Thanksgiving is celebrated all over the US but most Americans start out their day in New York City. Virtually, that is. Long before the turkey comes out of the oven, Americans are in front of their TVs, staring at Macy’s famous parade. Some watch it for the tradition, some tune in for the bands, and lots of kids can’t wait for the balloons but I watch the parade to see Broadway. Before the main event kicks off, actors perform excerpts from currently running shows. The stars seem like the kings of Broadway.
But are they? Actors are the most visible part of theatre but how much power do they really wield in Times Square? Very few, it seems. Behind them are the financial and creative engineers behind every show: the writers, directors and composers but even they can be hired and fired. Behind them are those that can make a show work and invest the money needed for the show to open: the legendary Broadway Producers. Do you think Producers are the ultimate in show-biz power? According to Michael Riedel, there’s still one group that’s higher.
No matter how good it is, no show can open on Broadway, unless it’s booked into a theater and the cadre of people who own and run the theaters on Broadway should really be considered the ultimate power-players in their field. Riedel’s book, Razzle Dazzle is an amazing account of these show-business moguls and the impact they’ve had on our culture.
Enter, the Schubert Brothers, Sam, Lee, and Jacob, who ran theaters in upstate New York before 1900. With the change of the century, they moved to NYC and bought or built theaters across the country and filled them with shows people wanted to see. More than 100 years later, if you look at the current list of Broadway theaters, the Schubert organization owns 17 of the 41 buildings. Book good shows into those theaters and watch the money flow into the box-office; even if the biggest profits are “ice”.
Ice are the profits that come from reselling tickets. The box-office employee sells blocks of these for a bribe. Then employees of the theatre or the production company sell the tickets they get as an employment perk and pocket the difference. The ticket scalpers resell what they got for hugely inflated prices and keep the unearned, untaxed income. The people who invest funds and talent into the show don’t make a dime from this revenue based on their work and the audience dwindles because of the high cost of tickets. A 1960’s investigation began to curtail some of the Ice, but it’s still a huge problem: this year the creator of the hit musical, Hamilton, begged the legislature to pass a law stopping computer software “bots” from continuing the practice.
The Schubert and the Niederlander (who own 7 theaters) organizations helped create decades of show-biz legends as they saw their business rise, fall and rise again. There are the good stories, like how Chorus Line brought people back to the theater when NYC itself was bankrupt and there are bad tales, like Dorothy Loudon threatening a kid. (” If you make one move on any of my laugh lines, you will not live to see the curtain call.”)
Gossipy, gregarious, and suckers for razzle-dazzle, we’re all suckers for Broadway and why not? It’s the New York out-of-towners all want to know and as American as Pumpkin Pie and Thanksgiving.