If you live in or take trips to New York City on a regular basis the odds are you’ve seen some Broadway shows. But probably not as many as Laura Heywood because apparently NO ONE sees as many Broadway shows as Laura Heywood. Labeled by CBS as ‘Broadway’s most influential fan’, Laura is a life-long Broadway afficionado who, through social media and journalism, created a niche in the industry as trusted interviewer, consultant, and advocate. She estimates that she sees over two hundred shows per year. She then writes about them, discusses them and shares her experiences with her followers on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Of course, these are anything but normal times and the closing of the theaters has had a deep financial impact on many who make their living in the arts. For Laura, the majority of her annual income happened during the Tony Award season, where she was sometimes hired as a journalist, sometimes as a member of the production team. If there are no Tony Awards, then she, like so many others, are left scrambling. Another thing about Laura is that she is a collector. Over the years in her small apartment she had amassed a huge collection of Broadway memorabilia, from playbills to posters to cups to magnets to bottle openers to fly swatters and more. Many of these she kept for herself but some she would give away as prizes for the legions of fans who followed her on social media. However, with no income looming she started to sell off some of her possessions, starting with those which had little emotional value. Thus, the idea for Applause Shop was born. www.ApplauseShop.com
Laura began talking with her friend and mentor producer Susan Vargo (“The SpongeBob Musical”) about how they could possibly make a business out of this but at that time the inventory was too small. Still, they sensed there was a need for what they had to offer and they agreed to just keep it in discussion. In the meantime, they would purchase items from other members of the industry who needed cash and try to re-sell them to those had means. The artists received some much needed income and a portion of each sale went to a variety of causes, such as Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS; The Broadway Advocacy Coalition; ASTEP (Artists Striving to End Poverty); The Actors Fund; The Ali Forney Center; Planned Parenthood; Story Pirates Changemakers; The ACLU Foundation; and The NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund. As Laura says, “Theatre artists have access to so many items that their fans would cherish. Playbills and posters from shows they have seen and those they appear in; cast-only apparel and opening night gifts; even correspondence between friends — much of what ‘industry folks’ have accumulated over the years amounts to valued collectibles for fans worldwide.”
Most of the general public is unaware how much money is spent by producers on opening night gifts. Every member of the cast and crew usually receives a present on opening night (no matter how long the run lasts) and those gifts can have tremendous value. One of those who collected opening night gifts (and a great deal of other memorabilia) was two time Tony Award winning lighting designer Howell Binkley. A veteran of more than 50 Broadway shows, Binkley passed away from lung cancer in 2020. He was an extraordinary genius who made his debut with “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and worked constantly up to the time of his passing, winning his second Tony as lighting designer for “Hamilton”. Binkley. like Laura, was an avid collector and when he died his family was at a loss as to what to do with his memorabilia, which totaled almost 2000 items. Hearing about the collection and knowing how valuable many of the pieces would be, at least emotionally, Laura and Vargo took a bold step and bid on the entire stock. Regarding Binkley’s collection, Laura says, “It is surprisingly emotional to touch all of these things, the contents of a life. It’s humbling. The gravity of the shut-down has been amplified for me through these emblems of a life’s work. When I think about theatre ‘stopping short’ — whether it’s our entire industry, or a single human life — I am increasingly aware of how much Broadway means to so many of us. Each of these items holds the energy of the industry I love so much, and I am thrilled to share that with fans who can now own a piece of theatrical history.” Proceeds from the items sold out of Binkley’s collection will benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
While the materials purchased from Binkley’s estate helped considerably, the main focus of Applause Shop is to work with individual artists on consignment. “The BEST way to get the MOST money into artists’ hands is to pay them out after items sell, which means they don’t have to forgo ownership of anything that doesn’t have a guaranteed forever home, and we don’t end up accidentally lowballing them on something because we don’t know how popular it will be.”
From the time she was 13 Laura was a Broadway fan. The way she tells it her parents got her tickets that year for the Gershwin musical “Crazy For You”, starring Jodi Benson. Benson also happened to be the voice of Ariel in Laura’s favorite movie, “The Little Mermaid” so it was a double bonus. The tickets were down in the front row and during one of the scenes Benson came to the front of the stage, sat and smiled directly at Laura. This in and of itself would have made any girl’s night but there was more. After the show New York experienced a summer thunderstorm, (unheard of back in California where Laura was from) and the family was forced to take refuge until the rain stopped. Lo and behold who comes out of the stage door but Jodi Benson. She sees Laura, recognizes her, signs her playbill and takes a picture with her, thereby cementing in Laura’s heart and soul a lifelong passion for theater.
Right now Laura and Applause Shop are gearing up for BroadwayCon, an annual event in which fans can go and get souvenirs from their favorite shows and meet some of their all time favorite actors. The event runs April 17th and 18th but this year, like pretty much everything else, it will be held virtually. Stars will appear via zoom, tickets will be sold for future events, prizes will be awarded. Applause Shop will be offering up merchandise pretty much non-stop. Laura is uncertain about the future, as is everyone, but she is eternally optimistic that things will work out for the best and she can get back to seeing her two hundred plus shows a year. Applause Shops will continue regardless and the hope is there comes a time when demand is big enough that she can hire a staff to help keep things humming while she focuses on her passion – Broadway.
For more information contact Laura Heywood at [email protected]. For information on BroadwayCon, visit https://www.broadwaycon.com