JLA’s ushers on a year away from the amphitheater
Without any games at the John J. Lee Amphitheater this winter, ushers missed the live basketball, conversations with fans and colleagues and the Modern Apizza pit stop they would make on the way home.
Frank Krugel loves to talk. A USPS mailman in Shelton, Connecticut, for 45 years and counting, he carried his inclination to strike up conversations into a new part-time gig about five years ago: serving as a game-night usher for Yale basketball games at the John J. Lee Amphitheater.
“There’s a lot of season ticket holders, so a lot of familiar faces every night,” Krugel said. “You know, you get to talk to them and meet them, say hello to them when they come in. We don’t know each other’s names, but we know our faces.”
During a year that deprived many of general social interaction, Krugel lost his usual winter routine the past few months. With Ivy League competition canceled, JLA’s team of about 10 ushers had no basketball games to work.
Krugel, who has also ushered weekend football games at portal H in the Yale Bowl since 2013, missed seeing his colleagues this winter. Most of all, he said he missed interacting with fans and season ticket holders at his usual post in JLA’s Section 203.
“Up until I started, I had never been in that building [JLA],” Krugel said. “I don’t know why. I lived up here in Shelton … [but] I was just never in it. I’m enjoying it now, and I’m missing it.”
Sporting a turquoise uniform and a nametag, Krugel said he would usually arrive at the gym about an hour and a half before tipoff, sharing observations on warmups with whomever else had arrived early enough to spectate. He usually works both men’s and women’s games. Although the Ivy League announced plans to alter its conference basketball schedule early last year, men’s and women’s teams from the same school typically play the same schools in opposite locations each weekend, meaning that JLA hosts basketball games every Friday and Saturday from late January through early March.
Ian Ballantyne, Yale’s assistant athletic director of internal operations, helps coordinate Yale’s event staff for games, which includes ushers as well as venue security contracted through Contemporary Services Corporation. He said most ushers hear about the gig through word of mouth and that a short waiting list for the position existed last year. Krugel said he gets paid a little more than the minimum wage, but that he works as an usher “not for the money” but “for the experience.”
While 20 to 25 ushers work an average Yale football game, along with 56 CSC security staff, a number that swells to about twice that size for the Yale–Harvard game, Ballantyne said he assigns eight to 10 ushers for Yale men’s games. Six usually work in the stands, and two to three extras assist with courtside seating or facilitating visiting teams and referees to and from their locker rooms. One occasionally assists with parking, Ballantyne said, staffing the lot for referees a couple hours before tipoff or for University President Peter Salovey and Director of Athletics Vicky Chun dropping by to watch.
Ballantyne said Yale Athletics may look to expand the number of ushers they employ in the future.
“You get that friendly face, and people who see you every weekend, Friday and Saturday night,” Ballantyne said. “You kind of build that relationship, and those people want to come back, hopefully for the game and what’s going on there, but that friendly face to greet them. And that’s really a part of the experience. We want to continue to try and build on that.”
Like many who work in Ivy League athletics, this year has been strange for Ballantyne. Since joining Yale Athletics from Stanford in August 2019, Ballantyne has now worked longer from home without any competitions or Yale events than he has from the office. During a Zoom interview with the News last week, he was back in his Ray Tompkins House office, taking advantage of block scheduling that allows some staff to work hybrid hours in person.
Along with other colleagues who handle operations and events, Ballantyne is already looking towards the fall — studying how LSU, for example, operates bathrooms for fans in a pandemic or blocks off seats.
“Our operations are not on the scale of LSU or most teams in the SEC, but we can pick the things that really do work,” he said. “I think everyone will be chopping at the bit to come back to the Bowl, come back to JLA. I’m right there with them.”
While he has only worked as a JLA usher since 2018, Ralph Lenoci Jr. experienced the same void Krugel felt this winter.
Over a conversation at Lenoci’s mailbox in Shelton, Krugel, who works as Lenoci’s mailman, initially introduced the usher gig to him. Aside from the occasional football game at the Yale Bowl, Lenoci said he could not have called himself a fan of Yale before he started working as an usher. But without it, this winter felt strange for him.
“Something’s missing,” Lenoci said. “The camaraderie with the guys and the ladies that ushered — it was really cool. … I couldn’t ask for a better crew actually.”
Lenoci, who is a retired mailman himself, said he usually manned different sections during games, filling in where assistance was needed on game night. Krugel said he misses the duo’s occasional post-game routine: pizza from Modern.
The two often carpool together, eating slices on the way home to Shelton in Krugel’s 2003 Toyota, a vehicle Krugel compares to “a comfortable pair of basketball sneakers.”
“I miss that too,” Krugel said. “What we do is [with] around five minutes left in the game, we’ll call up in order something to take out. Hopefully we can coordinate it good. I’ll drive up, Ralph jumps out of the car, pays for the pizza and grabs it.”
Krugel has been a Connecticut sports fan his entire life, and he is keeping up with some of the Ivy League alumni he watched play at JLA over the past few years. His mother was once a secretary in one of the graduate programs along Hillhouse Avenue, and his father-in-law played for the University of Connecticut in the early 1950s. The dual set of affiliations brought Krugel, his wife and his in-laws out to Yale-UConn games and tailgates at the Yale Bowl.
This year, he is following along on television.
“Of course I’m a big UConn fan so I watch them on TV any chance I get, but I’ve also started watching Jordan Bruner [’20, who plays as a graduate transfer at Alabama],” Krugel said. “I’ve watched five or six of his games, he always starts. … I’ve come to make a mental note when it comes time to fill out my NCAA bracket, I’m going to give Alabama a lot of love.”
The John J. Lee Amphitheater hosted its first basketball game in 1932.
William McCormack | firstname.lastname@example.org