Cal Performances’ Liz Baqir has long been ticketed for success

Liz Baqir

Liz Baqir, ticket services manager at Cal Performances, is Berkeley’s go-to woman when it comes to tickets. (UC Berkeley photos by Irene Yi)

Liz Baqir can remember the moment as if it were yesterday.

Baqir, on a rare day off from her job as the longtime ticket manager for Cal Performances, was working in the box office of Oracle Arena before a Prince concert. A young man walked up to her position at will call, showed his ID and asked for his tickets.

She looked. No tickets. She asked if there might be another name the tickets could be under. He said no, but the tickets had been left for him by Prince himself.

OK. That explained a few things. Baqir went to the pass list. Nope. No tickets. Was he close to Prince, maybe the artist had a special nickname for him that he’d left them under? It happens. Nope, no nickname. Maybe Prince didn’t know his name but left the tickets with a description of the fellow. It happens.

“So, I asked him who he’d arranged this with. Was it with Prince himself?” Baqir says, working with a memory that still brings a smile to her face. “He said `Well, I psychically arranged this with Prince. I’ve been communicating with him psychically. And he told me to come to this concert, and that my name would be on his guest list.’

“I said, ‘Oh, OK.’ He was a very nice gentleman who eventually did get turned away from his psychic guest list. He was one of my crazies. But you’ve got to love them. I love the crazies. They’re who make this job interesting.”

Baqir, known to some around Berkeley as just The Ticket Lady, has carved a life out of tickets. She’d always thought she’d be involved in theater arts in some way, perhaps as a stage manager. But the first job she was able to get out of the University of Maryland was in the ticket department at the Arena Stage. It’s the Washington, D.C. equivalent of Berkeley Rep, a well-regarded repertory theater.

“I was a theater major (at the University of Maryland) and I was a stage manager,” Baqir says. “My plan was to get my Equity card and move to New York.”

That never happened. And for that, Baqir blames the Grateful Dead. Well, blame isn’t exactly the word. Baqir is a Deadhead, has been for decades and the mere fact that she lived on the East Coast and they were a Bay Area band didn’t slow her down much. She saw her first Grateful Dead show in 1986.

Liz Baqir

It was a never-ending quest for tickets to see the Grateful Dead that led Liz Baqir to spend a life in tickets.

She would go on to see the Dead, a band that she says “changed my life,” 106 times in the next decade before the death of frontman Jerry Garcia. And, yes, she has the ticket stub from her first Dead show, and most, but not all, of the 105 others.

“I got to the Dead late,” she says. “And it’s funny, because I saw 106 concerts with Jerry Garcia. You say that to someone on the West Coast and they’re not impressed. There are people in this building (Zellerbach Hall), some of our stagehands, who saw them 350, 400 times.

“Seeing the Grateful Dead changed my life. I found the place I belonged. And it definitely fueled my interest in tickets in general, because I was always trying to get tickets after that for Dead concerts. I wrote to the head of Grateful Dead ticketing, asking for a job. I said I’d move to the West Coast just for that. And it took her 20 years to hire me.”

By the time Baqir left Maryland with her husband, Jon Mirsky, for California, Jerry Garcia was dead and the Grateful Dead were no more. But Garcia was still alive when Baqir and Mirsky made a West Coast visit together in the mid-1990s.

Baqir had been out here dozens of times, because of friends who live the in the Bay Area. For Mirsky, it was the first time. After a week, their lives had changed.

“After a week, he said, `Why don’t we move here?’” Baqir says. “So, we gave ourselves a year, we got ourselves together, and moved. We’d both worked at the University of Maryland, so we gave ourselves a year to do it. I mean, we weren’t kids, we were both 30. We weren’t that young, but young enough to know we wanted to be closer to the living members of the Grateful Dead and sort of the whole music scene that surrounds that.”

And she needed a job. She’d looked into Cal Performances, but there was nothing open, so she took a spot at BASS (Bay Area Seating Service) just to make the move. About a year later, her dream job at Cal Performances opened, and she’s been in Berkeley for 18 years now.

