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Holiday shows bringing box office joy

Improving economy, discounts, patron outreach spur revival in city

Attendance for the Boston Ballet’s “Nutcracker” is up 23 percent from three years ago, and revenue is up 36 percent.

ESSDRAS M SUAREZ/GLOBE STAFF

Attendance for the Boston Ballet’s “Nutcracker” is up 23 percent from three years ago, and revenue is up 36 percent.

Boston’s performing arts institutions are reporting a box office boom, as thousands of patrons stream into time-honored holiday shows this season.

“The Nutcracker” has sold more tickets than in years, and has already earned record revenues as it readies to close Sunday. Holiday Pops and Revels have also set new revenue standards.

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For Bostonians, these and other annual shows are time-honored holiday traditions. For Boston arts organizations, they have always been something else: productions capable of making or breaking their budgets.

“Just three, four years ago, everybody was in the dire crisis,” said Barry Hughson, Boston Ballet’s executive director. “It was about surviving. To think that after that dark time, that we’re in the healthiest place we’ve been arguably in the last few decades, that’s an incredible statement considering what the whole nation’s been through.”

Arts leaders say the holiday-show boom has shadowed the slow, steady growth of the economy. They also believe the discount ticket program started nine years ago by Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s office has helped.

The numbers are impressive. Boston Ballet’s “Nutcracker” had sold 89,814 tickets as of Tuesday, with $7.1 million in revenue, a significant increase from 2009’s 72,984 tickets and $5.2 million.

At Symphony Hall, Holiday Pops attendance has increased each year from 68,771 in 2009 to this year’s 78,916. The rise in ticket prices over those years means that 2112 will set a new standard, bringing in $5.8 million.

Revels, which holds its Christmas production at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre, has sold 17,200 tickets this year and earned $770,000, its most ever.

Others also report banner holiday seasons.

The North Shore Music Theatre, Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre, and Handel and Haydn Society all reported increases in ticket sales and revenues for their annual holiday programs this year. The Music Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol” earned $1.1 million, and Jose Mateo’s “Nutcracker” revenues had reached $343,652 as of last week. (Final figures for the show, which closed Monday, were not available.) The Handel and Haydn Society did not have detailed figures, though a spokesperson said it beat last year’s revenue for “Messiah” by 7 percent.

In addition, ArtsBoston reported that it set a record this holiday season by selling 9,909 tickets through the discount program through which it has been partnering with the mayor’s office since 2004. The Mayor’s Holiday Special offers half-priced tickets to some shows, including the Holiday Pops, “The Nutcracker,” and Revels.

Catherine Peterson, the executive director of ArtsBoston since 1997, believes the boom is due to several factors, including the economy and organizations learning how to use social media to reach potential ticket buyers.

“Everybody has gotten a lot smarter with how to get the right message in front of the right people at the same time,” she said. “If you want to go see ‘The Nutcracker’ with Boston Ballet on a Saturday night, you can get the best possible tickets through the Boston Ballet site. If you are looking to take your grandchildren and you are willing to go to a preview, we can get you half price.”

Holiday shows have long allowed organizations to expand their audiences as well as replenish company coffers. But uncertainty set in a decade ago when Boston Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” couldn’t reach a deal to stay in the Wang Theatre, where it had played for decades. The Wang had been looking for a financial boost and decided, in 2004, to replace “The Nutcracker” with a touring version of the Radio City Rockettes. Coming only months after another out-of-town show, “The Lion King,” dominated the local market at the Opera House, the Wang decision left local producers fearing they might be unable to compete.

“The Rockettes spent a huge amount of money on advertising, blowing the rest of us out of the water,” said Kim Noltemy, chief marketing officer of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

That’s no longer the case, Noltemy and Boston Ballet’s Hughson said. After cutting back on performances to save money after 2004, local arts organizations have been adding performances in recent years. It’s not clear how successful the Wang’s other holiday shows, including this year’s production of “The Grinch,” have been at the box office. (The Rockettes have returned to Boston since 2004, though not every year.)

Joe Spaulding, president and chief executive officer of the Citi Performing Arts Center, which operates the Wang, declined an interview request and would not provide financial figures. In an e-mail, he did write, “this has been a particularly great season,” stating that “The Grinch” beat expectations and that the Wang sold out a pair of concerts by Leonard Cohen.

Part of the revenue boom this season is due to higher ticket prices than in the past. A top seat at “The Nutcracker” is $182; At Holiday Pops, $129.

Noltemy said that holiday show pricing can be tricky.

“The bottom line is there’s a limit of how much people are willing to pay,” she said. “We try to keep our price increases moderate — 2 to 3 percent — and we try to keep a huge range between the low and the high.”

This year, the BSO also offered 980 tickets for seven shows at half price through the Mayor’s Holiday Special.

For Boston Ballet, which struggled for years to recover from the loss of the Wang, the slow build to this season has paralleled the growth of the organization. This year, Boston Ballet presented a new adaptation of “The Nutcracker” created by artistic director Mikko Nissinen. The company also received a $4.2 million bequest that has helped create a $3 million cash reserve.

“So it’s been steady progress across all areas of the organization,” said Hughson. “The Boston Ballet’s the healthiest it’s been certainly in recent memory.”

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.
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