Joel Markowitz(Photo courtesy of www.ushers.us)
Joel Markowitz
(Photo courtesy of www.ushers.us)
Joel Markowitz agrees with Mrs. Meers: It's sad to be all alone in the world! He knew the feeling back in 1990 after he left Philadelphia, where he'd studied to be a paralegal, and moved to Washington, D.C., where he had a job waiting tables. What he didn't have was any friends. And while he was happy to see that Washington, like Philadelphia, offered plenty of theatergoing opportunities, he didn't have anyone with whom to see shows. "And I was very shy, too," he says mournfully.

With money tight because of his move, Markowitz could only see shows by ushering. Soon, he realized that there had to be other people who'd usher in exchange for a free ticket; so he formed The Ushers (www.ushers.us), a group that's now in its 14th year of operation. "I thought I'd use the name to 'usher in' a new type of social group," says Markowitz, now 47. As time has passed, The Ushers has done more than just put people with a passel of programs in their arms at the head of aisles. Now, the group members go to work for and see shows in Washington, Maryland, Virginia, and -- every now and then -- New York City.

"Many of the theaters we go to are non-Equity or even community theaters," says Markowitz, "but that doesn't mean they can't be wonderful. In Herndon, Virginia, The Eldon Street Players' Rocky Horror Show and The Who's Tommy were as good as anything I've seen in New York. Compare this to the Kennedy Center, where we saw a Thoroughly Modern Millie that was a thorough embarrassment and a Titanic where the cardboard set fell into the orchestra pit." Markowitz does, however, speak well of the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Festival, especially of Raúl Esparza's performances in Sunday in the Park With George and Merrily We Roll Along -- "And, after the show, he was so nice in talking to us."

That's another important part of an Ushers' event: the post-play discussion. "Long before we attend," he says, "I send letters to a cast member and see if he'll meet us after the show. Marissa Jaret Winokur, for example, said yes, and when we went back after Hairspray, the whole cast came out to meet with us. I've found that theater people are, for the most part, very generous with their time." For local productions, The Ushers also use the post-play discussions to play-doctor. "If they ask us what we thought, we tell them," he says. "Sometimes, we even go back and see if they've made the changes we suggested. You'd be surprised how many times they have."

After the show, it's off to a restaurant for dinner and dessert. "You don't have to come to dinner, but 99% of the people do because that's where they really get the chance to meet and get to know the others." He insists that his taking care of the details is part of the reason that the group has done well. "People are happy when all they have to do is send a check, show up, get their tickets, and be taken to a restaurant where everyone gets a separate check with 20% gratuity added so that nobody even has to do any real math. The average price of a ticket is $25, dinner is $25, dessert $5, so $55 usually swings it."

The age of his members? "Somewhere between 40 and death," he says with a knowing smile. "We're a diverse group, open to people of all orientations and races. All you have to be is a theater lover. Sometimes, when I'm telling a prospective Usher about the group, he'll say, 'Well, if it's that diverse, then I don't want to come.' And I say, 'Fine, because that means we don't want you.' I've had a couple of nut cases through the years. But I find that most of the Ushers have one thing in common with me: They simply don't want to go to the theater or to dinner alone."

Excluding their trips to New York, The Ushers don't use buses to get to their destinations. "Carpools," Markowitz says. "We have as many as seven drivers who are very generous in taking people. It's necessary, because there's this crazy D.C. mentality that if something is playing more than two blocks away, it's impossible to get there." He often opts for matinees "so that the drivers can see the road signs better." Taking his act on the road has brought him to places like Columbia, Maryland, "where there are two great theaters: Rep Stages, run by a marvelous woman named Kasi Campbell, and Toby's Dinner Theatre, run by an equally marvelous woman named Toby Orenstein."

Those who suspect that Markowitz is off the mark should be apprised that Orenstein's Ragtime received the most Helen Hayes nominations of any production offered in the D.C. metropolitan area in 2004. Adds Markowitz, "Their Miss Saigon had the best Engineer I'd ever seen, Ron Curameng -- and I saw Jonathan Pryce, Francis Ruivivar, and Kevin Gray." Markowitz was so enthusiastic about Curameng that he called up those who hadn't attended and got a new bunch of Ushers to sign up for the show (and the 80-minute drive). "Then," he moans, "I heard that Ron wouldn't be performing because he was going to his brother's wedding. So I called Toby, who said that all she had open for a big group was her Sunday matinee. Well, I believed my people would like it so much that I called everyone and told them they just had to switch." Not only did most of The Ushers say yes, but 10 who hadn't already signed up were moved enough to join the trek to Columbia.

Phoning people, says Markowitz, is the secret of his success: "I consider The Ushers my family. I pick up the phone and call 50-100 members a week." Like the car salesman in Smile who says, "Big Bob's customers are also his friends," Markowitz believes that about himself. "When holidays come around," he tells me, "I don't want anyone to be alone, so for those who don't have a place to go, I cook dinner and have them over -- as many as 40." That's not the only time he has that many visitors, for he occasionally holds play readings at his home, too. After he'd made reservations for The Ushers to attend the Little Theatre of Alexandria's production of The Ritz, he decided to make this a bigger event by having those who signed up come over a couple of weeks before they saw the show, and he chose some of them to read the play aloud. ("We butchered it," he admits.) After dessert, he had them watch the film of The Ritz on video. Finally, they went to see the play. "The production was outrageously wonderful," he says. "Those who'd tried acting the play themselves and then saw what the movie actors did came away with a greater appreciation for the Little Theatre."

Joel Markowitz with Marin Mazzie(Photo courtesy of www.ushers.us)
Joel Markowitz with Marin Mazzie
(Photo courtesy of www.ushers.us)
Discovering talent is also part of the fun. "I love Anne Kanengeiser, who's received two Helen Hayes Awards for the title role in Eleanor and Fosca in Passion," he says. "She became Marin Mazzie's understudy in Ragtime, and when she called me to say that she was finally going on the next day, I and some of the other Ushers got on a bus, saw her do it, and brought her roses afterwards." Then there was Megan Lawrence, who, at Washington's West End Dinner Theatre, was not only playing Sister Amnesia in Nunsense but was also waiting on The Ushers' tables. "We told her she'd make a great Little Red Riding Hood in Into the Woods," says Markowitz, "and that we'd heard that Signature Theatre Company in Arlington was auditioning. She went there, got the part -- and a Helen Hayes nomination! She did other roles there, too. And when the Les Miz people saw her, they put her in the Broadway company, where she met her future husband. She's since been in Urinetown -- first as Becky Two-Shoes, then as Little Sally."

Markowitz spends half his time helming The Ushers and the other half working for the American Psychiatric Association in its library. "When you're doing research on depressing things," he says dryly, "you need plays and musicals to take you out of it." He maintains that the name of the group has turned out to have yet another meaning for him. "The Ushers ushered in a major change in my life," he says. "Because I was forced to learn the necessary leadership and social skills to give members a reason to return and to have them recommend the group to their friends, I've become more extroverted." So, apparently, have others in the group: "While I won't date anyone who's in The Ushers," says Markowitz, "a lot of people have wound up as couples. When they connect, we never see them again -- until they break up. Then they're back looking for someone new -- and, I like to think, some new theater, too."

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]