Playbill Magazine Celebrates 125 Years in the Biz Sept. 21

By Robert Viagas
21 Sep 2009

Playbill logos through the years
Playbill logos through the years

Playbill Magazine celebrates its 125th anniversary Sept. 21 with a by-invitation-only to-do at the Bon Appétit Supper Club in Manhattan with special performances by Golden Globe and two-time Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters and Allie Trimm, who plays Kim MacAfee in the current revival of Bye Bye Birdie.

Among those expected to join Playbill and its staff in a celebration of Broadway's past, present and future are Gina Gershon (Bye Bye Birdie, Boeing-Boeing), John Stamos (Bye Bye Birdie, Cabaret), Lynn Redgrave (Nightingale ), Ana Gasteyer ("Saturday Night Live," The Royal Family ), Michael McKean (Superior Donuts ), Cheyenne Jackson (Finian's Rainbow, Xanadu ), Mark-Paul Gosselaar (The Understudy), Justin Kirk ("Weeds," The Understudy), Tony Award winner John Glover (The Royal Family, Waiting for Godot ), Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell (Man of La Mancha; Kiss Me, Kate), Anna Chlumsky ("My Girl," Unconditional ), Mark Indelicato ("Ugly Betty") and director Joseph Hardy, among many others.

Playbill.com thought it a good time to present a brief history of the magazine that is beloved by theatre fans around the world.

In 1884 Times Square was still called Long Acre Square. There were no electric lights there yet—nor, for that matter, were there any theatres, because the New York theatre district was still centered some 20 blocks south. It was at the Madison Square Theatre, on 24th Street, that a great Broadway tradition was born.

As theatregoers were being seated, they were handed a bill of particulars about that evening's play, David Belasco's May Blossom, and its star, DeWolfe Hopper. It was the very first of what would someday come to be known as the Playbill.



For 125 years the Playbill company, under different names and owners, has shared Broadway's journey, surviving depressions, World Wars, and even Moose Murders. There have been many outward changes over the years, but the basic formula of free, ad-supported programs with lists of actors and creators has stayed remarkably similar to the earliest ones conceived and handcrafted by company founder Frank Vance Strauss.

The company stayed in the Strauss family for more than 70 years. The single-sheet handbill evolved into a booklet, adding beautiful art nouveau color covers for each theatre in 1911. For the ensuing two decades, the programs began to evolve beyond simply listing the show's credits, though these remained the cornerstone of each program. The programs began to offer editorial content based on the life of the theatregoer. Stories featuring fashion advice, interviews, jokes — even short stories, book reviews and advice on car care — began to be seen. The color covers were replaced in 1930 by sepia, but changed for each play. The name The Playbill was used for the first time in 1934, and the black logo in Egyptian Wide typeface on a yellow background made its debut in the mid-1950s.

Strauss' nephew, Richard M. Huber, sold the company to Broadway producer Roger L. Stevens in 1956. Stevens experimented briefly with a single cover for every Playbill, an innovation that brought howls from collectors. He soon returned to the colored logo and rebranded the magazine from The Playbill to simply Playbill. Gilman Kraft bought the company in 1960 and sold it to conglomerate Metromedia in 1968, but not before hiring as publisher Arthur T. Birsh, a master printer who invented the process that allowed Playbill to print color ads.

The Broadway box office took a nosedive in the early 1970s, and the short-lived innovation of a lemon-orange-raspberry logo didn't seem to help. Metromedia was happy to sell the company to Birsh in 1974 — just in time for the Broadway renaissance that unfurled with the opening of A Chorus Line in 1975. Playbill has remained in the hands of the Birsh family ever since.

Over the years, a Runyonesque collection of characters has met deadlines for Playbill: raconteur Leo Lerman, caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, gregarious Harry Haun and yarn-spinning Louis Botto, to name just a few, overseen by editors Joan Alleman from 1966 to 1993, Judy Samelson from 1993 to 2009, and now, new chief Blake Ross.

Philip S. Birsh
Philip S. Birsh succeeded his father as publisher in 1993. "My father diligently tended to and protected the Playbill brand," he says. Without his stewardship, the company would not have survived and grown into what it is today."

Birsh continued his father's legacy by embarking on a series of innovations to modernize and expand the business. Playbill was still being typeset in lead "hot type" on ancient linotype machines right up until that date, so the first transformation was to computerize production.

With computerization came the founding of the magazine's internet service, Playbill.com, as a news, consumer information and marketing medium in 1994. Playbill.com was the first to webcast from the Tony Awards, in 1995, in partnership with America Online. The news service has since become an international theatre institution, providing up-to-the-minute breaking news about the people and productions of Broadway and beyond.

The Playbill Club was later formed and has since helped to sell millions of tickets, offer restaurant deals and special access to different types of events to hundreds of thousands of subscribers worldwide. The virtual Playbill Store opened soon after and now offers show merchandise for productions both on and Off-Broadway.

Playbill.com reflected a new national, and even international, strategy for the company. Already publishing in places like Florida, Texas and Philadelphia, Playbill also began to serve theatres in Chicago, California and elsewhere. A new division, Playbill Arts, was founded to serve the classic arts. In late spring of 2002, after 118 years of "practice," Playbill finally made it to Carnegie Hall, assuming production of programs for that throne of classical music. In 2002 Playbill also absorbed longtime rival Stagebill and merged many of its operations across the U.S. into the Playbill family of programs.

Along with Playbill's move into realms of classical music and the internet, Birsh began the 2000s by creating new book publishing and broadcast divisions of the company. Playbill Broadcast launched in 2002 with the advent of Radio Playbill, now offered exclusively through PlaybillRadio.com. In September of that year, the Playbill Books division debuted with the release of Louis Botto's updated "At This Theatre." "The Playbill Broadway Yearbook," a lighthearted but in-depth look behind the scenes of every Broadway show, made its first annual appearance in 2005.

In 2009 Playbill presses will roll out some 3.9 million programs monthly for nearly 100 theatres in 24 cities.

But figures alone can't tell the many ways the friendly black-on-yellow Playbill logo has been woven into theatregoing life. Playbills get pressed into albums, read at intermissions, clutched on trains, framed like posters, given as gifts, sought by collectors and opened eagerly by young actors, a certification that they have at last "arrived." Playbill continues to be proud and grateful to serve the grandest industry on earth.