One of the city’s most beloved Broadway resources, TKTS is about to celebrate 50 years of providing discounted same-day theater tickets to grateful New Yorkers and visitors.
The landmark booth — known for its position beneath the famous “Red Steps” of Father Duffy Square at W47th Street — was originally founded in June 1973 and has since seen over 68 million deeply discounted theater admissions, expanding Broadway and Off-Broadway’s reach and increasing tourism in Times Square. To mark the 50-year milestone, TKTS officials and local leaders plan to honor the institution, operated by arts outreach nonprofit the Theatre Development Fund (TDF), on Wednesday, June 28 at 11am in front of the Red Steps.
“After 50 years, TKTS continues to be a go-to destination to theatergoers from the US and abroad,” TDF’s Executive Director Victoria Bailey told W42ST. “From the first trailer with canvas sails emblazoned with the now iconic red ‘tkts’ logo to the current booth in Duffy Square, TKTS has provided affordable tickets to millions of first time theatergoers as well as seasoned attendees on a budget. TKTS helps fulfill TDF’s mission of removing barriers, in this case financial, to attendance to the performing arts.”
The Times Square of 1973 presented more than a few financial barriers for theatergoers. Faced with a New York barreling towards financial crisis, producers and artists were having a hard time convincing already cash-strapped residents to purchase what was often a pricey ticket, and to encourage tourists to make their way into the heart of the city’s porn and drug-use epicenter known as The Deuce. TKTS founder and former president, the late Anna E Crouse, wrote in 2013 of the need for a more enticing theatrical model. “The idea had been in the air ever since an incredible report on the state of the theatre was issued in 1972 by Eugene R. Black, Jr. [suggesting a free market supply and demand model],” wrote Anna. “It caused such a commotion — everybody hated it. One of the suggestions to come out of the discussion that followed was for a half-price ticket booth to get more people into the theatre, especially more young people.”
Then-mayor John Lindsay, intrigued by the proposal, reached out to the League of American Producers to set up a half-price booth, said Anna. The idea fell through, and eventually Lindsay took the concept to TDF, where Anna had served as a trustee since the organization’s foundation in 1968. “When it came into our hands, Hugh Southern (then executive director of TDF) was very much for it and I was crazy to do it,” wrote Anna. “The TDF board said two things: you can’t use any TDF money and you must get permission from the League and some assurance they will give you tickets. There were less than a dozen shows on Broadway that summer,” she added. “It was really frightening.”
For Anna, the motivation to push through and establish a more affordable ticket option was personal. “The reason I was so interested in it was because as a stage-struck youngster I had gone to Gray’s Drugstore. This remarkable man, Joe Leblang, had started the cut-rate ticket idea really, on a bicycle selling freebies that he had been given for putting show posters in his window,” wrote Anna. “He sold so many that he moved into a corner of Gray’s Drugstore on 43rd Street. At Gray’s ticket desk, prices went down as you got closer to the curtain.”
She added: “I thought that the problem in 1973 was that although the ticket was only $10, it was a lot of money for a family. Nobody took children to the theatre because you wouldn’t spend $10 on a child. There were just gray-haired people in the theatre. It was going downhill very fast. John Lindsay’s interest in having the booth was that Times Square was literally empty and people were terrified to go there because there was so much mugging. He felt if a lot of people were gathered and activity was going on, it would help the crime rate drop — as indeed it did.”
The Lindsay administration managed permissions from the Parks Department and allotted $20,000 (approximately $136,650 in today’s currency) toward the construction of a booth in Father Duffy Square. “Without him I don’t think it ever would have happened,” reflected Anna. But there were detractors: “At the first big meeting with the League, there were a lot of people who hesitated and said it will never work,” she added. “Somebody spoke up and said, ‘Let’s form a committee to study it.’ I said, ‘No committees. Just yes or no.’ Finally, they said all right, let’s try it.”
The late Philip J Smith, former head of the Shubert Organization, credited Anna with much of the victory. “I had to go to a League meeting in Sardi’s and report to the League group on what we thought the outside number would be if it didn’t work, because nobody even knew if anybody would show up. I put a number of $25,000 on it, and the membership voted it down. It was too much, too rich,” wrote Philip. “Then, of course, Anna Crouse and TDF came along and bailed the whole thing out. She came up to see me with Hugh Southern, and of course now it’s history.”
The initial pilot run in the summer of 1973 was not without speed bumps, wrote Anna. “I think it was the elder Oscar Hammerstein who said there is nothing more useless than an unsold seat. And there were plenty of unsold seats that summer,” she wrote. “It was an empty town. And people were literally saying, ‘I don’t go to the theatre because it’s too dangerous.’”
But despite some public reticence, the TKTS booth soldiered on. “We seemed the right people to manage the booth,” wrote Anna. “We could include Off-Broadway and Lincoln Center and music and dance and everything else because we were not-for-profit. That it took off so fast was really a miracle.”
Before long, the TKTS booth was a fixture in Times Square, drawing long lines rain or shine from eager theatergoers grateful for the chance to snag same-day show tickets. Broadway attendance — bolstered in part by the Walt Disney Company’s investment in the area in the early 1990s — continued to grow, and by 2006, the modest booth was in need of expansion. The TDF team chose to construct a larger-scale ticketing hut combined with a new public gathering space — the Red Steps. During construction, operations remained open, moving into the Marriott Marquis, and in 2008 the new TKTS booth and accompanying steps debuted to much public acclaim. Although the booth and steps closed during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, both the original booth and its Lincoln Center outpost have since reopened and are busier than ever.
Years after that first summer, Anna Crouse reflected on the impact of the TKTS booth. “Coming back from Ireland on Aer Lingus, I watched a travelogue about New York City on what everyone should go see,” she wrote. “The points mentioned were the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center, and the TKTS booth. We deserve a long-term lease from the city on our spot in Duffy Square. The city had better not let this go. TKTS now means literally millions of dollars to the theatre.”