Steps Right Up TKTS Celebrates 40 Years in Times Square

By Harry Haun
July 9, 2013

The TKTS Booth celebrates 40 years in the center of Times Square.



At the heart of Broadway in Duffy Square (which is technically a triangle stretching from 46th to 47th Streets) you'll find an oasis of silence that shuts out the hustle and bustle of the theatre district.

You have to climb to find this stillness — 28 steps in all, and all red, stretching to 47th and forming a lean-to for TKTS, which dispenses discount tickets on a day-of basis.

Victoria Bailey, executive director of Theatre Development Fund, first made this climb and experienced this serenity when the construction fence was still up.

"It was kind of magical, sitting on the steps, looking up at the buildings and not hearing the city sounds," she recalled. "I said to the architect, Nick Leahy of Perkins Eastman, 'It's going to be sad when the fence goes,' and he said, 'No. It's still going to be quiet all the time. It's in the design.'"

Van Alen Institute, an architectural design think-tank, administered the design competition, which received 683 entries from 31 countries. The winners were a couple of 20-somethings from Australia.

"When I saw the steps," said Bailey, "I thought of an amphitheatre — a Greek amphitheatre — so I said, 'You understand the theatrical vocabulary—that's why you did this, right?' They said, 'We just like red steps.'"

In the almost five years since the multi-million dollar edifice opened, it's turned into something TDF wasn't expecting: a hangout spot. The steps — the roof of the TKTS building — are teeming with tourists and potential customers. Those who venture below find a Broadway bargain basement — 12 windows that offer the day's fare, and multilingual customer-service reps ready to assist and suggest. Future full-price tickets are also available. A TKTS app has entered the act, too, providing real-time ticket availability information.

All that is a long way from June 25, 1973, when the TKTS booth opened for business as a crime-busting ploy. Criminals were terrorizing theatre worse than critics back then, and Broadway was a chancy place to visit.

"The first booth was the start of what I call the resurrection of Times Square," said Bailey. It was, she thinks, the collective brainstorm of Mayor Lindsay's administration, The Shuberts (Gerald Schoenfeld and Philip J. Smith) and Anna Crouse, TDF vice president at the time.

Rarer and harder to track is the idea that TKTS can create playwrights. Consider Douglas Carter Beane, author of Cinderella and The Nance.

"If it weren't for TKTS," he said, "I wouldn't have two shows on Broadway right now."

When he was 16 he informed his folks he wanted to go to New York to do theatre. They had a counter-suggestion: "Go to New York for one weekend, see some shows and see if you like it." A worldly friend in high school told him how to proceed.

"Her name was Ellen Walter, and she said, 'Go to the little booth in Times Square that says TKTS. That stands for TicKeTS, and it's put there by TDF, which stands for Theatre Damn Near Free.' I came home and I said, 'I have to do this for the rest of my life,' so I will be in TDF's gratitude forever."