Percy Tucker, who has died of Covid-19 at the age of 92, revolutionised ticket sales when he launched Computicket in 1971.
Percy Tucker, who has died of Covid-19 at the age of 92, revolutionised ticket sales when he launched Computicket in 1971.

Percy Tucker, who has died at the age of 92, started Computicket in SA in 1971, the world's first fully centralised and integrated computerised box-office system which revolutionised the entertainment business and accelerated the end of "whites only" theatre audiences.

Born in Benoni on July 10 1928 to Lithuanian immigrants, Tucker became addicted to the theatre when, at the age of seven, he attended a live performance by legendary singer and actress Gracie Fields in his home town.

An early realisation that he "couldn't sing or dance" made him look for other ways to satisfy his life-long lust for the theatre.

He worked backstage for local productions before going into the ticket business while studying for a BCom accounting degree at Wits university where his lecturer in economic history was Helen Suzman.

He would get up at 4am to catch the train to Johannesburg and queue for tickets to shows there for Benoni theatre enthusiasts. When eight operas with big-name performers were to be staged at His Majesty's he was besieged with orders and found himself holding a thousand pounds of cash with which to buy dozens of tickets.

Tucker gleefully pointed out it was impossible to run a colour check at Computicket terminals

After camping on the pavement from Friday night he was enraged to find when booking opened at 8am on Monday that the cheap seats for which his "clients" had paid had all been taken and only the expensive ones were left.

When he asked how this had happened, given that he was third in the queue, he was told that management had reserved them for their friends. He demanded to see the GM of African Consolidated Theatres, who had organised the shows, and told him that his ticket system was a scam.

He vowed that one day he would open a booking office and show him how it should be done.

During a tour of the West End in London he was introduced to centralised booking agencies. Back in Johannesburg he was invited to be the business manager for a production of King Lear. He found there were no systems in place for organising the booking, marketing and servicing of productions at any venues in the city.

His sharp entrepreneurial brain saw an opportunity and he and a couple of friends invested £1,400 (R28,500 in today's money) in a centralised booking office called Show Service, which they started in 1954.

His father was so disgusted by his decision to go into business as a "ticket seller" that he stayed away from the opening.

He said his son was throwing the privileges of a good education down the drain and refused to speak to him for a year.

A couple of months after opening, Show Service was contracted by the SABC orchestra to handle all the booking and season tickets for their concerts.

During a show business boom in SA in the 1960s, Show Service handled most of the bookings, marketing, public relations and planning. No organisation had provided such a service for the industry before.

Free to make his own rules, Tucker, who ran Show Service while working as an auditor, became an indispensable part of South African show business, known in the industry as "Mr Show Biz".

Show Service also did bookings for major sporting events such as the 1966 South African Tennis Championships featuring Rod Laver, Evonne Goolagong and Margaret Court, fashion shows and everything in between.

By the late '60s Tucker was handling so many bookings, including 50% of African Consolidated Theatres' live-show bookings and 50% of bookings for Ster films, that the stress became overwhelming. He decided there must be a better way.

He'd read about a booking system called Computicket being pioneered in the US, went to have a look and found it was struggling to get off the ground. He quickly saw why. In spite of computerisation, ticket sales in the US were not centralised.

He decided to be the first in the world to use computerisation to give customers access to tickets for any event anywhere in the country through their local stores. For the first time ever the box office would come to the customer rather than the other way round.

When he heard that the loss-making Computicket company, now owned by the Daily Mirror group in the UK, was going cheaply, he got funding, bought it along with the hardware, software and technical team and opened Computicket in SA in 1971.

By the end of the decade Computicket controlled the ticketing of every theatrical, entertainment and sporting event in SA.

It also hastened the breaking of the colour bar because, as Tucker gleefully pointed out, it was impossible to run a colour check at Computicket terminals.

Ticket buyers didn't bother to check which shows were designated for which racial group, so audiences were mixed. The authorities for the most part chose to look the other way.

Tucker, whose lack of malice and self-effacing style ("Oh, I just sell the tickets" he would say when asked) made him a rarity in the industry, was on first-name terms with just about every big stage star since the '50s.

He retired as CEO of Computicket in 1994 and wrote his autobiography Just The Ticket, published in 1997.

He died of Covid-19, less than three months after the death of Graham Dickason, his partner for 50 years.

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