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Booth is Still in Town

As the TKTS booth celebrates its 30th anniversary, Filichia discusses the evolution of this Times Square fixture. logo
Theatergoers check "the board" at TKTS to see
what shows are offering half-price tickets
So TKTS, Theatre Development Fund's discount ticket booth at 47th and Broadway, turned 30 years old on Wednesday. Since it opened on Monday, June 25, 1973, neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of early evening has prevented this booth from staying open 365 days a year. TKTS has distributed over 43 million same-day discount tickets (some at 50% off, some at 25% off) to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, as well as some music and dance events. It's meant more than $940 million in revenue.

According to a press release issued by TDF, "The mission of TKTS has always been to make reasonably priced theatre tickets easier to get, attract new and younger audiences and help shows stay open longer." Says TDF executive director Victoria Bailey, "It's done exactly what it set out to do. First, people can buy tickets who otherwise couldn't afford to."

I wonder if that's true. As radio station WINS reported, when the booth opened "the average TKTS ticket went for $4.50, at 50 percent off. Now, it's 10 times higher, the average price being $40.75." Back then, gas was 50 cents a gallon. It's not $5 now. In those days, a can of Coke was 35 cents. It's not $3.50 now.

When the booth came into existence, the very top ticket price for a Broadway musical was $15. How well I remember that on Friday, October 12, 1973, my then-wife and I drove up from Boston and arrived on 47th Street after 7pm. I pulled over and Lilli blithely got out of the car, walked up to the window, and immediately bought two for the Seesaw musical that was ensconced at the Hellinger. Fourth row right, $8.50 each. (Tickets over $10 in those days were subject to a $1 surcharge.) Lilli sauntered back to the car, which I hadn't even needed to shift into "Park" but had kept in "Drive." That's how short a time it took for the transaction to be completed. If my car held up traffic, I don't recall anyone beeping a horn.

Little did I know what an anomaly that experience would be. In the next three years, I saw many Broadway shows; but because I was still living in Boston and wanted to see the smash hits, I usually sent in mail orders in advance. So I didn't use TKTS again until Wednesday, February 18, 1976, when I saw two lines longer than four Rockettes companies snaking all the way down to 46th Street. As I modestly took my place at the end of one line, I knew I had a long stretch ahead of me. And when I got to the front more than 90 minutes later, Yentl -- which I most wanted to see -- was gone, forcing me settle for The Trip Back Down, a play at the Longacre that starred John Cullum. I was stunned when the TKTS box office man asked for $7, for that meant that the ticket price for a straight play had jumped to $12. Only a few years earlier, straight plays on Broadway were charging $6.90 at the box office -- a dime less than I was paying at this site that was supposedly cutting me a generous deal. Why had ticket prices almost doubled?

Because producers and managements still wanted the same money that they got before the TKTS booth went into existence, that's why. The only way to do that with half-price tickets was to double the price. I could be wrong about this, but I truly believe that if TKTS never happened, ticket prices wouldn't be nearly as high as they are now. I suspect that producers today think of their ticket sales in terms of what they'll get at "the pushcart," as it's chummily become known, and not the box office itself. Hence the extravagant jump in prices. (By the way, when the booth opened, every seat was 50% off. None of that 25% business back then.)

Granted, there is the one-size-fits-all convenience of staying in one place and choosing from as many as 50 shows that TKTS often offers. On the other hand, you probably could make better time going from box office to box office to buy tickets for what you really want to see. After all, there are plenty of shows on the board that are irrelevant to you, productions that you would definitely not see. (Perfect Crime, anyone?) What's more, at the average Broadway theater box office, you would be able to ask about seat locations, whereas you get no choice at TKTS. Even if you did, you'd most likely feel rushed and would hate holding up the dozens of people in line behind you to inquire about where you were sitting.

Not like the good old days:
Long lines at the TKTS booth are a common sight in Times Square
"Theatergoers wait in line anywhere from five to 90 minutes" at TKTS, according to spokesman David LeShay. Many of us learned that, to avoid an interminable line, we're usually better off going at 7:30pm -- really the only time when it's a five-minute wait -- and taking pot luck. But most TKTS patrons won't take that chance, so onto the long line they go. Think of all the accumulated hours -- nay, days and weeks -- that people would have better spent had they not wasted them waiting in line. Lord knows how many cases of sunstroke were nourished from those long waits in the summer. Many a person developed a cold, I'm sure, in the frigid February breezes. All in the cause of economy.

Still, I must admit that I'll always be grateful to the TKTS booth for providing me with one of my all-time favorite incidents. While waiting in line in 1977, I met a fetching young woman named Anne Kemmerle from Cincinnati. We kept in touch, and on her next trip to the city, we made plans for dinner. "But do you mind if my neighbor Van joins us?" she said. "You might like him. He's an actor." I said sure, and one of the first things she did after we were seated was tell Van, "Peter knows all about Broadway, but I guess that comes from being a native New Yorker." I was about to correct her -- that I was actually a Bostonian who had only moved to town six months before -- but the conversation went off in a different direction, so I didn't bother to make a point of it.

Eventually, I asked Van the question I ask each and every actor I meet: "Have I ever seen you in anything?" He looked annoyed and said, "Definitely not!" Whenever an actor says that, I matter-of-factly state, "Well, I DO catch an awful lot of theater, so it's not impossible that I saw you in something." But Van was having none of it. He gave me a you're-a-moron look and said in a mocking voice, "All right -- did you see Temporary Technical Difficulties at a workshop at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts on a Monday night last April?" And when I raised my eyebrows, pointed at him, and said "You were the kid who played the cymbals!" the guy looked as if he'd just been shot in the head.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilich[email protected]]

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