The Weird and Wonderful World of Broadway Merchandise

If you’ve been to a theater in the past 25 years, you’ve seen them. Nestled against the wall, a handful of merchandise vendors sell their wares to a seemingly endless stream of members of the public, all clamoring for that special token to commemorate their experience. Most people opt for a logo t-shirt or a tote bag, but a select few set their sights on a more specific souvenir: the tchotchke.

Broadway tchotchkes have been a key marketing tool and giveaway for nearly a century. The original production of the seminal musical Mix along celebrated its birthday in 1922 with a small portable game. Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Cannibal Revenge Musical Sweeney todd sold an apron that could be purchased by mail. Mel brooks Young Frankenstein had dozens of niche products to choose from, including an “abnormal” brain stress ball and a backpack with the signature “Quelle bosse? Whole resale markets have sprung up around the quirky merchandise collection, with Facebook groups and eBay stores still searching for the next thing to reappear, long after the show the item had marketed closed.

the Mix along first anniversary promotional game
(courtesy of Marc Bonanni)

The creation of unique promotional items seems to have reached its peak over the past 20 years, when cheap plastics and affordable screen printing collided to make small items more profitable than flashy commercials. . In the summer of 2008, Mean rented a plane to display a promotional banner on the beaches of the Jersey Shore, Long Island and Montauk as street crews handed out themed beach towels, fans, tattoo stickers and cream sticks solar. As vinyl and CD copies of cast iron albums became obsolete, the renaissance of 2015 On the city distributed apple-shaped USB drives containing a digital copy of the casting album. When Jersey Boys Celebrated its 10th anniversary on Broadway in 2015, the show handed out commemorative bars of soap, wrapped in the iconic logo of a company that typically made products for Hilton hotels. Functional pieces like embossed notebooks have become a key part of merchandise stalls, alongside pins and consumables. When “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” hit Broadway, the show sold chocolate bars and packages of hot chocolate, along with gold tickets.

A Charlie and the chocolate factory hot chocolate package
(courtesy Tiffany Holt)

It all added up, quickly. Previously, one-offs were only produced by blockbuster shows with money in the marketing budget. Now, the majority of shows have a buffet of items before they start the shows. If a show isn’t a success or an item isn’t as popular as expected, those promotional items and merchandise can usually be found in one of two places: the bottom of a box in the desks’ office. marketing managers or the Broadway flea market. .

For the uninitiated, the Broadway Flea Market is a massive exchange meeting in the last few weeks of the summer where tables are set up on the streets of the Theater District to raise funds for Broadway Cares / Equity Fights. AIDS. Launched in 1987 by the actors of A choir line, he went from a few card tables outside the Shubert Theater to a million dollar fundraising event. There, thousands of theater fans can pour on program boxes, t-shirts and, yes, promotional items.

Need a wallet? Caroline, or Change has you covered. A new keychain? How about a squishable Rocky boxing glove? A trendy bandana for your dog? Hello, doggie! Stuffed animals Chicago, Reinette apple, and Pit? Table Swing by the Dancers After 40. Vintage-inspired political pins that refer to a single line on your favorite show? Fun house has a full shoebox.

Old bags of Broadway sugar galore
(courtesy Evan Ross)

Besides the mass-produced boxes of merchandise, the Broadway Flea is known for its unique items, made by just about anyone. Jersey Boys themed rubber ducks, jewelry MeanUsed guitar strings and handbags made from used theater backdrops and curtains can all be found on theater-themed small business tables. Some items, like this one Allegiance water bottle, come with a story – made in South Korea by official Michael K. Lee fan club, the water bottle traveled with Telly Leung from Allegiance at Aladdin, where it was signed by the 2018 Society Members before being sold to the Disney table.

Specialty items are often prized for having more personality than a standard mug or baseball cap with a show logo on it. Autographed toilet paper makes sense for Urine city, but would be drastically moved to The Phantom of the Opera. These items, whether promotional or sold at a trade fair booth, are of particular importance to many fans. While a collection of these items may seem more disjointed than a collection on the theme of logo magnets or window cards, it is just as neatly curated – the only difference is that they are collected for what they are. represent, rather than for their actual functional purpose. They can be practical in the moment – the Mean sunscreen, a Noises off box of mints, and a Hand to god Mini hand sanitizers all have a momentary purpose, but these items hardly have the same value as a box of Altoids or a Neutrogena sun stick.

What is valued is sentimentality. When done right, they capture something about the show they are portraying and enshrine the memory of the experience for the fan who grabs it. They are tiny time capsules, hanging memories in paper, plastic and prints.

the Sweeney todd apron
(courtesy David Levy)

To add wild and wonderful Broadway merchandise to your collection, visit the TheaterMania store here.