TDF is one of those organizations that the industry turns to in moments of crisis, and no one knows that better than 2023 Tony honoree and TDF Executive Director Victoria Bailey. She began her 22-year tenure with the non-profit just months before 9/11, and now she’s received a Tony honor as the industry is still struggling to fully recover from the pandemic—odd bookends for what has been a transformative career, and that’s putting it mildly.
And Bailey doesn’t shy away from TDF filling in that role. “When an individual production, or sometimes the industry writ large, is not at its strongest, that need actually matches and meshes really nicely with TDF’s mission, which is about providing access to the theatre and removing barriers,” says Bailey.
How TDF tackles achieving that mission includes working to provide accessibility services, including autism-friendly performances; and education programs that go right into schools and community centers to help connect aspiring theatre makers to the artform.
But TDF’s best known work is in providing discount tickets, most visibly via their TKTS booths. At the iconic flagship location in Duffy Square on the north end of Times Square and another in Lincoln Center, TDF offers same-day discount Broadway and Off-Broadway tickets—often as much as 50 percent off—to anyone who wants them. A hallmark for theatre-loving tourists and locals alike, the TKTS booth celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, having originally opened in June 25, 1973—just five years after TDF was founded. A special celebration—featuring special guests S. Epatha Merkerson, Eric Ulloa, Broadway Inspirational Voices, and more—is planned for June 28 at 11 AM.
Bailey obviously wasn’t with TDF in the booth’s early years, but like almost everyone seeing theatre since the ’70s, she was no stranger to TKTS. “Like everyone else in the world, when I came to New York and I wanted to go to the theatre and I couldn’t afford a full-price ticket, I went to the TKTS booth,” she remembers. “I saw A Chorus Line from the booth like millions of people did. And I saw Sweeney Todd, the original Sweeney Todd, from the back of what was then the Uris Theatre," which is now the Gershwin, home to Wicked.
In those days, the theatre district was a different place than it is now. In 1973, the theatre industry needed a savior. Not because of terrorism or a worldwide pandemic, but because of alarmingly high crime rates in and around Times Square. The situation had led to declining audience numbers. New York theatre was on life support. Enter TDF and TKTS.
As Bailey explains, “It was an idea of a way to help bring legitimate trade back into Times Square at a time when Times Square was really scary. Nobody wanted to come here, and the shows weren't running.” After the TKTS booth opened, theatregoers returned because it opened up Broadway shows as a viable, casual option for an evening’s entertainment as opposed to a luxury that required budgeted savings and plans made far in advance. Part of TKTS’ allure is its happenstance. You can’t ever be completely sure which shows will have tickets available, how long the line will be, how much of a discount they’ll have for the show you want to see. That’s all part of the fun.
And that’s why Broadway keeps coming back when it’s in trouble. TKTS was instrumental in re-opening theatre after 9/11, and it was instrumental in re-opening theatre after the 2020 pandemic shutdown. Bailey, then newly in her role at TDF, remembers being in town right after 9/11 as shows began performing again. “It was all New Yorkers, obviously [at the booth]. And one of them would say to someone, ‘What are you interested in seeing?’ And they’d answer, ‘I'm actually not interested in seeing anything. It's the last thing I want to do. But the mayor says we have to go to the theatre to keep these shows running until people come back.’”
What did those theatregoers choose to see? Maybe it was Phantom of the Opera, Bailey says, but she can’t remember. The key takeaway, though, is: “The booth had a central role to play in being a symbol and a tool for keeping Broadway as healthy as it could.”
Bailey says that in hindsight, 9/11 was (surprisingly), a short-term problem for the theatre industry—at least compared to the COVID-19 pandemic, from which theatre still hasn’t fully recovered. And just like in 2001, the TKTS booth has been right there as theatre started back up again to encourage as many people as possible to take in a Broadway show.
Bailey thinks of the booth as a hub for NYC’s theatre district. TKTS is famous for its long lines, but according to Bailey, the lines are one its best features. “We have Patrons’ Service reps who help tell people what shows are there. But the other source of information is the person ahead of you or behind you in line. You’ll hear people saying to each other, ‘What have you heard about? What did you see?’” shares Bailey. “We all have a tendency, especially if you’re a tourist who hasn’t been to Broadway, to think it’s all so sophisticated or foreign, maybe. Then you find someone who looks like you on the line, who has kids around your kids’ age, and you find out what they like. It’s a unique and special thing about the booth.”
And those aren’t the only pro-tips Bailey has for getting the most out of a TKTS experience: “Have more than one show that you want to see. And especially if you have kids, remember we sell matinee tickets the day before.”
The community aspect of the booth was strengthened with a 2008 re-design and expansion of the Duffy Square location, one of Bailey’s first major projects as leader of TDF. The project added the now-iconic red steps to the equation, transforming TKTS from a ticket hub into a true NYC landmark—now seen in countless selfies.
“Some number of people sitting on the steps don't even know that they can buy discount theatre tickets,” admits Bailey. “On one hand, we think about how we can make sure that those people know that they can do that. But ultimately, I think it represents part of what is really special about the booth. It’s a gathering space in the middle of Times Square. If you think about election nights, people gather there to watch the screens to be in a community, in a city where community can be hard to find. I think that the steps represent people coming together, and being in a space together, and sharing an experience together—which is, in fact, exactly what happens when you go to the theatre. That’s the magic.”
See images of TKTS through the years.