Security and Enthusiasm Clash in Theater of the Absurd

Deborah McIntyre, a Barrymore Theater usher who was fired after visiting when she was not scheduled to work, to see President Obama.

She is a theater lifer, all but born to this Atlantis in the West 40s.

As a teenager in 1975, Deborah McIntyre found work as an usher in those stately Broadway theaters: the Barrymore, the Longacre, the Majestic, the Lyceum and the New Amsterdam. It was a backstage world of lush curtains, narrow stairways, tiny dressing rooms and intensely felt make-believe.

The fellowship seemed mysterious and magical.

“It’s wonderful, it’s great, I love it,” Ms. McIntyre said, her words tumbling in a fast-moving stream. “These are my streets, my community. This is my home.”

She is 58, an usher, with a group sales business, and a volunteer for all things theater. She is irrepressible, and over the years she has befriended actresses, actors, stagehands, makeup artists and costume designers. They’d go out for late evenings and tell elaborate tales.

Some of their stories were even true.

Of late, she worked as an usher for “A Raisin in the Sun,” with Denzel Washington, at the Barrymore. So it was that she heard that President Obama and his wife were coming to see the play, on Friday, April 11.

Ms. McIntyre is African-American, which was rare for ushers when she started out. To see Barack and Michelle, watching a black cast led by Denzel? As she puts it: “Oh. My. God.”

She was not scheduled to work on that Friday night, but she went to the theater because she wanted to see the president. She arrived at the gold and glass doors of the Barrymore about 5:30 p.m. Already, the Secret Service was in place. Ms. McIntyre saw the house manager, and she says he confirmed that she worked there. Security let her in.

Ms. McIntyre went downstairs to the staff dining space to sip soup and wait for the play to start.

She stood in the mezzanine that night, nearly vibrating. At the curtain call, the camera flashes flickered like crazed fireflies. She felt tears.

On the way out, she saw the apprentice manager. Did you work, she asked? No, Ms. McIntyre said she replied, “I was just here to help out.”

Credit...Evan Vucci/Associated Press

She worked the Sunday matinee. A few days later, she got a call from the Shubert Organization, which owns the Barrymore. Please come down to our office.

“I’m like, ‘O.K., what’s this about?’ ” Ms. McIntyre said.

She ended up talking to a vice president for Shubert. You didn’t have a ticket and you breached security, he told her. What gives you this right? We’re going to have to terminate you.

“Terminate me?” Her voice hiked up, as she recalled it. “Nothing happened!”

Security officers escorted her to clean out her locker. Shubert runs more than a dozen theaters, and she was banned from all of them. (She can work elsewhere.) Ticket offices even taped up photographs of her, as if she were a wanted criminal.

The Shubert Organization, through its spokesman, declined to comment. But many interviews make clear that the house manager said Ms. McIntrye had lied about working that Friday night. She says she did not.

In fairness, the Shubert Organization was in a very tough spot. The Secret Service had the organization keep a list of vetted employees who could work that night, and the block was heavily guarded. Everyone was on edge.

Security fears are hardly fanciful. A century and a half ago, a president was shot in a theater.

Then there was the question of walking into the theater on her off night. That is against the rules. But the theater world has a porous outer membrane. “If you know the house manager, you go and say, ‘I’m off tonight, it is possible to let me in?’ They might say, ‘Debbie, come in.’ “

Interviews with four theater world officials confirmed the informal courtesy.

Look, Ms. McIntyre said, she gets it. Hers was a mistake born of too much enthusiasm. A suspension of a month, or two or three, perhaps she could live with that.

But to be banned?

A friend of hers, the Tony-award winning actress Lillias White, called. “I’m no slouch; I don’t hang around with lowlifes. Debbie is an honest, upright woman, and she just loves the theater,” she said. “She translates that excitement to everyone.”

Ms. McIntyre has hired a lawyer, Daniel Alterman. Mostly, as she sat talking with me, with her sky-blue top and black satin pants and those eyes that glint at any talk of the theater, she seemed like a woman standing outside her home, knocking hard and begging to be let back in again.

“I love, love, love this world,” she said. “I can imagine nothing better.”

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