The feud between New York theatre producers and the organization that runs the TKTS discount ticket booth shifted into a higher gear March 18 as the latter group fired the executive director of the former group from its board of directors.
In a statement to Playbill On-Line, David D. Holbrook, chairman of the Theatre Development Fund (TDF) which runs the familiar "Half-Price Line" in Times Square, said "A conflict of interest between the Theatre Development Fuind and the League of American Theatres and Producers, as demonstrated by recent events, has led to the removal of Mr. Jed Bernstein from the Board of TDF."
The 'recent events' refers to news of a study being conducted by the League to determine whether and how it should start and run its own center for selling (and discounting) theatre tickets. TDF claims Bernstein knew of the study, but didn't inform TDF.
In his statement about Bernstein's ouster, Holbrook added, "Nevertheless, it is our desire to continue to work cooperately with the League, of which Mr. Bernstein is Executive Director, and all its members towards maintaining the traditional high level of service that TDF has provided theatregoers in New York City for 30 years.
Calls to Bernstein were referred to spokesperson Kylie Robertson, who had not returned phone calls as of 5:30 PM March 19. Coincidentally, a League committee submitted a 75-page report on its study to the League's own executive committee late March 18, at the same time TDF was meeting to oust Bernstein.
Producer James Freydberg told Playbill On-Line March 18 that the only purpose of the League meeting was to submit and discuss the report with the leaders of the League, which promotes and, to some extent, regulates activities in the Broadway theatre district.
But Freydberg said the idea has been in development for some months.
TDF operates the TKTS booth, which offers tickets to Broadway and Off Broadway shows for discounts of 25 or 50 percent, plus a service charge, on the same day of performance. TDF relies on the League's members, the producers, to supply the booth with unsold tickets.
Freydberg expressed anger at the tone of press coverage since the story about the plan broke in the New York Daily News March 17. "Remarks that producers are doing this out of some sense of greed is one of the most absurd, outrageous, offensive . . . and disgraceful remarks I've ever heard," he said. "It's exactly the opposite. The booth was set up [in 1973] to be a last-minute place to sell tickets not sold at the box office. But it's built into something monumental. It became the place where people started to buy tickets. We're a luxury business -- why have people standing outside [on the TKTS lines] in the rain? A group of us decided to sit down and figure out a more convenient way to do it -- and to include TDF if at all possible. "
The League reportedly is looking at indoor facilities in the Times Square area near the existing booth at Broadway and 47th Street.
TDF spokespersons have expressed the fear that the League will close the booth and offer less generous discounts. TKTS is run by TDF, a non-profit organization that uses the $2.50-per-ticket surcharge on all discount tix to fund educational programs, dance and playwriting subsidies, and efforts to make theatre more accessible to lower income and physically challenged audiences.
"There will be no attempt whatsoever to eliminate discounting of tickets," Freydberg said.
A story in the New York Daily News quoted from a letter by Theatre Development Fund Chairman (TDF) David Holbrook, sent to the League Of American Theatres & Producers, claiming that League executive director Jed Bernstein, though a member of the TDF Board, is in serious discussion with Broadway producers to come up with a more profitable, less generous discount outlet.
In the letter excerpt printed by the News, Holbrook writes, "our dealings with the new leadership of the League are fraught with tension and even outright hostility... Jed Bernstein -- himself a member of the TDF Board of Directors -- [is] now focused on establishing and promoting a new discount ticket office in the Times Square neighborhood in direct competition with TKTS. We understand it is Mr. Bernstein's expressed hope that this new enterprise will ultimately replace TKTS."
For his part, Bernstein replied in a statement that TDF had "misinterpreted normal, ongoing business discussions as plans. The league conducts discussions exploring many ideas about future ticket-selling and distribution." Bernstein wrote that if any of these discussions were formalized into an actual plan, TDF "would be an important partner to consult."
According to the New York Post, the new plan would offer an indoor facility rather than the all-weather long lines on 47th Street, and would offer an even greater variety of discounting strategies than the 25 or 50 percent off currently given by TKTS.
Gilberto Zaldivar, a member of the TDF Board of Directors and producer/co-founder of Off-Broadway's Repertorio Espanol, told Playbill On-Line he'd read Holbrook's memo on Friday, March 14, but has yet to have read "anything further substantive on the issue." Zaldivar did say that he's "known TDF for over 30 years, and the service and contribution they make in general is tremendous. They have worked very hard to get where they are, including outgoing president Thomas Leahy."
Although Repertorio shows are not represented at the TKTS booth, the theatre makes heavy use of TDF's discount vouchers -- especially during the school year. "After June we don't get many redeemed vouchers, but come September, it all comes back. We have at least 16,000 students benefiting from TDF. Those are big numbers. We don't deal with the League, and Equity has no authorizations over theatres in Spanish, so we don't have an Equity contract. And we do 350 performances a year."
Asked about the positives and negatives of a rival discount tickets booth in midtown Manhattan, Zaldivar said, "It doesn't make sense. In this moment of retrenching and downsizing, I don't see why another service would come along and fulfill a service already done very well by TDF. How could they do more with less?"
In an official statement faxed to Playbill On-Line, March 17, the League called the TKTS controversy "a gross misimpression," implying that the League "is planning a new box office operation which would end the availability of discount tickets to Broadway shows. Nothing could be further from the truth."
The statement goes on to say that any ticket-selling program the League might design would only "better serve the customer with easier, more accessible distribution of tickets," including those at a discount." "Nothing other than a preliminary evaluation has taken place," continues the statement, which adds that League members will continue providing tickets to TDF's TKTS booth. "If the League should decide that any concept it is currently analyzing warrants more formal consideration, we would certainly consult with TDF. We have worked cooperatively with [TDF] in the past on many projects, and it is our intention to continue that relationship.
Freydberg said the committee studying options for the League includes Barry Weissler, Edgar Dobie, Paul Libin, Roger Berlind, Philip Smith, Herschel Waxman and Robert Wankel -- all major independent or institutional producing executives.