BY: ELIZABETH DURAND STREISAND
On March 12, Broadway closed. Within days, Times Square had turned into a ghost town. Like so many of us with companies anchored in Broadway, Tim Dolan, the founder of Broadway Up Close, saw his business evaporate in an afternoon. His kiosk, one of the most Instagrammable features of Times Square, stood alone in the middle of an empty city.
So he figured out a new approach that built on the business he had already created. Broadway Up Close walking tours provide customers with a unique, behind-the-scenes look into theater. We caught up with Dolan to hear about how it all started and where he goes from here.
Broadway Spin: Where did you get the idea for Broadway Up Close and what did you do before?
Tim Dolan: Like any great idea, the idea for Broadway Up Close came out of necessity. I had just finished a run of Altar Boyz and was looking for something that could be a side hustle that would allow me to keep performing. I had humble ambitions originally, but that quickly grew once I realized that people were interested in knowing more of the stories that bring these theaters to life. Now, 10 years later, I still perform and run BUC from backstage if I’m working on a show. We now offer five exterior tours, one interior tour (of Broadway’s oldest theater, the Hudson), and we have a gift shop and kiosk in the middle of Times Square complete with a six-foot tall sign that spells out my favorite word in marquee letters: Broadway.
BS: How long did it take to go from the initial idea to an up-and-running business?
TD: From the initial “Aha!” moment it was roughly six months of research and development to get the first draft of the tour on its feet. As an actor we’re not taught a lot about the business side of the world. I had a good understanding of finance from my parents, but the larger concepts of business structure were foreign to me at that point. So, I set about reading and doing as much research as possible, created a business entity, opened a business checking account, and was off and running. And as for that first tour experience? I had one friend as a guinea pig of sorts, and I decided we should do EVERY theater on Broadway in one tour… seven-and-a-half hours later I realized the idea was there, but perhaps needed some refining! I’ve been refining that original itinerary with my expert “Green Team,” which is comprised of actors and stage managers who add their own personal theatrical journeys to the mix as tour guides.
BS: What’s your favorite thing about running Broadway Up Close?
TD: Connecting with theatergoers, hands down. I’ve been working in the professional theatre for 17 years and it’s easy to become jaded to the challenges of living in New York City and pursuing the life of an artist. Thankfully, I am surrounded by guests who see Broadway as this magical landscape with secrets and stories hidden within its folds. Spending time with them keeps that magical flame ignited inside me day in and day out. I don’t know how I got so lucky to be the one to share those secrets, but I’m happy to rise to that task as an ambassador for all that the word “Broadway” encompasses.
BS: How did you react when Broadway closed? And what did you decide to do about it?
TD: Never – and I mean, NEVER – did I imagine a world where Broadway would close for a week, let alone for many months. When things initially started to fall apart in mid-March we were in the thick of student groups, classes that we offer, gift shop sales and a healthy spring season. And then, within four days, it was all gone. Refunds and cancellations filled my inbox, my staff turned to me for guidance, and I raced to ensure that my team and the guests that were still on our roster for that weekend were safe during our time together. From there it quickly became clear to me this wasn’t going to be a short hiatus. Staring down the barrel of many months without the revenues we had been amassing, and with no inquiries in sight, I realized that this could be an opportunity, of sorts. Life has suddenly given us a very precious thing: time. My mind is always racing with ideas, so I hatched up some projects that will sustain us through the year so that when things re-open we can hit the ground running.
I created a Virtual Broadway Tour Series that is short video every day full of history and fun facts as a sampler platter of what our tours cover. We are covering one theater per week – 41 theaters, 41 weeks – and by the time I finish it in March 2021, I am optimistic things will be back up and running again. On the more tangible side of things: I had really started to expand our gift shop offerings in the months leading up to the shutdown, so I invested in some equipment to manufacture our own custom merchandise. So far we’ve launched our “Made In NYC” wooden pin collection, coaster sets, and engraved shot glasses. My designer and I are hard at work dreaming up some new items to be revealed in the coming months and I think people are going to love them. We are creating Broadway merchandise that has never been seen before and I’m very excited to unveil it to the world…soon enough!
BS: What’s something you wish you’d known when you started out?
TD: I wish I had known to reach out to others when I had questions about certain business aspects when we first started. I now surround myself with other entrepreneurs who are also pounding the pavement (me, quite literally, as a walking tour business!) so I can bounce ideas off of them, ask questions, and commiserate (and celebrate!) in good company. Building something from a grain of an idea to fruition takes a lot of patience, energy, and ambition. I encourage everyone to build the life they want if they have a good enough idea and I’m thankful every day that I went for it back in 2010.
BS: What’s your favorite theatre and why?
TD: The Belasco. No question. I love it so much that I named my French bulldog, and company mascot, after it. The history of the theater is fascinating, there’s a haunted apartment atop (that I got to go into…twice!), and it’s almost exactly the same as when it opened in 1907, which I love.