NEW YORK -- When Jay-Z and Alicia Keys filmed the video for “Empire State of Mind,” their valentine to New York City, they naturally ended up in Times Square, singing on illuminated red glass steps. It was no mere set: It was two New York icons standing on another.
Their stage was the top of the TKTS booth, which has become part of the city's visual and financial DNA and a key part in keeping Broadway going. This week that booth is celebrating its 50th birthday, with the city celebrating on Wednesday with songs and speeches.
“It is so intrinsically linked with the city,” says Victoria Bailey, executive director of the non-profit TDF, formerly known as the Theatre Development Fund, which runs the booth. “It has kind of always been a symbol.”
It's a discount ticket booth where same-day Broadway and off-Broadway shows can be more affordable for those who balk at prices pushing past $300 a seat for some musicals. About 30% of the people who line up are first-time Broadway theatergoers.
Thousands of tickets are sold at the booth every day as the various commercial theater box offices calculate how many full-price tickets they can sell and then send the rest to TKTS. The theater gets all the ticket revenue and TDF gets a $7 service fee per ticket, which helps fund its education, community and outreach programs.
Some 68.6 million tickets have been sold from the booth during its 50 years, with more than $2.6 billion going back to the shows. Despite the rise of online rivals and apps hawking discounted theater tickets, lining up at the booth is as fundamental as cooing over the Statue of Liberty or taking a photo with a nearby costumed Elmo.
The current glass-enclosed booth opened in 2008, part of an $18 million renovation project that evokes a Greek amphitheater or Rome’s famous Spanish steps, where visitors can sit on the 27 steps and watch the street scene. Jay-Z and Keys may have had the steps to themselves in their video, but it is ordinarily a very crowded place.
“There’s so many people that keep coming back even after the pandemic and will stand on that line to come and see shows. And they thank us. That’s something that didn’t happen as often before. But it happens more now, and I love it,” says Ann Ramirez, a TKTS supervisor.
TDF created satellite TKTS booths in Brooklyn, at the World Trade Center and in Lincoln Center, as well as helped develop booths in Boston, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Denver, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Toronto, London and Sydney.
The first booth was a temporary experiment that stuck in Times Square. It opened for business on June 25, 1973, using an abandoned trailer donated by the Parks department with holes punched in it for ticket windows. The neighborhood was different then — seedy and dangerous.
“Broadway was falling apart then,” says Robert Mayers, who with business partner John Schiff designed the booth and the logo. “They wanted to do an experiment because the area was in disrepair.”
Mayers and Schiff were given just $5,000 for the capital budget, and they rented scaffolding to go around the booth. They wove a translucent plastic fabric with the iconic logo among the bars and clamped spotlights on the frame.
“It’s a very theatrical kind of vocabulary,” says Mayers. “We looked at it as a giant kite. It was supposed to be light hearted, related to the theater and make a visual statement in a very busy place."
They thought it would stay up for a year or two, at best. Instead, it won design awards and lasted decades. Their influence can be seen in the abbreviated, vowel-less apps and company titles of today — Flickr to Unbxd and DNCE.
“I noticed whenever you see movies of the ‘70s or ’80s and they’re in New York, there’s always a scene in Times Square or Duffy Square where the camera goes by and you see the TKTS booth. I always get a kick out of that,” says Mayers.
If the booth was an attempt to stabilize the neighborhood, it is a still a sign that the city is open for business — important steps after events like 9/11, Superstorm Sandy and the coronavirus pandemic.
“You talk to ushers, you talk to wardrobe people, you talk to the people backstage and they talk about the booth as the thing that has over the years kept them employed,” said Bailey, who went to there for tickets in college and later sent tickets to the booth as a Broadway general manager.
These days, visitors make their picks from a list of shows on continually updating electronic boards. TDF also has a free phone app that lists its offerings in real time.
Staffers are on hand to help in red jackets or T-shirts with the TKTS logo and the printed slogan “Got questions?” They're theater fans, having seen all the shows on offer and aware of the best and worst seats in the city’s various theaters. Most patrons get through the line in less than 45 minutes, longer on holidays.
The advice is to be flexible — have decided on two or three possible shows by the time you get to the window. Bailey notices that people in line often help each other out with recommendations and swap info on shows.
Tickets to mega-hits like “Hamilton” and “Wicked” typically won’t appear at the booth since they don’t need to offer discounts. New shows often do until they become a hot ticket, like after a Tony Award win or favorable reviews. But, eventually, most shows end up listed at the booth.
“There comes a point in the evolution of a show when they need help,” says Bailey, who earned a Tony this year for her work helping theater. “Shows like ‘A Chorus Line,’ ‘The Wiz,’ ‘Chicago,’ ‘The Phantom of the Opera,’ those shows ran extra years because of the booth.”
On a recent day, the booth had 50% discounts for “Camelot,” “A Beautiful Noise, the Neil Diamond Musical,” “Good Night, Oscar,” “Grey House,” “New York, New York,” “Once Upon a One More Time,” “Hadestown” and “Chicago.” Tickets for “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” with Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan were as little as $50.
Unlike other paid ticket sellers wandering around Times Square pushing one particular musical or play, TKTS representatives aren't allowed to recommend a single show but instead offer a range of options appropriate to the visitor — family friendly, dramatic, light, scary.
Once at the window, ticket sellers quickly scan a blueprint of the theater for available seats and offer visitors options, like couples can sit apart with an unobstructed view or sit together with a “partial view” and risk missing something onstage.
In addition to catching shows herself, Ramirez loves seeing her regulars and learning what they've liked and what they haven't.
“This is where we get a lot of information,” she says. “They will come back and tell me all the business, tell me who was in it, who was bad, who was good, Was it good, Was it not?”
Mark Kennedy can be reached at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits