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Tickets Mastered

Need Lion King seats in a hurry? It can happen. Nothing is ever completely sold out -- not Camby at the Garden or Zukerman at Carnegie Hall -- if you know where to look.

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Call Ticketmaster for Lion King tickets and you'll hear the following recorded message: "You may have to wait a year to see this show, but you'll remember it for the rest of your life." A year? Who in New York waits a year? In this town, with 8 million neighbors and countless German tourists to compete with, tickets for big-name shows evaporate faster than museum funding. The Ricky Martin show sold out in about fifteen minutes. Sting sold out four nights at the Beacon Theatre in no time flat. Even Mr. Moviefone is turning people away. But it's not entirely hopeless. There are ways to get into sold-out shows. And no, they don't involve waiting in line for an hour at the TKTS booth in Times Square for back-row seats to Footloose.

For most events, a limited number of seats are pulled aside before tickets go on sale to the general public. Called house seats, these spots are reserved for such VIPs as friends of the cast or producers. Depending on the show, there might be anywhere from a few dozen to more than a hundred of these available. And because they're held for VIPs, they're among the best seats in the house. Plenty of these prime seats go unused and are then released for sale well after a show has already "sold out." They're released sometimes weeks in advance, sometimes hours. Whether you're buying tickets from the box office or Ticketmaster or Tele-charge, be sure to ask if and when "house seats will be released." When we called Ticketmaster to inquire about The Lion King, the earliest available orchestra seats were for May 14, 2000. When asked about "released" tickets, the operator offered up that some had been released earlier in the morning -- center seats -- for that evening's performance. She made it clear, though, that you have to specifically ask about the house seats. Some operators don't even know about this.

Another source of house seats for plays is Care-Tix (212-840-0770), run by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights aids, an aids and breast-cancer fund-raiser. The catch? The price is double the face value, but 50 percent of each ticket is tax deductible. Care-Tix receives new tickets on the first of each month for shows the following month. But manager John Lytton warns that tickets for shows like The Lion King, Contact, and The Dead are selling out on the first day.

If you're not in a rush, you can bid on tickets to hundreds of events on eBay and other Websites, where auctions typically last a week. A recent check found 66 auctions for Lion King tickets (ranging from $140 to $560 per pair), 74 for Knicks tickets, 56 for the Jets, and 6 for the Sting concerts at the Beacon. A week before the recent sold-out Ricky Martin show at Madison Square Garden, pairs of tickets were going for $340 on the Website. Are eBay sales safe? For the most part, yes. Just be sure to close the deal with a check or money order, so you're not giving out your credit-card number. And all eBay transactions are protected for up to $200 if the item you buy turns out not to be what you expected.

New Yorkers with American Express gold and platinum cards have another route when it comes to landing the best seats in the house. American Express reserves a batch of prime seats for major concerts, sporting events, and plays, dubbed "Gold Card Events," and gives its elite members first dibs. Visit www.americanexpress.com/gce to find out what's available in New York. Some of the Gold Card Events on tap: The Trans-Siberian Orchestra at the Beacon on December 11 ($48); Harry Connick Jr. at Radio City Music Hall on January 13 ($75); and Putting It Together, starring Carol Burnett, at the Barrymore Theatre, through February 13 ($70 and $80). Give them your e-mail address and card number to receive weekly updates.

If you can't score tickets at face value, ticket brokers may be your only choice, albeit an expensive one. It's illegal to sell tickets for more than 10 percent or $5 over their face value, whichever is more, but brokers routinely skirt this law. If you must turn to a broker, call at least three to comparison-shop. And have a seating chart handy. Ticketmaster.com offers seating charts for most venues. Or else you can buy a copy of Seats: 150 Seating Plans to New York Metro Area Theatres, Concert Halls, & Sports Stadiums, by Sandy Millman (Applause Theatre, $15.95). Prices are always negotiable, especially as the event nears. When we called several brokers about tickets to the sold-out November 27 Knicks&-Orlando Magic game, prices for a $55 face-value ticket ranged from $88 to $250 each, though when we told one broker that $250 was too steep, she quickly dropped the price to $200. Which of the zillions of brokers can be trusted? The New York Convention & Visitors Bureau recommends, among others, Theatre Direct International (212-541-8457) and Applause Theatre & Entertainment Service (212-307-7050). Meanwhile, the guy at Ticketmaster recommended we keep calling back because often people's credit cards are declined after a sale and the tickets become available again. "The event is never sold out," he told us.

If none of this works, and you find yourself facing certain disinheritance if you don't score your visiting parents great seats for tonight's performance of Cabaret, show up early and armed with cash. Check with the box office one last time to see if any last-minute tickets have been released or if there were any cancellations. (Really, it happens all the time.) If not, you can try the scalpers. If you're worried about getting busted, don't be. While the law states it's illegal to sell tickets at more than 10 percent above face value, it's not illegal for you to buy them. What you should worry about is haplessly buying counterfeit tickets, especially for huge events like basketball or football games. And if all else fails, you can always resort to outright bribery. At a May performance of The Iceman Cometh, a woman in a leopard-print jacket offered me $500 for my pair of mezzanine tickets. (She might have found a taker in Woody Allen, who, with Soon-Yi, made a stealthy early exit.) I declined, but the couple behind me, who weren't originally looking to sell, didn't think twice before succumbing. Who says pipe dreams don't come true?


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