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The Ballyhoo of Broadway

An exhibit at Grand Central Terminal focuses on the advertising of Broadway shows through the years. logo
When Winifred Shaw sang "Lullaby of Broadway in 1935's Golddiggers of 1935 and invited moviegoers to listen to the Great White Way's "hip-hooray and ballyhoo," she neglected to mention that the ballyhoo could be looked at as well as listened to. That situation is being belatedly rectified this week by Serino Coyne, one of the town's leading theater advertising agencies, which bills something like $80 million annually: The outfit has organized a Grand Central Terminal exhibit called, fittingly enough, "The Ballyhoo of Broadway."

The ostensible occasion for the exhibit, part of AAAA's Advertising Week, is the 100th anniversary of theater advertising; but Serino Coyne also wants to call a little attention to itself and to competing agencies like Eliran Murphy Group, Spotco, and Weiner and Assoc. via the myriad 7' x 4' billboards that are on display.Opening today and continuing through Friday, "The Ballyhoo of Broadway" spotlights various aspects of the relatively small but nevertheless thriving theater advertising business. Viewers get a healthy dose of information on, for instance, how ad campaigns like Serino Coyne's for Cats and Spotco's for Avenue Q were developed. Memorable ballyhoos for classic tragedies such as Hamlet, classic comedies such as Noël Coward's Private Lives, and classic musicals such as the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein Show Boat are covered. Colorful space is given over to illustrators who have created some of the stick-to-the-mind logos and images for Rialto attractions over the decades. As it happens, they're all men: Al Hirshfeld, Hilary Knight, Tom Morrow, David Edward Byrd, Paul Davis, James McMullan, Gilbert Lesser and Doug Johnson. Their designs will instantly elicit nods of recognition.

Trends given the once-over in "The Ballyhoo of Broadway" include the building of campaigns around celebrated performers (but only one playwright: Neil Simon), the rise to prominence of photography, and the growth of direct mail. One billboard is devoted to the infamous Subways Are for Sleeping advert that David Merrick ran to boost ticket sales after that tuner received so-so reviews in 1969. For his nervy yet hilarious Subways ad, Merrick found seven men around New York City with the same names as the critics of the day -- a second Walter Kerr, an alternate Howard Taubman, a different John Chapman, etc. -- and coaxed favorable quotes from them. (It isn't pointed out in the exhibit that subways are also for advertising Broadway shows; maybe it doesn't need to be.)

The Vanderbilt Hall exhibit is, as Wini Shaw might have said in the '30s, a swell time, and highly commendable as far as it goes. Serving the important function of reminding theater patrons and the theater community alike how vital advertising is to a major American industry, it includes lots of skinny. Did you know, for instance, that it was Serino Coyne who coined (Coyned?) the term "Now and forever" for Cats? And there are only a few information glitches and oddities. Phyllis Newman was not, as identified, the leading lady in the above-mentioned Subways Are for Sleeping; the window card for Barefoot in the Park doesn't bill original star Elizabeth Ashley but, rather, replacement Penny Fuller; and the space devoted to theater periodicals doesn't note the difficulty that such enterprises face in finding loyal readers -- and advertisers. One publication that has lasted, American Theater, isn't shown.

Welcome as it is, The Ballyhoo of Broadway is aimed at commuters on the run and only whets an avid theatergoer's appetite for consideration of larger advertising issues. For that lowdown, one of the prime go-to people is Nancy Serino, who founded what's now Serino Coyne, Inc. in 1978 with Matthew Serino. A self-proclaimed theater lover, Coyne declares, "You sell a show to the audience that's going to like it the most; I can't sell a show audiences don't like." In other words, she's something of an optimistic realist who also reports that she can definitely sell a show that she doesn't personally admire. "If I couldn't," she laughs, "I wouldn't be in business."

