Playbill Celebrates

From the playbills of the 18th century to the slick, pocket-size Playbill of today, theatrical fliers and programs have enjoyed a special place in the world of collecting. So it should not be surprising if friendly green-room ghosts hover next month over a large, factorylike building in lower Manhattan. It is the home of Playbill, believed to be the longest-running publication of its kind in theatrical history. Beginning April 6, Playbill celebrates its 100th anniversary.

Louis Botto, the magazine's senior editor, is a lively witness to the lure of Playbill collecting. In a recent interview at the magazine's headquarters on the Avenue of the Americas, he told how he started collecting as a child in 1937.

''I used to run around to theaters and pick up any programs I could,'' Mr. Botto said, ''including those for shows my mother didn't think I should see.''

Nowadays, Playbill is a popular item at such theatrical treasure-troves as the annual bazaar at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, where it sells in the thousands. Mr. Botto recalled seeing a child in tears at the Playbill counter because his mother wouldn't let him buy everything in sight.

''A lot of playgoers have copies of Playbill for everything they've ever seen ,'' added Joan Alleman, editor in chief. Especially prized are those designated ''Opening Night.''

The object of all this collector interest has undergone a succession of changing managements, titles, and sizes since its earliest version began to record and footnote New York theatrical history. The original forerunner of the present monthly publication was founded in 1884 by Frank Vance Strauss. An advertising agent from Ohio, Strauss foresaw the potential of combining theater programs with advertising in a magazine format.

By 1885, a typical Strauss program (for Sardou's ''Anselma,'' at the Madison Square Theatre) accompanied basic data about the play with 16 pages of advertisements for such things as chocolates, fashions, and cosmetics. Whether as the Strauss Magazine Theatre Program, its name in 1911, or under subsequent titles, it has traditionally held the mirror up to fashion.

The current publisher, Arthur T. Birsh, entered Playbill history in 1960 to supervise its printing plant for Metromedia Inc., which at the time owned the publication. Mr. Birsh bought it in 1970, a low point in the magazine's and the Broadway theater's fortunes. Having observed at first hand the turnaround that followed, Mr. Birsh regards the current diminished state of Broadway activity as ''tidal'' - part of a recurring cycle from which ''the fabulous invalid'' will recover.

Meanwhile, he and his colleagues are deep in preparations for the special Playbill issues and other events of the centennial year. Among the individuals and institutions honoring the magazine will be Mayor Edward I. Koch, with a proclamation; Macy's department store, with a salute; the Algonquin Hotel, with ''Steve Ross Sings Playbill'' and its new Playbill Suite; the New Dramatists, with its annual spring luncheon; and the Theatre Collection of the Museum of the City of New York, with a three-month exhibition (opening April 12). As an added dash of showmanship, Playbill is sponsoring a ''treasure hunt,'' with a $10,000 prize for a complete 1884 program ''in reasonably good condition.''

On April 9, at the annual Hall of Fame ceremony at the Gershwin Theatre, Mr. Birsh will receive the Arnold Weissberger Award. That evening, Playbill will throw its own 100th-anniversary party at the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center.

What makes Playbill exceptional enough to merit such recognition, not to mention the only Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award ever given a publication? Besides their honorable history, Playbill magazines (including Showbill for Off Broadway and On Stage for Off Off Broadway) today serve more than 100 New York legitimate theaters, plus leading dance houses and the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center. The combined circulation is something above 1.3 million. Other Playbills are published under license in Boston, Philadelphia-Baltimore, Florida, and Texas-Louisiana. In 1982, the corporation launched a subscription edition.

Besides its various other distinctions, Playbill is a family affair. Two of the top positions in the production team are held by Mr. Birsh as publisher and Miss Alleman (Mrs. Birsh) as editor in chief.

''We have a genuine division of labor,'' said Mr. Birsh cheerfully. ''If I have a really good editorial idea, the best thing for me to do is to lie down while it passes over.''

The editor in chief smiled.

Illustrating Playbill's unusual assemblage of contents, Miss Alleman used the image of ''the hot dog in the roll.'' The ''hot dog,'' or program section - cast , credits, biographies, and other material supplied by the producers - is inserted into the ''wrap'' section, containing interviews, columns, theater quizzes, and other lively features. The ''hot dog,'' which can change daily, is printed in New York. The ''wrap'' is printed in Connecticut and Washington, D.C. But all assembly takes place at the plant on the Avenue of the Americas.

''Our most unusual characteristic is that we are a monopoly,'' Mr. Birsh said. ''We pay the theaters (for the right to be distributed) and depend on advertising. Slowly but surely, we've become taken for granted by showmen and the public. Which may be the highest compliment you can get.''

The publisher proudly claims that Playbill has never missed a delivery deadline. The closest shave occurred when ''Opening Night'' programs ran out at a matinee preview. Replacements were rushed to the theater by taxi. Mr. Birsh summed up the relationship between Playbill and the playgoer: ''We are the least important part of an evening in the theater - unless we don't deliver.''

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