New York’s TKTS booth, a discount theater ticket kiosk in Times Square, opened in 1973 with a revolutionary four-part formula: Take one cultural hub, add one funky booth, cut ticket prices in half and limit sales to day-of shows.

Since then, more than 50 million hinies have been introduced to the tony, velvet seats of Broadway’s most illustrious theaters, giving just as many people access to an art form they could not otherwise afford.

That model worked so well that other cities rushed to copy it: London, Boston and, in 1986, San Diego’s Arts Tix booth in Horton Plaza.

Why were the booth and its emulators so successful? Because theater tickets aren’t always cheap and theatergoers don’t always plan ahead. Cut prices and exploit people’s last-minute availability and find success.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been exploring the art and challenge of ticket pricing and discounting among San Diego arts institutions. Previously I wrote about how ticket revenues usually cover only a small part of operating budgets, and readers responded with their ideal price point. Today’s post explains the tenets of discounting tickets, a practice that’s been around since the olden days, though the internet has spread the phenomenon wider.

Filling up seats or galleries and fulfilling a philanthropic mission have been the two most common reasons for discounting or giving away tickets, arts groups said.

Some tickets are free or reduced for a limited period. These include so-called rush tickets, sold at the box office or half-price booths shortly before the show. Museums have periodic free admission days. Sometimes those tickets are subsidized, and other times they’re sold at a loss.

Often, free or reduced tickets are offered to a limited population, aimed at developing that group’s access to the arts. Like Orchestra Nova, which gives free tickets to all active military members and their significant others.

“We want to be open to anybody and everybody,” said Beverly Lambert, the group’s chief executive. “We want to bring joy and beauty into everybody’s life. That is really what we’re about.”

Across town, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego offers free admission for people 25 and under, for military and for military families.

School kids receive tickets and, in some cases, free transportation to San Diego Opera dress rehearsals, where costumed singers and the orchestra rehearse a final time before opening night. Opening the dress rehearsals to students started with the first performance of “La Bohème” in 1965.

These are all subsidized by donations. Donors also occasionally buy blocks of tickets and dedicate them for specific purposes — students of their alma maters or employees at their companies, for example.

Now let’s circle back to those half-price ticket booths.

If you replace the funky kiosk with a website, you have the formula for the latest successful discount model — Groupon — with a few key differences. More on that in the next post.

By the way, making art affordable for the masses is a lot older than all of this.

When the Louvre museum opened in 1793, it was free for everyone three days per week.

In Shakespeare’s day, “groundlings” could buy tickets to the standing pit for a penny — what they’d spend on a generous serving of beer or a two-pound loaf of bread.

The most expensive seats had the worst views, but everyone in the theater could see their patrons and know they’d spent a lot for their tickets, Erika Boeckeler, a Shakespeare scholar at Northeastern University, told me in an email.

“It seems like class was a determining factor, and the repertoire almost a secondary consideration,” Boeckeler said. “Authors got discounts, ‘friends’ probably got discounts, but it seems like the upper class wanted to pay more to show off and prove a point.”

Back in the age of Sophocles, Athenian citizens who couldn’t afford the price of a ticket, equivalent to about a day’s wages, got money from a public ticket fund.

Sounds enlightened, but keep this in mind: Going to the theater in Ancient Greece wasn’t just stuff of date nights. It was a civic duty. Gives a new meaning to “captive audience.”

Roxana Popescu is a San Diego arts writer. You can reach her directly at or follow her on Twitter at @roxanapopescu.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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