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Howard Sherman: Broadway’s annual Flea Market offers theatre fans more than just memorabilia

Crowds at the 32nd Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids Flea Market on September 30, 2018. Photo: Howard Sherman Crowds at the 32nd Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids Flea Market on September 30, 2018. Photo: Howard Sherman
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Most weekends, the sight of someone navigating crowds of theatregoers with a 6ft hardback Broadway show poster under their arm would be startling. But during the annual Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids Flea Market, it barely raises an eyebrow.

The 32nd edition of the event, where many make such great ‘finds’, was held last Sunday on 44th and 45th Streets in the centre of New York’s Theatre District. The Flea Market consists of tables of theatrical memorabilia, old and new, collected and put up for sale by current shows, theatrical unions and guilds, and theatre-affiliated organisations.

It is one of the more beloved of BC/EFA’s many creative fundraisers, in particular because there is no initial cost for theatre fans to join in and because anything they might decide to purchase yield funds for an excellent cause.

The event’s patrons are an interesting mix of Broadway fandom. At the opening it is as if a starter’s gun has gone off: serious collectors rush to survey the pristinely arranged tables in search of treasures before rivals can snap them up, or to seek specific items to fill out what is presumably a detailed collection back home.

Posters for sale at Broadway’s Flea Market. Photo: Howard Sherman

Having worked tables in past years, I discovered it was not uncommon for early arrivals to rush up to a table, ask for anything pertaining to a particular show – and that show could be 50 years old or more – and then rush off if nothing was immediately available. Serious collectors rifle through boxes of playbills at a clip, much as the main characters on TV’s The Big Bang Theory regularly speed through boxes of comics at their favourite comic book store.

As the day wears on, the attendees grow less driven, and turn simply curious, casually looking for items that might appeal or intrigue. In the hour or so before Sunday matinees at 3pm, the crowd is made up chiefly of those who may have been wholly unaware of the event. They discover it on their way to a show, but are drawn in by the discovery of what’s arrayed in front of their theatres. The choice of location for the event is optimal, with more than a quarter of Broadway theatres located on 44th and 45th Streets.

It’s not unusual to find stars surveying the tables, no less awestruck than civilians by vintage items

Current Broadway stars participate as well, with carefully orchestrated autograph sessions, in exchange for donations, as well as impromptu sightings, which trigger a clamour for selfies. It’s not unusual to find stars surveying the tables, since those who work in theatre are genuine fans as well, no less awestruck than civilians by vintage items.

It is commonplace in the US for theatres to offer programmes for free, providing an immediate souvenir for patrons. I have boxes of programmes in storage, and a few unwieldy stacks in my flat. On Broadway, it is now possible to buy everything from mugs and shot glasses to T-shirts and more, all emblazoned with show logos to sate the desire for souvenirs. But only on this one Sunday each year can so much be found in close proximity.

Ever since I first went to the theatre, I have saved theatre programmes instinctively, going so far as to tape my ticket stubs ever-so-neatly in the upper left hand corner of the inside front cover. Consequently, I understand the impulse that drives the crowds at the Flea Market.

While I usually buy one or two small items to support the charitable effort, I no longer shop the Flea Market the way I once did. But it remains a thrill to come upon, as I did this year, programmes for such shows as the original productions of Tea and Sympathy (“Years from now, when you speak of this, and you will, be kind”) or the much less known Mrs McThing, starring the first lady of the American Theatre, Helen Hayes, whom I have only seen in films.

Another name for the memorabilia is ephemera, and so it’s completely appropriate to find this affinity for material from a discipline – theatre – that is itself ephemeral. The event raises significant funds for BC/EFA’s programmes, this year bringing in just under $1 million for the day.

The Flea Market also sates the desire of fans for a piece of something that, at its core, remains the stuff of experience and memory, rather than something physical to be preserved.

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