weeks back were not unique. Those customers were mad because a scalper and his helpers had managed to secure the first 25 places in line to buy tickets to a Bruce Springsteen concert, this after a supposed random-number lottery was used to keep things fair. Fans up at the Blockbuster Music outlet on Sherman Avenue in Evanston were getting mad that morning as well, and for similar reasons.

While events there didn’t lead them to believe that the store employees were in on the scam–as the Tower customers had–Blockbuster customers too protested after it became clear that a band of scalpers had succeeded in stacking their operatives at the front of the line for tickets.

Not every person at the front worked for a scalper–there were a few “regular fans” as well, observers say. What cheesed onlookers was the utter brazenness of the scalpers’ operation that morning. Three “kingpins,” as one customer describes them, had as many as 40 helpers on hand–whom they delivered to the store in a big yellow school bus.

“I went to the corner to get a bagel and that’s when I saw [the bus],” says customer Kate Schwartz, a recruiter for a consulting firm. “There was an amazing number of people from the bus. Quite an astonishing number, which is what finally got everyone so mad. People were hopping up and down in the street they were so angry.”

Why did the crowd think that certain people worked for scalpers? “The kingpin guy was standing out in front of the store literally reading the people what their numbers were,” says Tim Kolleth, who works for Alligator Records. “And once they got in line, another guy was walking up and down making sure that people didn’t get out of line, like a parent watching his kids to make sure they didn’t miss their chance on the Ferris wheel.”

Blockbuster personnel on the scene didn’t do anything about the scalping activities going on. “They looked totally unorganized and scared, like they were totally unprepared for it. I felt bad for them,” says Kolleth.

Complaints went nowhere. “I said to [the person who seemed to be in charge], ‘Hey look, some sort of a scam is being run here,'” says Schwartz. “He just blew me off.”

In time the scalpers got their tickets and a lot of fans didn’t. Yelling ensued, and eventually police arrived. “The cops said we had to leave,” says Kolleth. “As I walked away one of the kingpins was shouting out [to his men], ‘Go right to the bus, don’t show anybody your tickets, don’t talk to anybody.'”

The Blockbuster manager, Von Medler, told me that there’d been “no problem” that day. Then he invoked corporate policy and refused to say more. Wally Knief, a spokesperson for Blockbuster, said that it’s store policy not to let people distribute money inside the store; steps to control such activity outside, he said, “should be taken by Ticketmaster.”


Hitsville salutes the three newest members of the Chicago rock scene, babies born to WXRT’s Norm Winer and Wendy Rice (Rebecca Lynne, November 3, their third), Metro’s Joe Shanahan and his wife Jenny (Tara Ellen, November 14, their first), and Lounge Ax’s Sue Miller and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy (Spencer, December 16, their first)…. Tribune reporters Ray Gibson and Mark Caro crafted a penetrating look at the scalping industry a few years back. The three-part series, which ran in 1992 from July 19 to 21, can be found in the Tribune archives on America Online. Do a search for stories with the word “scalping” in the year 1992…. The south side’s R. Kelly sold a quarter of a million copies of his new record and debuted at number one on the Billboard charts a few weeks back, the second Chicago artist to do so in a four-week period. The Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness has been in the top ten for seven weeks; it has just passed the million mark and continues to sell in the neighborhood of 100,000 albums a week.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven Arazmus.