Baqir never met Jerry Garcia. But she’s friendly with all the living original members of the Dead — Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann — and with most of those who would float in and out of the band from time to time. And, yes, she now does the ticket operations for many of their side projects and has a gig working tickets at Weir’s Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley. That last job was “supposed to be for a weekend. Now it’s at 6½ years,” Baqir says.

Music remains at the core of Baqir’s life. If she goes more than a couple of weeks without being at a concert or a show, it’s unnatural. And there is plenty of music – admittedly not necessarily rock and roll – in her current job. Cal Performances has Zellerbach hopping most days in any given week, and her job as ticket manager also includes running the operation for much of what goes down in the Greek Theatre.

Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Bernie Sanders have come through Zellerbach on her watch, as have Mikhail Baryshnikov, the Kronos Quartet, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. Yo-Yo Ma, Mark Knopfler and Wynton Marsalis have come calling at the Greek. Dance troupes, theater troupes, symphonies, folk revivals and any manner of theater-centric events have come under her purview.

“My life really does revolve around tickets of all kinds,” Baqir says. “Almost everyone who has a career in ticketing got there by accident. I don’t know any little kid who says `I want to be a box office manager when I grow up.’ I was a theater manager, I was stage manager.”

Her foot in the door, Baqir had a chance to get a better-paying gig in Maryland when one of the assistant box office managers left. That was in 1989. It’s three decades now, and she’s a continent away from where she started, but she’s still the woman in charge of the tickets.

“I found my calling in this. I love tickets,” Baqir says. “I find everything about tickets fascinating, from the psychology behind it to the technology that makes it happen. I find it fascinating. People are really emotionally attached to tickets as a product. You are attached to your team, you are attached to your artist, the dance company.

“The fact is that the tickets are a product that is both emotional — people have an emotional attachment to them — and a product that is perishable — they are for a specific event or series of events. That creates an interesting sort of psychology behind them and people are passionate about their tickets, and I find working with that and being able to help people with that really satisfying.”

And she gets to take her job home with her, after a fashion. She talks about the ticket stubs she has kept over the years. There are literally boxes of them scattered around her house — “They’re very nice boxes,” Baqir says — and those that don’t go into boxes can find their way into scrapbooks and onto poster board. Tickets are not to be trifled with at Chez Baqir, which she described as “being decorated in Modern American Hippie.”

“I would just fill the boxes up, little decorative boxes,” she says. “They’re in no order; there’s no organization to them whatsoever. I can usually dig through them and find things, if I need to. Last year I was able to go back and find my first Prince ticket stub and my first David Bowie ticket stub. So, when they both passed, I had that connection. But my ticket stubs are kind of all over.”

Grateful Dead tickets

A fan of the Grateful Dead? Yeah, you could call Cal Performances’ Liz Baqir that.

Given her depth of experience, when outside groups — frequently student groups — want to use one of the Cal Performances venues, Baqir is the sounding board the outsiders use to make sure things go off well.

“Even if it’s an outside entity or more likely a student group renting the venues, Cal Performances has a large role in putting on the event,” Baqir says. “We want everyone, especially student groups, to be successful. Let’s say a student group is bringing Bernie Sanders to campus and they want to put it on here, they definitely look to Cal Performances for advice on ‘How do I ticket this?’ ‘What do I charge?’ ‘How do I release tickets?’ ‘How do I make it not a giant nightmare?’ ‘How do I made sure tickets get to UC Berkeley students and not just people who aren’t UC Berkeley students?’

”So they look to us for advice. From me they look for advice from the ticketing end. Obviously from other people at Cal Performances they’ll get advice on the technical and the staging and all that kind of stuff.”

Chances are good that if you’ve worked in theater or the performing arts as a student or teacher at UC Berkeley, you know Liz Baqir, although she says there “may be some people upstairs in the costume shop I’ve never met.”

Baqir typically has about two dozen students involved in tickets at Cal Performances. Some are just passing through, but some will stay for a full four years. The interactions last a long time, and they don’t necessarily end when a student moves on.

