Ed and Rita Flynn were carrying on a family tradition when they purchased tickets to take their two young grandchildren to a family-oriented Christmas musical at the Boch Center in Boston.
The live show they picked out, “The Elf on the Shelf,” promised enough singing, dancing, and laughter to properly ring in the holiday season, they said, and create some warm memories.
But what they got was a long wait in a cold line and no show.
When they arrived early for the 3 p.m. matinee on the day after Thanksgiving, there were hundreds of people, many of them small children, in a line that stretched over four blocks.
They were lined up for rapid COVID tests, which the Boch Center required of anyone who wasn’t vaccinated. That included their 4-year-old granddaughter, who is too young to be eligible for the vaccine.
Ed, Rita, their granddaughter, and their 8-year-old grandson waited in the cold for almost an hour. But the line hardly seemed to move.
As 3 p.m. approached, word filtered out that Boch Center managers had decided to delay the show by an hour, apparently hoping it would give everyone in line enough time to get tested and seated.
But it was hopeless. At 4 p.m., when the curtain finally went up, the Flynns were still on the sidewalk, in their winter coats and hats, not even close to the theater lobby.
Knowing the performance had started without them, and preferring not to be ushered into a darkened theater for half a show, the Flynns accepted a full refund of $321, and went home, totally crestfallen.
“It was just a shame,” said Rita, 70, of Norwell. “Ed and I were looking forward to it as much as the children. But the whole experience was ruined. It was definitely a big disappointment.”
Rita, who has frequented the theater district with children and grandchildren for many years, said, “We were really surprised how poorly the situation was handled.”
Rita said she received e-mails from Ticketmaster in the weeks before the show that said “proof of a negative test or COVID vaccination” was required, but it didn’t quite register with her that even young children not eligible for a vaccine would need to be tested.
And apparently it wasn’t clear to others: The Boch Center said more than 500 people were tested on-site before the show, about a quarter of all ticket holders and a far greater percentage than at previous, adult-oriented performances.
When I contacted the head of the Boch Center about the Flynn family’s bitter experience, I got an immediate apology on behalf of those who were left out in the cold — and a vow to do better.
“We are apologizing,” said Josiah A. Spaulding Jr., chief executive of the Boch Center, which operates the Wang and Shubert theaters. “I don’t blame people for feeling [upset]. It bothers me personally what happened.”
Spaulding said Boch managers were “caught off guard” by the large number of children who required testing.
“We were overwhelmed,” he said. “We just didn’t realize it was going to be that way.”
More than 200 refunds were made — almost 10 percent of 2,200 ticket-holders. Many of them, like the Flynns, were still in line when the show began.
Spaulding said future communications with ticket-purchasers, including those who buy via Ticketmaster, will provide “a clearer outline of policies and on-site protocols.”
“We will make it as clear as possible to encourage parents and grandparents to make sure everyone who isn’t vaccinated gets tested, and not wait until the last minute,” he said.
“Did we do a good job of communicating? No. Can we do better? Yes. Will we do better? Yes,” he said.
Spaulding said the COVID protocols established by the Boch Center are meant to provide “the safest possible environment” for patrons, performers, and staff. The two theaters reopened in September, after being closed for 18 months due to the pandemic.
Since September, about 50,000 people have attended performances, with fewer than 4 percent opting for rapid tests on-site. “We handled that demand” for testing without any issues arising, he said.
But few children attended those other performances. And many more children are unvaccinated than adults — including those under 5 who are not yet eligible for vaccination.
The first big test for handling a child-friendly performance was “The Elf on the Shelf,” which was booked for just one day — Nov. 26 — at the Wang Theater. Boch managers opened the testing facility in the lobby 60 minutes before showtime and staffed it with half-a-dozen medical attendants.
Spaulding said Boch personnel had expected more families with unvaccinated children to have gotten tests at off-site facilities in the days before the show.
“We’re here to help with testing at the last moment, if needed,” he said, but testing on-site should not be considered the default option for families. (Testing is free for children at the Boch Center. No at-home tests accepted.)
Some may have decided that getting tested at the Boch Center was easier than getting a family member tested in the busy days before and on Thanksgiving.
Other family-oriented shows are coming to the Boch Center this month: “A Christmas Story: the Musical,” “Cirque Dreams Holidaze,” and “Urban Nutcracker.”
For those shows, Spaulding said testing will begin three hours before the curtain goes up in a tent to be set up in a small plaza next to the Wang Theater, and the number of staff administering tests will be tripled.
“We know it was hard on the people who were in the line,” he said of the Flynns and the others who waited. It was also hard on those who faced a one-hour delay after being seated, he said.
“It’s unfortunate what happened, but we’ve learned some valuable lessons,” Spaulding said. “These are unprecedented times and we’re learning on the fly.”