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Celebrate 50 Years of TKTS in Times Square with an Oral History of the First Booth

By: Raven Snook
Date: Jun 23, 2023
Broadway

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The architects of the original TKTS share their remembrances in advance of our anniversary event on June 28

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With TKTS Times Square turning 50 this month, it's hard to imagine that in 1973, some worried it might not have a long run. "At the time, Times Square was very depressed—the whole city was depressed," recalls Bob Mayers, one of the two architects who designed the original TKTS Booth as well as its iconic Helvetica logo. "There was a lot of crime, few people walking around, and the billboards and theatres were mostly empty. Anna Crouse [TDF's vice president at the time] was trying to convince theatre owners to build some facility in Duffy Square where people could go and buy half-price tickets on the same day of the performance," an idea pioneered by Joe Leblang, who introduced the idea of discount Broadway tickets way back in 1894. "So, we were hired by Theatre Development Fund to come up with a design."

Mayers and his Cornell University roommate turned architect firm partner, John Schiff, don't remember how much they got paid for the gig—"the fee, as I recall, enabled us to buy a few subway tokens a pastrami sandwich," Mayers quips. But they do remember their meager budget: $5,000. Thankfully, with the support of Mayor John V. Lindsay and his administration, they found creative ways of working around that. The New York City Department of Parks & Recreation donated a "small beat-up trailer" to serve as the base structure, and Mayers and Schiff discovered they could tap into TDF's operating budget to enhance the design and turn TKTS into an eye-catching destination.

A model of the original TKTS Times Square
A model of the original TKTS Booth in Times Square. Photo courtesy of Bob Mayers

While they couldn't build anything permanent with the funds, "we realized we could rent scaffolding and create this larger structure that would have a presence, since you're competing with a lot of action in Times Square," explains Schiff. They added canvas between the rods emblazoned with the TKTS logo. "Every time there was a hurricane forecast, I turned off my television. I wasn't afraid of the hurricane. I was afraid somebody would call and say that the TKTS Booth was now on 38th Street," Mayers jokes.

Mayers and Schiff's resourcefulness came in particularly handy when creating the TKTS name and logo—and they didn't need endless meetings or focus groups to do it. "We had a bunch of Letraset letters left over from other projects in a drawer, basically letters with a sticky back that you could peel off and put on something," Schiff says. "We didn't have the whole alphabet. But we did, fortunately, have two Ts, a K and an S. Lo and behold, when we stepped back and looked at it, we thought, this looks good. The rest is history."

Watch the full conversation between TDF's Raven Snook and original TKTS architects Bob Mayers and John Schiff

A half century of history—which includes Aaron Sorkin working as a runner, an 18-month pandemic shutdown, countless cameos in TV shows and movies, and almost 70 million tickets sold. In June 1973, Mayor Lindsay presided over the opening of TKTS Times Square, which was an instant hit with locals and, eventually, tourists. The brain trust behind the project knew the experiment was going to pay off when, on its second day, a line of patrons crowded Duffy Square despite pouring rain.

TKTS in 2023
An aerial shot of TKTS under the red steps in 2023. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

In 2008, TKTS Times Square unveiled its current look under red glass steps, but Mayers and Schiff's logo lives on. They're gratified, but not surprised. "The American Institute of Graphic Designers gave it an award and it was published in magazines all over the world," says Mayers. Adds Schiff: "As a matter of fact, when we finished the project, just internally in our office, we had T-shirts made with the logo on it. So, we were aware of the fact that it was something of value."

Mayers points out that while their TKTS design was meant to be a focal point in a desolate Times Square, the red steps are akin to an amphitheatre, inviting visitors to look up and take in the hustle, bustle and billboards which, unlike 1973, are now all filled (mostly with videos).

On Wednesday, June 28 at 11 a.m., TDF will officially celebrate TKTS Times Square's 50th anniversary with an event featuring appearances by Law & Order's S. Epatha Merkerson and Broadway's Eric Ulloa, a performance by the Tony-honored Broadway Inspirational Voices, a show tune sing-along and TKTS gift certificate giveaways. Mayers and Schiff plan to be there.

"It's really what got us into showbiz," Mayers says, noting that they went on to design the TKTS Booths at the World Trade Center and in Downtown Brooklyn, the TDF Costume Collection when it was located in Chelsea's Starrett-Lehigh Building, the original Theater Row and the Miller Theatre at Columbia University.

"There's this great deal of joy when you make something that has social value beyond architectural value," Schiff says. "I mean, we're talking about something that was originally built to last a year or two." Fifty years later, there's no closing night in sight.

Top image: the original TKTS Times Square in 2005. Photo courtesy of TDF.

Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her on Facebook at @Raven.Snook. Follow TDF on Facebook at @TDFNYC.