Public Transport Woes

While there are many memories that we would rather leave in the sixties, it was a pretty remarkable decade. 60’s television brought us classics such as ‘Gilligan’s Island’. 60’s music brought us Elvis Presley, The Beatles and Aretha Franklin. And 60’s Broadway brought us possibly the most ingenious (and outrageous) theatre marketing strategy ever performed.

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I have talked about many publicity stunts on this blog. Be it the King Kong arm on the Eureka skydeck or the ‘Free tickets for Virgins’ promotion for the show My First Time. So you know it must be pretty extraordinary when I say that this is the most ingenious and outrageous publicity stunt I have seen.

A new musical comedy opened in 1961 entitled Subways are for Sleeping. The show detailed a journalist’s attempt to blend into the sleeping vagrant community on the New York subways in order to write a story. But when the lead vagrant discovered her true identity, comedic situations ensued.

When the show opened, it received rather negative reviews for theatre critics. This, as it always does, increased the risk of going to see the musical. And as a result, less people were lining up at the box office.

The show also ran into many issues when trying to buy advertising space. New York Transit Authority refused to place any of their advertisements on trains, buses, taxis or any of the stations for fear of encouraging homeless people to seek shelter and sleeping arrangements in the New York public transport system. And without this option, David Merrick (Producer) and Harvey Sabinson (Press Agent) were forced to get creative.

And this is where it gets outrageous . . .

While big-name theatre critics of the sixties, such as Walter Kerr, Richard Watts Jr and Howard Taubman, gave the show negative reviews. Merrick and Sabinson thought they would have a go at convincing the public quite the opposite.

Searching through the phone book, Merrick and Sabinson found New York residents who had the same names as the famous critics and invited them along to the theatre. They paid them all the attention of an A-star client, ensured all their needs were met and then took down their reviews at the end of the show.

With glowing quotes from people with the same names as the New York theatre critics, Sleeping in the Subway published a new advert in the newspapers with these favourable quotes appearing to come from New York theatre critics. Instead they came from the mouth of average New Yorkers who had just enjoyed the show – so they technically weren’t lying!

But it is always the technicalities, isn’t it!

Unfortunately for Sleeping in the Subway some of the copy editors picked up that these weren’t actually the theatre critics because the marketing team had published pictures of their ‘critics’ next to the quotes. And while the Richard Watts Jr who was quoted was African American, the famous theatre critic was not!

However, while it may not have lasted very long in circulation after copy editors lashed out at the musical, it definitely promoted the show. And with such an outrageous stunt they managed to prolong the run of the show until the middle of the following year, 1962.

A lesson for us all? Sometimes you just have to create your own positive media!

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