All-Star Weekend was supposed to be a small operation for Golden Tickets. Two weeks earlier Golden had filled its Super Bowl orders with lethal efficiency, and the trip to Cleveland was envisioned as a breather of sorts. But shortly after the Super Bowl. Silverman took an order from one of his best clients, a Japanese company, for 60 tickets to each night's activities. Bonino chides him now, as Alice would Ralph, that this late order was a lousy idea. In the coming days street hustlers would say much the same thing, but Silverman was willing to take the risk to keep a rich and loyal customer happy.
"We haven't touched a ticket," says Bonino. in the hotel room. "In fact, we haven't seen a ticket." Silverman smiles wanly. "We aren't really nervous yet." he says. Hours later they would sit down at a Cleveland steak house, giddy with mock celebration. "Two tickets!" Bonino would say. "We picked up two tickets!" Two down, 298 to go. Whatever anxiety the two of them feel is cloaked with an easy familiarity, drawn from almost nine years of similar tightrope-walking without a net.
Silverman, a Chicago native, was tending bar at a T.G.I. Friday's in suburban Dallas in 1987 when he met Debbie Andrews, a ticket broker. "We went to her office a few times, and I was fascinated with the ticket business," says Silverman. "I begged her to give me a job." She did, but less than nine months later. Andrews was arrested and charged with mail fraud. She pleaded guilty to overcharging clients' credit cards for ticket purchases and was sentenced to nine months in prison.
Silverman quit just ahead of the posse but left with a vision. He went to Steve Parry, a poker-playing friend and well-heeled sales executive, and proposed starting a ticket brokerage of their own. Parry bankrolled the start-up for his wife, Jan, and Silverman, and the two of them set up in a rented house in Piano. Texas, on April 25, 1988. The name Golden Tickets was taken from the precious booty won by five fictitious children in Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
They launched themselves in pursuit of the industry's two essentials: loyal clients and a steady flow of tickets from reliable sources (season-ticket holders, team and league management, players and coaches, 800-number ads in USA Today and event-appropriate local newspapers, etc.). What they lacked was a "street specialist" who could bail them out of a ticket deficit on the day before the Super Bowl or the Thursday before the Final Four, somebody who could be trusted to take $50,000 to the street and come back with tickets. Enter Bonino, then 27, a lifelong hustler from, by turns, Madison, Wis. (where he was born), Los Angeles and Chicago.
Silverman had first met Bonino at the 1988 Final Four in Kansas City. "You could see he was a guy that people respected," Silverman says. This is in reference not only to Bonino's prodigious street connections and subsequent ticket hauls but also to his 5'10", 190-pound build, hardened by hours of weightlifting and boxing. Bonino had started scalping tickets in 1976 as a 16-year-old high school junior in Madison, where he was taken under the wing of Jim (J.R.) Rush, a scruffy hustler—still active—who was two years ahead of Bonino in high school and already a veteran of the streets. Their hot property two decades ago was University of Wisconsin hockey tickets. While a cluster of hopeful scalpers would wait politely outside the arena, trying to buy and sell, Bonino and Rush would take their game to the highway, where cars entered the distant parking lot. To get their hands on tickets, Bonino says, "we'd give them our little boy voices, "Oh, sir, we really want to go to the game.' And then we'd turn four seven-dollar tickets for 15 bucks apiece and have enough money for pizza and pinball."
In subsequent years pizza and pinball were replaced by rent and car payments. Bonino's jump from local punk to regional hitter was made during his many visits to Chicago in the early 1980s, when brokers left cold with fistfuls of tickets would give them to Bonino to sell, hoping for any salvation at all from a lost investment. "About an hour later Joe would come back with no tickets and money falling out of his pockets," says one Chicagoan, who now works as Bonino's security guard on the street. Soon thereafter Bonino went national, following concert tours and hot sports tickets, often driving more than 500 miles a day, unafraid of hostile turf. In January 1986, just before Super Bowl XXI, he stood outside the L.A. Sports Arena holding the ubiquitous SUPER BOWL TICKETS NEEDED sign, trying to buy up everything he could as the host city's allotment of tickets was released for sale to the public. He was confronted by Larry Pederson, a menacing hard-ass who owned a large chunk of the street trade in L.A. from the late '70s through the mid-'80s, at one time controlling more than 300 Lakers season tickets a game in Magic Johnson's heyday.
Pederson, tall and thick, poked a finger in Bonino's chest and said, "I don't know who you are, but you're in LA., and that's my town, and I don't want you picking up tickets." Bonino looked up at Pederson. "I'll pick up tickets wherever I want to pick up tickets," he said. Predictably, the two of them brawled viciously, throwing haymakers, as Bonino recalls it, for a solid five minutes before security officers ripped them apart. "I went to the Forum a hundred times after that and never had a problem with Larry," says Bonino. "I think he respected me. to tell you the truth." (Epilogue: Pederson was shot in the head and critically wounded while sitting in his Jeep outside the Forum in February 1989. "He was a rough guy and had to be an enforcer out there," says Adelman.) The fight with Pederson was nothing more than the cost of doing business for any street hustler. Bonino estimates that he's been arrested "at least 20 times" and been in "a million fights."
Bonino's street pedigree was the perfect complement to what turned out to be Silverman's business savvy. In less than nine years of existence, Golden Tickets has grown into a multimillion-dollar operation that routinely turns high-five-figure profits at a single major event. The arc of Golden's success in the '90s has mirrored that of the entire industry. "Ten years ago it was a new industry, and then there was an explosion," says Mike Schwartz, a national broker and owner of ABC Tickets, of Wilmington, Del.
With the broker boom came large-scale abuses. Truckloads of Wisconsin football fans traveled to Pasadena in late December 1993 to watch their Badgers play in the Rose Bowl for the first time in 31 years, only to find that travel agents who were either naive, dumb or unscrupulous couldn't provide nearly 3,800 tickets they had promised. A month later, at Super Bowl XXVIII in Atlanta, the street market on tickets inexplicably soared in the final days, forcing brokers to take huge losses in order to deliver seats. Many of them bailed out on their orders and skipped town—leaving clients stranded—only to open up a week later with a new name and a new 800 number.