Playbill's bright yellow banner finds niche on Web site

Playbill is as much a part of the live-theater experience as expensive beverages and last-minute dashes to seats.

Many audience members keep the 8-1/2 by 5-1/4 inch programs as souvenirs, free alternatives to the T-shirts and other paraphernalia sold in the lobbies.

"Programs at theaters are something that's been going on since Shakespeare's days," says Fred Tarter, chief of Stagebill, the biggest on-paper rival of Playbill. But now the 115-year-old publication, known for its bright yellow banner, has also begun creeping into theatergoers' homes through the Internet. Today Playbill celebrates Playbill On-Line's fifth anniversary.

Launched Nov. 5, 1994, www.playbill.com has proved to be even more popular than its on-paper equivalent. The site receives an estimated 20 million hits per month, compared with just under 3 million paper copies handed out at theaters from Broadway to California.

Featured on the site are seating charts for dozens of theaters, biographies of personalities, schedules for shows performed around the world, offers for discounts on tickets and merchandise, restaurant and hotel listings, and theater job ads. There is also a message board, a chat room, and the Playbill On-Line Club, which offers additional features and boasts an estimated 112,000 members.

Phyllis Garland, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism who specializes in cultural reporting, says the Web site is part of "an effort [on behalf] of many theater organizations to attract young people...."

Right now, though, the typical Playbill On-Line visitor parallels the demographic of the general theatergoing public: sophisticated 40-somethings who earn more than $80,000 annually. They turn to this ticket kiosk on the Internet to take advantage of great deals. For example, tickets for the Broadway show "It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues" at the Ambassador Theatre, normally $75, are available for $45 - and without standing in line at the discount ticket booth in Times Square. Or theater-lovers interested in catching Frank McCourt's "The Irish ... And How They Got That Way" at Chicago's Mercury Theater can get two tickets for the price of one.

In addition to these services, Playbill On-Line is also one of the foremost providers of theater news, a source often cited by print reporters. It's "the AP, UPI, or whatever news organization you like" of the theater world, says Playbill publisher Philip Birsh. Eight people maintain the Playbill Web site; the articles are written by staffers or freelancers, including theater critics Peter Filichia of the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger, Eric Grode of Back Stage, and Steven Suskin, the author of two books about Broadway.

Not that Playbill's popularity in print is likely to fade anytime soon. Says New Jersey high school teacher Sabrina Lowrie, flipping through a Playbill filled with cast biographies, profiles, and show advertisements during a recent Broadway intermission, "I save them as souvenirs."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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