“The students change all the time,” she says. “And I simply love working with the students. They are amazing. It’s a huge part of why I love working here, to be able to work with the students with their energy and their enthusiasm and their passion. You meet them at such an interesting time in their lives, when they are figuring themselves out — what they want to do, who they want to be and who they are.

“They are kind of nuts, but that energy is so great. They mean so much to me. I always say I did not have human children because I have 150 of them after all these years of doing this job and having 20 or so students a year. We try to keep them for their whole Berkeley career. They’re Berkeley students. They’re smart. They’re creative. They’re interesting people. They give me faith that the next generation will do better for the planet and the next generation will do better for the world. Working with them is so rewarding.”

How rewarding? Many keep in touch after they have moved on, sharing news about new jobs, marriages and the arrival of children as life goes on.

“I’ve had students who have moved on to become anything – doctors, lawyers, navy pilots. And a rare and precious few have moved on to become box office people. Probably more navy pilots than box office managers, but I always tell them, this is a marketable skill. Whatever you are doing, especially if you want to work in the arts, whether you are a performer or you’re an arts administrator, or if you want to write grants.

“You are learning customer service, you are learning problem solving, you are learning to sell tickets, true, but that’s not the hard part. The hard part is the customer service and the problem solving. Though our students are super smart and creative and have great ideas, sometimes they just need a little bit of guidance.”

Tickets have changed over the years. When she first began her pursuit of tickets, Baqir would camp overnight outside the ticket office at the University of Maryland to be the first in line. Thanks to technology, things don’t work like that anymore.

If you want the hot ticket, you’ve got to be on your phone or tablet or computer at just the right moment. Call or connect just a moment or two late, and you could be out in the cold the next time Bernie Sanders or Yo-Yo Ma comes around. And Lady Gaga? Forget about it.

“Technology has changed everything,” she says. “Tickets are so much harder to get now than they used to be for popular events, because almost anyone can have access to them. It’s great, but ticket brokers can falsely inflate the demand by buying all the tickets. So, things now sell out in a minute as opposed to a day or a few hours for big events. We have no problem with someone who has tickets they can’t use wanting to sell them. We would just prefer you don’t sell them at three times the face value.”

Liz Baqir

For almost two decades, Liz Baqir has called Zellerbach Hall home and cheerfully welcomes anyone to come calling.

There are insider tips Baqir is willing to share, the most significant of which is this: don’t despair if an event you want is sold out, particularly if you want just one ticket. There is almost always one ticket available.

“There are always going to be people with extra tickets, people who had someone in their group get sick or whose car broke down or who got stuck at work and just couldn’t make it for one reason or another,” Baqir says. “I always want people to try. Come early, and the first person who comes up to the box office to say `I’ve got this extra ticket,’ you’re in position for it. That definitely happens a lot.”

And if you score that ticket, maybe you’ll wind up sitting next to someone like a patron from a few years ago who Baqir refers to as the “gopher lady.”

“This woman came down to the box office at a show at the Greek Theatre,” Baqir says. “She’d already been inside. And she says that while sitting on the lawn with her friends, gophers were attacking her. And we needed to give her her money back, but she wants to stay at the concert.

“So, I asked if the gophers were attacking anyone else, or just her group. And she said she hadn’t seen them attack anyone else, but said, `We did pour some drinks down the gopher holes, so maybe they’re mad at us.’ I told her she could have one or the other. She could leave if she was uncomfortable with the gophers, and I could give her a refund. But I couldn’t let her stay and give her the money back.

“And that’s when she sort of exploded. She had been calm before that, but now she was yelling, ‘You don’t understand what it’s like out there. These animals are attacking us. And if you don’t give me my money back, I’m going to go back out there and tell everybody, and they’re all going to storm down here.’ I let her get it all out. And then she said, ‘My name is Love, and I try to live up to that. But if you don’t give me my money back I’m going to get these gophers …’ and she went on. She was one of my favorites, because her name was Love, and she tried to live up to that.”

It could have been worse. Ms. Love could have been psychically communicating with gophers.