PLEASE SUPPORT W42ST

W42ST runs on limited resources to keep Hell’s Kitchen connected, updated and upbeat. Access is totally free. Please consider supporting what we do so that we can continue our work!

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. 

tkts times square
TKTS is readying to celebrate 50 years in Times Square. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

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.”

TKTS booth rendering
The original rendering of the TKTS booth. Photo supplied

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.”

TKTS booth 1973
The original TKTS booth in 1973. Photo supplied

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.”

tkts board
The TKTS show board in 1981. Photo supplied

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.”

Anna Crouse, Phil Smith smiling at TKTS
TKTS founder Anna Crouse with Shubert Organization head Phil Smith at the TKTS 25th anniversary celebration in 1998. Photos supplied

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. 

  • red steps construction
  • tkts red steps
  • red steps with people on them

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.” 

TKTS in Times Square. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Join the Conversation

5 Comments

  1. This story gives short thrift to Joe Leblang, who had a much bigger operation than the TKTS stand ever has and to say that “nobody said it would work” is not really true as LeBlang was doing exactly this from 1895 to 1930, just not as a non-profit. The only reason it ended was because he died and his heirs did not take over the business, choosing instead to spend the vast fortune on a lavish lifestyle in New Jersey.

  2. In 1973 I was a very young CPA working for the theatrical accounting firm Pinto, Winokur and Pagano. The audit of the Theatre Development Fund was one of my responsibilities. I got to know the people there. I chose to leave the firm and, when I did, I was offered the role of (part time) controller of the about to open TKTS booth. I worked closely with the box office treasurers, devising the forms and format for recording and reporting the financial activity of the booth and keeping track of and managing the revenue. The booth was an immediate success. My co workers and I at TDF were thrilled every day at 3 PM (noon on Wednesdays) to look out our office windows, first at the Palace Theatre and then at 1501 Broadway, and see the long lines that had formed.
    We were so proud to be a part of that.
    Your article rightly focuses on Anna Crouse and Hugh Southern, who had the vision, wisdom and skill to create what has become a NYC icon.
    There are others though who had a big part of the success. Jimmy Gatens and Bernie Reed were head treasurers. I may have their exact titles wrong but they ran a smooth and effective operation – the lines kept moving and every ticket and every dollar were accounted for. Bill Orton was the general manager and kept his arms tightly around all the details (and personalities) that had to be managed. The success of the booth allowed TDF to grow and expand to become the important contributor to the theatre community that it is.
    I soon became the controller of the entire organization. I left a few years later to pursue the next step in my career path. I always look back on my involvement with the formation of the booth and my time at TDF with pride and fondness.

  3. Thanks for this article, I had no idea the history behind TKTS. We have been going there 30 years or so. It’s just the best. We are going in next week to try for &Juliet, was saw Kimberly Akimbo last week. It is even fun waiting on the long line, talking to the out-of-towners and giving recommendations.

  4. I grew up in New England and earned two degrees in theatre so going to Broadway was always important… but money was not very available. I moved across the country to teach theatre at a university in California in 1979. Annual visits back East always include seeing at least 5 shows in 3-4 days in the city. I couldn’t have done it without TKTS. I never bought tickets in advance… first move on arrival was to go see “what was on the Board”. And another bonus was if you were going to run into an old college friend or a colleague, it would be while waiting in the line. I’m retired now so the need to see so many at one time has lessened and I am a little more selective, but I still check out TKTS first.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *