The most healthy thing has just happened: For the first time, these two groups will now have to get together and learn how to work together -- to the benefit of the theatregoer."
Those are the words of producer James Freydberg, interviewed March 20 about escalating tension between the League Of American Theatres and Producers, and the Theatre Development Fund (TDF).
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 TDF fired the executive director of the League 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 Fund 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."
At issue is a preliminary study, being conducted by the League, to determine whether changes should be made in the way discount tickets to Broadway shows are made available to consumers. TDF claims Bernstein knew of the study, but didn't inform TDF. Freydberg's words: "They absolutely knew it. They didn't believe it, and when they found out it was true, oh my God, then they got scared. We've told them MANY times over the years; we've constantly said to them, we're looking at changes. And then we wouldn't really do anything. This time we were organized. And somehow a reporter called TDF and they felt threatened. They decided to do a preemptive strike, but pulling Jed Bernstein off the Board was just silly. Paranoia."
Asked about the plan that's putting the fear into TKTS, Freydberg said, "It's not even a plan, it hasn't gotten that far yet. We had a regular meeting, with many things on the agenda, and that was one of them. At the end, the League decided to continue to review and research alternatives and the future of sales of our tickets -- not the booth's, our tickets. There was no vote; there was nothing to vote on. The committee simply reported where we were.
"The League has always examined the options," Freydberg continued. "We've become a little more aggressive in the past six to eight months because the lease for the outdoor space is up in two years. It's an opportune time to ask whether the venue should remain outside.. When TKTS first started, it was this small thing, and we figured tickets were at a discount, so maybe it should be a little inconvenient. But now it's become this very large institution. And if you have a large contingent of customers standing outside in cold, rain, and beastly heat, are you servicing your customer? We should make it more convenient for the customer now that this has become the central place where people seem to go to. Either way, there will be no attempt whatsoever to eliminate discounting of tickets."
However, Freydberg doesn't see TKTS as living up to its capabilities. "Even with the half-price booth, Broadway is playing with between 35 and 40 percent of empty seats. Have we been successful with it? Have we sold enough tickets? Maybe the booth really isn't working. How many people don't buy at TKTS because they think most shows are sold out. I don't know what will happen with TKTS, but I'll say this, it ain't gonna stay the same."
But how to make things better? On March 21, Freydberg added these comments. "If TDF was so paranoid, so scared, when they heard a rumor that the League might be considering running its own booth, that means they realize there are problems with the way things are. Fine, let them address those issues."
Freydberg says the best move for both sides would be to look separately at the positive aspects and problems of the TKTS booth as it currently operates. "Let them look at themselves, while we look at it ourselves. Then we'll jointly meet and have real ideas on both sides, instead of everybody in a room screaming at each other, or firing Jed Bernstein from the TDF Board. If anything, they should add three more seats to the Board for League members."
Kylie Robertson, manager of public relations for the League, told Playbill On-Line that the NY media heard about Bernstein's dismissal from TDF's board before Bernstein did. "Everybody was looking for a comment from Jed; he wasn't even told. And he's disappointed in the decision. Still we look forward to our upcoming meeting with TDF. Our business is to constantly revisit varying ways to better serve the Broadway customer. We have a number of ideas, but it's always about increasing ticket distribution."
Robertson said the whole controversy started over a newspaper story. "TDF apparently got a phone call from a usually reliable journalist, telling them the League was going to take over a whole new discount ticket booth on May 8. I can understand TDF being upset if that were true, but it isn't. We've had a fairly cooperative relationship with TDF and hope to continue it. After all, we pulled off the recent "Kids Night On Broadway" event, so we certainly can work together." (That event, dedicated to bringing children to Broadway shows, went so well, there's discussion not only of repeating it next year, but of doing it several times a year.)
TDF board members Howard Kissel and Konrad Matthaei both referred all questions to the organization's spokesperson (Leshay), the Matthaei did say he hopes "TDF will be able to continue our good relations with the League."
In his statement about Bernstein's ouster, Holbrook wrote, "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." (TDF spokesperson David Leshay said Holbrook was out of the office March 20 and not directly available for comment at that time.)
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 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.
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? The League 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. Freydberg stressed (March 21) that any new League plan would take seriously the discount booth's commitment to charity, especially not-for-profit theatre. "Of the $4 million that $2.50 service charge per TKTS ticket brings in, more than half goes to operating costs for the organization."
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 c ith 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.
Summing up the situation, Freydberg told Playbill On-Line, "The way things stand, TDF doesn't trust the League; the League doesn't trust TDF. But If we can cross the barrier of trust, the whole situation will come out wonderful."