Coyne, who left Blaine Thompson with Matthew Serino when they realized that they could concentrate on Broadway rather than plug it from a company division, has plenty to say about where theater advertising originated and even more about something that the extensive "Ballyhoo of Broadway" spread doesn't begin to address: Where theater advertising is going. She notes that things have come a long way since the time, as she phrases it, when "all you had to do was put up a picture of Ethel Merman and the title." Here, she's referring to the lack of interest and even belief in and respect for advertising that once existed among the theaterati. Those attitudes were so prevalent that when the Serino Coyne folks started gathering documents for the exhibit, they discovered that hardly any advertisements had been kept anywhere. Even at The New York Times, only editorial content has been preserved on microfilm and microfiche -- and this, Coyne emphasizes, despite studies indicating that ticket buyers get most of their information about shows from ads and not from editorial content. (The latter piece of information, of course, is a potential heart-breaker for theater journalists everywhere.)

Coyne acknowledges that she draws most of her insights about buying habits from focus groups. These are populated almost exclusively by women. Men, she insists, are next to useless in this regard; they predictably say about shows that they have attended, "My wife wanted to see it." (Yes, but what about shows that once were customized for "the tired businessman"? And what about that musical loving segment of the population, gay men?) It's from focus groups that Coyne and colleagues learned of previously undetected ticket-buying proclivities. For instance, they picked up the helpful understanding that shortly after the opening of The Lion King, which Serino Coyne had been marketing as a family entertainment, many people had ceased buying hard-to-get tickets for their kids but, instead, were purchasing them for adult couples whom they wanted to impress. Conversely, the Serino Coyne mavens learned that Cats, at first considered adult entertainment, was that much-wished-for item: a family show.

Coyne, as aware as the next person that a successful company must have a five-year and 10-year plan, expects theater advertising to be quite different even two years hence. She notes the shift already under way from print advertising to other locations; in large part, the change is due to increased reliance on direct mail and the Internet. Looking back momentarily, she recalls the '70s and '80s, when television advertising was new ground for show producers: "You could count on 80 percent of the ticket buyers you wanted to reach watching the late-night news shows," she says. Because of viewer fragmentation over the past 20 years, those days are gone, and myriad other outlets are now explored. The gain is that with the Internet, for example, tickets can be easily sold to patrons everywhere and not just in the city where a production is playing. In an age when the consumer is bombarded from all sides, it's perhaps surprising to hear Coyne report that the advertising budget for the average Broadway show -- including the average blockbuster -- is still only about 10 percent of the overall before- and after-opening budget.

Says Coyne of herself and her fellow purveyors, "Sometimes, we behave like sheep." She could be referring in part to the monkey see, monkey do activity that goes on. Coyne smiles when it's pointed out to her that there was a time, following Serino Coyne's cat's eyes Cats campaign, when many other theater ads focused on eyes. ("The eyes have it to pull in crowds," many advertisers suddenly seemed to believe.) Chatting with Coyne, one begins to think more deeply about theater advertising. For example: Off-Broadway, where limited budgets are a factor, suffers from a lack of Broadway-type ballyhooing. The fact is that Off-Broadway shows are rarely, if ever, included even in the "I Love New York" campaigns -- to which, by the way, the League of American Theatres and Producers also contributes.

There's another potential billboard missing from the "Ballyhoo" exhibit, one that raises the issue of out-of-context reviewer' quotes. Though not a constant problem, such ads occasionally crop up or have cropped up in the past. Prompting the average consumer to be hip to the possibility of misleading advertising wouldn't have been a bad idea. And speaking of reviewers' quotes: Although Coyne indicates that advertising agencies recognize the selling power of the Internet today, few houses include excerpts from website notices in so-called quote ads. It's a curious oversight that is undoubtedly due for correction; maybe it's not just advertisers but also producers who need to do more updated thinking.

Even as late as 2004, advertising in general may still carry something of a huckster stigma. Consumers may still suspect that, through advertising, they're being manipulated into buying something they don't want or need. But if it's kept in mind that the theater is one of the junctures of art and commerce and that the arts are the soul of a civilization, then advertising can be seen as good for the soul -- not all advertising, but the best of it. Yes, Broadway is eminently worth all of the ballyhoo.

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