NEW YORK -- Hundreds of tourists and New Yorkers show up each day at the famed TKTS booth in the heart of Times Square with questions about Broadway shows. Often they're very interesting questions.
Like: "Can I get a ticket to see the 'Superman' musical"? Or, "Are there seats available for 'The Comedy of Edward Foote'"? And, "What about 'Cats'? We really want to see 'Cats.'"
To which the answers are: "You probably mean 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark' and, yes, tickets are available." Or, "Might you be actually referring to 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood'"? And finally, "No, sorry, 'Cats' closed in 2000."
The people patiently doing the answering are part of a carefully assembled group of professionals who wear red jackets or T-shirts with the TKTS logo and the printed slogan "Got questions?"
They help visitors navigate the choices as they wait on line for same-day discount Broadway and off-Broadway tickets at the Times Square TKTS booth, which this week celebrates its 40th birthday.
It is at the booth where Broadway shows can be more affordable for those who balk at prices pushing past $300 a seat for some shows. Thirty percent of the people who line up here are first-time Broadway theatergoers.
"This is the place where theater is staying accessible to people who are on some sort of budget," Victoria Bailey, executive director of the nonprofit Theatre Development Fund, which runs the booth, said recently on a glorious afternoon in a crowded Times Square.
Thousands of tickets will be sold this day as each of the city's theater box offices calculate how many full-price tickets it can sell and then send the rest to the booth. The theater gets all the ticket revenue and TDF gets a $4 service fee.
Some 58.5 million tickets have been sold from the booth during its 40 years, and it remains a draw even in middle-age. Despite online rivals and the rise of premium ticket pricing, lining up at the booth is as fundamental to being in the city as cooing over the Statue of Liberty.
"This is what we do as New Yorkers," said Betsy Paquelet Patrick, who was on line to get 40-percent-off tickets for "Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella" with her two daughters, Sophie, 9, and Maggie, 7. "When we have a half-day at school on Wednesday, we run down here and get tickets to whatever we can see."
The booth was an experiment that stuck. It opened for business on June 25, 1973, housed in a trailer with four windows. The current $19 million glass-enclosed booth under a red glass staircase opened in 2008 with 12 windows -- one of which is dedicated to plays and another that offers full-price tickets to future shows.
Visitors make their picks from a list of shows on continually updating electronic boards. Tickets to megahits like "The Book of Mormon" and "Lucky Guy" won't appear since they don't need to offer discounts, but there are usually plenty of options. The advice is to be flexible -- have two or three possible shows by the time you get to the window.
On this day, the booth had 50 percent discounts to matinees of "Ann," "Chicago," "Mamma Mia!!" "The Assembled Parties," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" and "Jersey Boys." You could see "The Nance" for 40 percent off and "The Trip to Bountiful" for a 30 percent discount.
The line began forming before the booth opened at 10 a.m., and as many as six TDF patron representatives with iPads packed with info were on hand to help visitors make up their minds and spark conversations with other patrons about shows.
"There's a lot of people on this line who are going to Broadway for the first time. And people are scared -- `Where do I go?' `What do I see?' `How does it work?"' said Bailey. "You come here and you just listen. There's this fellowship of people having a conversation about theater. I don't think that fellowship is ever going to go out of fashion."
The 18-member strong red-shirted representatives are all theater fans, having seen all the shows on offer and aware of the best and worst seats in the city's various theaters. Most patrons get through the line in less than 45 minutes, longer on holidays.
The representatives gently untangle the desires of visitors, or tell them that "Take Me Out" is about much more than baseball. "Today on the line someone asked whether Nathan Lane was performing in `Once,"' said Michael Buffer, 25, who leads the representatives, all of whom are outgoing and personable. "My staff knows how to say, `The Phantom of the Opera' in as many languages as possible."
Besides the Times Square booth, there are TKTS booths in Brooklyn and the South Street Seaport, which hopes to reopen in July after suffering water damage from Superstorm Sandy. The fund also has a free phone app that lists its offerings in real time.
Unlike other paid ticket sellers wandering around Times Square pushing one particular musical or play, the TKTS representatives won't recommend a single show but instead offer a range of options appropriate to the visitor.
"We level the playing field for all of the shows. We don't give unfair advantage," said Buffer. "We want to make lifelong theatergoers, and if this is a first-time experience for people, we want their first interaction to be as positive as possible."
Being inside the booth is like being in an air traffic control tower. Twelve ticket sellers man the lines and process up to 650 customers an hour, toggling between five ticketing systems.
One couple steps to the window and wants to see "Once." Ticket seller Brian Roeder's hands fly across his keyboard. He comes up with two options: "I have separate seats on full view or seats together with a partial view."
Translation: You can sit apart with an unobstructed view or sit together and risk missing something onstage. The couple is determined to sit together and walk away happy with $189 worth of tickets.
Then William Castellano, TKTS head treasurer, gets off the phone with a theater box office with some bad news. "`Assembled Parties' at 40!" he screams to his workers.
Translation: Richard Greenberg's Tony Award-nominated play "The Assembled Parties," which had been advertised at the booth for 50 percent off, was now only 40 percent off. The booth had been given 13 tickets priced at $85 each.
"It's still a decent price," Castellano said.
On average, the three TKTS booths sell up to 40,000 tickets a week in the summer, a number that falls to about 20,000 tickets in the dead of winter. Weather, the economy and celebrity pull all have an impact on sales.
One thing that hasn't changed over the years: Customers wanting a good seat. "The first question, believe it or not, is not about the price. It's always `Where are they located?"' Castellano said.
Castellano, who has worked at the Theatre Development Fund on and off since 1982, has seen technology change the job. When he started, the booth only took cash and employed people to run from box office to box office ferrying tickets.
Keeping track of everything -- the lines, the ticket supply and demand -- was more than a skill in the pre-computer age. "It was an art form," Castellano said. "Technology has kind of taken that away. But that's OK, I'm more than happy to have less headaches."