Tipping the Ushers in Paris

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Pensez au pourboire pour les placeurs, Monsieur!” The usher said it again, in a voice more strident, “Pensez au pourboire pour les placeurs!” The man to whom she’d shown a seat looked chagrined, searched in his pocket, found no change, shrugged as if to brush off the reprimand and then at her subsequent glare skulked to his seat with his companion.

Apparently he hadn’t thought to bring small change or bills to tip the ushers, and had been soundly admonished, and even slightly shamed. A woman and her daughter who’d been seated a few moments before this man had also been politely prodded to think of the ushers, and had coughed up what looked like a 10-euro note, a bit much for being shown a place they could have found themselves.

But this was a custom of the country, so you lived with it whether it happened to make sense to you (which doesn’t really matter when it comes to certain local practices).

A sign in the lobby of the theater announced that the ushers here were not paid except by tips. I had found some change in my pocket, and remembered to give my “placeuse” a 2-euro coin after she’d pointed out my spot. Taking the money with a smile and a word of thanks, she said, “Passez une terrible soirée,” or have a terrible evening.

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This is not the usual greeting. Neither did I take it to be sarcasm from my usher after she’d received a mere 2 euros (I didn’t know what the threshold for a decent tip is). Her “Passez une terrible soirée” seemed to be part of the spirit of the evening, I assumed.

I was, in fact, at a comic piece, or a comico-frightful one, called “La Dame Blanche,” at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal. My friend Walter told me afterward that the Théâtre du Palais-Royal is generally home to more humorous plays. I hadn’t known that certain theaters in Paris catered toward particular genres. After seeing the poster around my neighborhood, I’d sprung for a ticket, thinking I might enjoy a good scare, without realizing that the theater itself would have signified more fun than fright. I might have rethought my decision to attend had I known.

The ushers at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal were dressed in rags and wore ghoulish makeup, to set the mood. I’m not sure if ushers at other theaters, those who might be otherwise costumed, are given to chiding patrons who don’t offer them a tip, but here it seemed to be part of the carnival atmosphere. I heard that chant of “Pensez au pourboire pour les placeurs,” quite a few times from different parts of the theater before the show began, so even those Parisians who were presumably accustomed to tipping ushers needed to be prompted on their duty as audience members to contribute to the livelihood of the “placeurs.”

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From the first balcony at the Théâtre Antoine, before a performance of “Fleur de Cactus.”

The play itself was more diverting than good. A young man’s mistress flees in anger from his car after she learns that he cannot leave his wife as he’d promised his mistress he would, because all of a sudden it turns out that his wife is pregnant. How inconvenient. The young man accidentally runs over and kills the distraught mistress as he drives away, and her vengeful ghost comes back to haunt him. A parallel story involves a serial killer with mother issues in the neighborhood where the mistress was last seen.

A lot of story for little payoff (and a few laughs). And the kinds of “boo!” scares that involve someone creeping up behind an audience member and touching him or her on the shoulder to elicit a scream of horror. Not exactly Molière. Or even lesser Grand Guignol. But then, I hadn’t really known what to expect. I was still glad to have seen “La Dame Blanche,” but mainly for the experience of watching the usher in my section frighten the customers.

It was also interesting, like so much here, from the perspective of local custom, half-understood but practiced nevertheless. Tipping at restaurants is not customary in France, though at commercial theaters it’s expected. I made the mistake at the Comédie-Française a few months ago, before a performance of “La Tragédie de Hamlet” – which played more like the comedy of Hamlet, and which should have been staged at the theater where I saw “La Dame Blanche” – of trying to give the usher a coin, but he brushed me off brusquely. I later found out that at state-supported institutions such as the Comédie-Française, accepting tips can be grounds for dismissal for an usher. Now I know.

And I’d learned a lesson at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal that served me elsewhere. Before I attended a recent performance of the classic boulevard comedy, “Fleur de Cactus” – or cactus flower – at the Théâtre Antoine (which doesn’t seem to specialize in any particular genre), I made sure to have change for the usher. I didn’t want to be yelled at for not handing over a couple of euros.

I gave my “placeuse” 3 euros this time. And she showed me the wrong seat. Which we both realized after she’d shown someone else his place, which happened to be mine. I was moved to the row behind.

Oh, well. You don’t get what you pay for. That’s just the way some things work, even if you do think of tipping the ushers as you’re supposed to do.

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