NEW YORK - Jim Gatens was born and raised in Hell's Kitchen, the son of a stagehand and a theater usherette. He has run the TKTS booth since it opened 30 years ago on the little concrete spit known as Duffy Square. And as the booth celebrates its anniversary this week, he has decided to call it quits.
On a steamy afternoon, Gatens, 58, is in the booth, his cheerful voice raised over the din of a dozen ticket sellers tending to last-minute discount ticket buyers. The booth has the clamor of a trading floor, but it is essentially a double-wide trailer outfitted with a bank of computers, some banged-up file cabinets and slotted wooden racks holding tickets coveted by bargain hunters who now snake four lines deep.
Gatens, the booth's head treasurer, is proud of his blue-collar roots in the neighborhood. He recalls how a supervisor at the Theatre Development Fund, the nonprofit group that operates TKTS, asked him where he received his education. Gatens did not hesitate: "CNA" The urbane supervisor paused, perplexed, then inquired, gingerly.
"Corner of Ninth Avenue," Gatens said.
He tosses his head back, laughing. He has a gentle smile and a 6-foot, burly frame. He is not a flamboyant Times Square character. With his crisp white shirt, dark blue suit and wire-rimmed glasses, he could be an insurance salesman.
But he can carry on juicy banter, even as he paces, because besides being a bona fide fixture in Times Square, TKTS has distributed 43 million discount tickets and produced $940 million in revenue for the city's theater community.
Gatens admits that it took him a while to get over his self-consciousness about not attending college. He went straight into the theater business after graduating from George Washington High School in Washington Heights.
"Being a kid on the West Side of Manhattan, you either make a right-hand turn and go to the piers to work as a longshoreman, or you go left to the theater industry," he says. "Fortunately, I made a left."
From the booth, bounded by Broadway, West 47th Street and Seventh Avenue, Gatens has seen the area go from hell to Disney.
On particularly hectic days, Gatens says, he steps into Times Square, outside the booth, for a taste of sanity.
"When you have 10 windows open and everybody running around, it is just like the stock exchange," he says. "The intensity is extremely high."
Frankly, Gatens didn't think TKTS would last. He took a summer job in 1973 when a play closed at the Helen Hayes Theater, where he was assistant treasurer. He expected to have time to burn. "But on the first rainy day, I went out for lunch and when I came back, there was a line from 47th to 46th Street. People with their umbrellas up were waiting for us to sell tickets."
Gatens takes ticket sales personally. After his father died when Gatens was 12, he says his mother worked 20 hours a day, cleaning theaters and ushering.
"It's keeping the theaters open, the cleaning women working, the usherettes working," he says. "I know it because my family depended on the income and I know where I come from."
Gatens' father used to attest to the neighborhood's attractions, gazing regularly from their apartment window as Marilyn Monroe strolled down the block to the Actors Studio.
He is asked about his retirement, as of Monday. "Retiring is not the word," he says. "I'm taking the summer off to review my options in life." But he will not be back at TKTS. "Thirty years," he adds firmly. "I stuck a fork in it, and it was done."