Tribute: Innovator Percy Tucker, founder of Computicket, July 10, 1928 – January 29, 2021

Percy Tucker- born July 10, 1928 in Benoni; passed away January 29, 2021 in Cape Town, South Africa.

With his indomitable spirit, Percy Tucker fought to overcome Covid, charming and delighting nursing staff with his pluck and resilience. His first cousin, the impresario, Hazel Feldman (Showtime SA) was in constant contact with the hospital . Rallying several times, he passed away on Friday night, 8.15pm, January 29, 2021, after going into Cardiac arrest. He was 92- in his 93rd year.

Percy Tucker was the inventor of Computicket – regarded as the first successful computerized booking system in the world.  Computicket- launched 1971- revolutionised bookings for theatre, sport and live events. Before Computicket, it was a mission to book for anything. Percy said in a speech, marking the 40th year anniversary of the company that he founded: “My idea of changing the marketing of entertainment was not born out of a vision but as I said, purely out of desperation.” He was tired of standing in line for hours and reckoned that others were on the same page.

In 1971, Computicket was an integrated and sophisticated system which worked. The computerised booking system was a game changer. Years ago, I did a round-up of great South African inventions and inventors for a magazine and Percy Tucker was the first name that popped up. The business model was fresh and daring, he noted in his speech at Computicket’s 40th anniversary: “…Instead of paying rentals, we asked shopping centres to pay us as a magnet tenant. The first management that asked to be put on the system was Pieter Toerien. For a year we ran a manual ticket system in parallel to the mechanised one; then the manual system was suspended and the whole business was computerised by 1972.  There were many difficulties…we had no big brother to ask for help… This was real pioneering stuff… We had to cope knowing that we were the only country in the world where the public could go along to their local shopping centre and book tickets for a variety of entertainments.  We were established long before banks, building societies even contemplated this method of marketing.” Percy retired from Computicket, in 1994.

All this was conceptualised by a young man from a small reef town. Percy was born in and grew up in Benoni. His favourite tag line was that he was BC- [born in Benoni] Before Charlize [Charlize Theron]. Here was this ‘boytjie’ from Benoni with his can-do drive; making it happen. It was not an easy journey as Percy relates in his autobiography, Just The Ticket (Jonathon Ball).

Before Covid, Percy and Graham were a fixture at opening nights of major shows. In his Computicket 40th celebratory speech, he mused: “To my mind there is no audience ever again like that of an opening night.” From March 2020, Covid put an end to theatre and opening nights. Besides from a spurt of theatre in October to December, in Cape Town, it has been essentially curtain-down for theatre. Graham passed away and I received an invitation from Percy to attend Graham’s memorial at Theatre on the Bay, on Thursday, December 3, 2020. It was a beautiful ceremony with a stirring tributes. Percy went up in his wheelchair (a fall put him in the chair) and spoke about their life together – theatre, family and friends. Josh Lindberg – Dawn Lindberg’s son was on stage, paying tribute to Graham, on behalf of his parents. He was in tears and told us that his mom was in ICU, critical with Covid. She subsequently passed away. Trevor Tucker, Percy’s nephew who lives in London, evoked the impact that Graham and Percy made on the family – always there to celebrate a birthday, life event and holiday. Many people could not be at Graham’s memorial because of age and fear of the virus. I recall, that on that day, news was filtering in that Covid was flaring up.  People had been cautiously optimistic that theatre could be staged, albeit with reduced numbers and here we were, hearing the news. We all hunkered down in our seats, socially/physically distanced from each other, teared up hearing the tributes.

Now, with the Covid variant, in-person memorials are not prudent. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to be physically present to hear Percy speak at Graham’s memorial and to interact – albeit masked up – with others in his orbit – such as his cousin, the extraordinary Hazel Feldman. He adored Hazel. In his celebratory Computicket speech, he related” “For my 70th we joined my cousins Hazel and Sam Feldman in Paris where he heard The 3 tenors at the Eiffel Tower and as a special treat for my birthday we were invited to dine with them at a special dinner after the show.” By the way, Shirley MacLaine sang happy birthday for Percy’s 65th.

I have a personal connection to Percy. He knew my late mom, Hessie Nayman. They attended the same school in Benoni. She was two years older than him. At opening nights, the first thing he would ask – ‘how is your mom’. A few years before, she passed away in 2017, Percy took my mom and I on a trip to Benoni. My mom was ailing and was not keen to go. Percy said that he would be glad to show me around and be guide into the past. Heritage was very important to him. He treasured his roots in Benoni and was immeasurably grateful to everything and everyone in his life. He gave his time to me on that journey. I treasure that trip. Sadly, I cannot locate the photos. He went out of his way for people. Bravo to Percy and his drive to innovate booking for theatre and events. Not only does he leave a legacy as theatre innovator and entrepreneur but his book, Just The Ticket is an important archive of theatre in South Africa. Whenever I was covering something, which pre-dated the internet, I called Percy to check facts and to find out more. He was always there to assist.

Thank you Percy Tucker for your contribution to theatre. In pandemic days, we book our tickets to watch live streamed events and video-on-demand – on the digital stage. There are ticket re-selling platforms – featuring complex transactions between multiple sellers and buyers. Let us remember the groundwork and foundation, put down by Percy Tucker, Mr Ticket, the ticket seller from Benoni; BC.

I “attended” Percy’s funeral, at Pinelands, Cape Town, today, Sunday January 31, via Zoom. The moving ceremony, included a stirring eulogy, read out by Hazel Feldman. People from around the globe were there and I thought back to 1971, when Percy was a young man, with an idea to use computers to make booking simple and easy and here we were, online, during the pandemic, able to be part of his send-off, through our computers and other devices. He was a pioneer, cultural entrepreneur and a mensch.

“Any nation should be as proud of its actors, artists and musicians as it is of its sportsmen but very few companies allocate funding to the arts.” Computicket founder, Percy Tucker. This is an extract from a speech, that Percy Tucker, gave at lunch in Johannesburg to celebrate the 40th birthday of the company that he started in 1971. He retired in 1994. The copy of the speech was given to this correspondent. © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen, September 2011, Wembley Square, Cape Town.

Just the Ticket! My 50 years in Show Business, by Percy Tucker, published by Jonathan Ball (1997)
Essential theatre resource: A book to treasure- Just The Ticket, by Percy Tucker, (Jonathan Ball (1997).