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The Weird and Wonderful World of Broadway Merchandise

T-shirts and mugs aren't the only Broadway souvenirs you can get these days - make room for the tchotchkes.

The hunt for treasures at the Broadway Flea Market
(© David Gordon)

If you have been in a theater in the last 25 years, you've seen them. Tucked against the wall, a handful of merchandise sellers hawk their wares to a seemingly endless stream of audience members, all clamoring for that one special token to commemorate their experience. Most people reach for a logo T-shirt or a tote bag, but a select few set their sights on a more specific souvenir: the tchotchke.

Broadway tchotchkes have been key marketing tools and gift items for nearly a century. The original production of the seminal musical Shuffle Along celebrated its year anniversary in 1922 with a small handheld game. Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's cannibalistic revenge musical Sweeney Todd sold an apron that could be purchased through the mail. Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein had dozens of niche products to choose from, including an "Abnormal" brain stress ball and a backpack bearing the signature line "What hump?" Entire resale markets have popped up around the collection of offbeat merchandise, with Facebook groups and eBay shops always on the hunt for the next thing to reappear, long after the show the item had marketed was closed.

The Shuffle Along first anniversary promotional game
(courtesy of Marc Bonanni)

The creation of unique promotional items seems to have hit its apex in the last 20 years, when inexpensive plastics and affordable screen printing collided to make small items more cost effective than flashy advertisement spots. By the summer of 2008, Wicked was hiring a plane to fly a promotional banner over beaches on the Jersey Shore, Long Island, and Montauk as street teams handed out themed beach towels, fans, tattoo decals, and sunscreen sticks. As vinyl and CD copies of cast albums became obsolete, the 2015 revival of On the Town handed out apple shaped USB drives containing a digital copy of the cast album. When Jersey Boys celebrated its 10th anniversary on Broadway in 2015, the show handed out commemorative bars of soap, wrapped in the iconic logo by a company that usually made products for Hilton hotels. Functional pieces like embossed notebooks became a key item at merchandise booths, alongside lapel pins and consumables. When ''Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" came to Broadway, the show sold chocolate bars and hot chocolate packets, complete with Golden Tickets.

A Charlie and the Chocolate Factory hot chocolate packet
(courtesy of Tiffany Holt)

All of these items added up, quickly. Before, unique items were only produced by successful shows with money in the marketing budget. Now, the majority of shows have a buffet of items at their disposal before beginning performances. If a show isn't a smash, or an item isn't as popular as expected, these promotional items and merchandise usually end up in one of two places — the bottom of a box in the marketing managers office, or the Broadway Flea Market.

For the uninitiated, the Broadway Flea Market is a massive swap meet in the waning weeks of summer where tables are set up on the streets of the theatre district to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Started in 1987 by cast members of A Chorus Line, it has ballooned from a few card tables in front of the Shubert Theatre into a million-dollar fundraising event. There, thousands of theater fans can pour over boxes of programs, T-shirts, and yes, promotional items.

In need of a coin purse? Caroline, or Change has you covered. A new keychain? How about a squishable Rocky boxing glove? A fashionable bandana for your dog? Hello, Doggie! Stuffed animals from Chicago, Pippin, and Fosse? Swing by the Dancers After 40 table. Vintage inspired political pins referencing a single line in your favorite show? Fun Home has a shoebox full.

Old Broadway sugar packets galore
(courtesy of Evan Ross)

Alongside the boxes of mass-produced merchandise, the Broadway Flea is notorious for its one-of-a-kind items, made by just about anyone. Jersey Boys-themed rubber ducks, jewelry made from Wicked's used guitar strings, and handbags made from used theatrical backdrops and curtains can all be found at the tables of theater-themed small businesses. Some items, like an Allegiance water bottle, come with a story — manufactured in South Korea by the official Michael K. Lee fan club, the water bottle traveled with Telly Leung from Allegiance to Aladdin, where it was signed by members of the 2018 company before being sold at the Disney table.

Specialty items are often prized for having more personality than a standard mug or baseball cap with a show's logo. Autographed toilet paper makes sense for Urinetown, but would be drastically out of place at The Phantom of the Opera. These items, be they promotional or sold at a show's merchandise booth, hold a special significance for many fans. While a collection of these items may appear more disjointed than a collection themed around logo magnets or window cards, it is just as carefully curated — the only difference is that they are collected for what they represent, rather than their actual functional purpose. They may be practical in the moment -- the Wicked sunscreen, a Noises Off tin of mints, and a Hand to God mini hand sanitizer all have a momentary purpose, but these items are hardly of the same value as a tin of Altoids or a Neutrogena sun stick.

What is valued is the sentiment. When done well, they capture something about the show they're representing, and enshrine the memory of the experience for the fan who gets a hold of it. They're tiny time capsules, suspending memories in paper, plastic, and print.

The Sweeney Todd apron
(courtesy of David Levy)

To add some wild and wonderful Broadway merchandise to your collection, visit the TheaterMania store here.

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