A look at the man behind the Playbills

It’s opening night for Disney’s “Aladdin” at The Boston Opera House. A distinguished looking gentleman with silver hair stands in the lobby with friends. Several thousand ticket holders pass by him, never realizing the subtle impact he’ll have on their evening.

That gentleman, Tim Montgomery, is president and CEO of New Venture Media Group, publishers of Playbill Magazine in Boston.

Handed out to each patron entering the theater, the magazine includes comprehensive information on the evening’s performance, cast biographies and photographs, a listing of acts and musical numbers, plus related arts features and editorial content.

Playbill is the tactile memento of an unforgettable night at the theater.

New Venture is a multi-faceted marketing, publishing, travel, and theatrical services company based here in Boston. In addition to publishing the New England edition of Playbill Magazine, they also publish the tourism magazine, Panorama – The Official Guide to Boston; and Art New England, the region’s leading contemporary art and culture magazine.

Montgomery and his team also operate Show of the Month Club, the nation’s oldest membership-based discount theater ticket club, and The Travel Club (an offshoot of Show of the Month). Additionally, they publish Theatrebill, the official program for several of the region’s independent theaters.
Boston presenters like Broadway in Boston, The Boch Center, and the Ambassador Theatre Group contract with New Venture Media to produce Playbills for all their theatrical productions, while the Huntington and ArtsEmerson utilize Theatrebill.

Born in Brooklyn, and raised on the South Shore, Montgomery received a first-hand view of the entertainment world when he was a boy.
During a recent interview he said, “I have an uncle who worked on ‘The David Letterman Show’ . . . He started out as a stagehand on Broadway . . . He’d take me backstage to theaters in New York and later on, when the Letterman show started, we’d go to the show together. It was pretty exciting stuff.”

Montgomery attended Bowdoin College in Maine, while working as an NBC page in New York during the summer. His assignment? “The Tonight Show,” starring Johnny Carson. “You know the geeky guy on ‘30 Rock?’ That was me.”

Remembering Carson, he said, “He was pretty aloof and nodded at the pages, but I never exactly had a chat! . . . One of my jobs was to deliver his shirts to his office.”

After graduating from Bowdoin, Montgomery joined VISTA, then known as the domestic Peace Corps. He later got a job at legendary Boston radio station WBCN. FM radio was a new phenomenon at the time and ‘BCN reigned as the king of underground radio.

He started as “the kid who writes and sells the ads,” and rose through the ranks to become general sales manager.

When the broadcasting chapter of life came to a close, he was contacted out of the blue by the owners of Boston Magazine, where he soon became publisher. He admits he didn’t know a great deal about publishing, but said, “As it turned out, running a magazine is much like running a radio station or a television station. Largely the same structure, same kind of management challenges. And that’s how my unexpected second career in publishing began.”

Following his stint at Boston Magazine, he met iconic Boston impresario Jerome Rosenfeld, owner of Jerome Press, and a mainstay of the Boston arts community. Jerome Press had published Playbill Magazine in Boston since the ‘60s. (The New York edition of Playbill dates back to 1884.)
Rosenfeld was looking for just the right person to run his company. Said Montgomery, “He was getting on and I just was impressed by what he’d done, what he’d built, how he lived . . . I really admired him. He was in his 80s when we first met. He passed when he was 101 and came into the office almost every day. Quite a force of nature and he had quite an impact on me.”

Montgomery ran Jerome Press until buying the company in 2009.

Of New Venture, he said, “We operate independently, but you could consider us the Boston office of Playbill. We do not own Playbill, but we are 100 percent responsible for publishing Playbill in Boston. It’s the only market that has that connection to the mother ship, let’s call it, on Broadway.”
And while all Playbills are programs, not all programs are Playbills. Some local theaters produce their own programs, which audiences often refer to as a playbill. It becomes a challenge to protect the brand.

“There’s always the problem of people referring to Playbill as a generic,” Montgomery said. “(It’s) the old Kleenex problem. Every piece of paper’s a Kleenex and Kleenex has to fight and fight to keep it legal and protect it. Same thing with Playbill.”

As keepsakes, Playbills are highly sought after among theater fans, not only for hugely successful shows, but also for those shows that disappear after a painfully short run.

People collect them, get them autographed, frame them, trade them, even buy them, as evidenced by the number of Playbills available on ebay.
Despite this, the original purpose of Playbill was not to create memorabilia. Montgomery explained that producers are required to provide a program by the terms of their agreement with Actors’ Equity, the union that protects actors’ rights and interests.

“If you hire an Actors’ Equity actor, they need to have their information presented and their image presented in a program. And that’s what Playbill has done all these many, many years – provide a necessary service, not just to the theater-goer, but to the presenters and producers.”

“Boston is a great theater market,” he said, pointing to the phenomenal interest in productions like “Hamilton,” “Book of Mormon” and the world premiere of “Moulin Rouge.”

However, as the internet consumes more and more of our print media, what does the future hold for Playbill?

“Playbill is part of the theater-going experience,” said Montgomery. “It’s part of the tradition. People want it. They don’t leave it behind. They take it with them after a show. They cherish them as a keepsake of a special event.”

Happily, he assured theater fans, “I don’t seeing anything replacing Playbill.”

R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of onstageboston.com.