Theater community raises funds to combat HIV/AIDS


Since 1986, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS has held a flea market event to raise funds against HIV/AIDS.

Since 1986, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS has held a flea market to raise funds against HIV/AIDS. Photo: Christian Gollayan.

New York’s theater community came together on Sept. 21 to raise funds for AIDS and HIV treatment at the Broadway Flea Market and Grand Auction Event.

The all-day outdoor event on 44th street, which extended from Seventh to Eighth avenues, was lined with 65 tables hosted by theater companies, fan clubs, Broadway groups and sponsors who sold memorabilia and baked goods. A live auction featuring more than 240 items – including handwritten musical phrases from popular show tunes signed by the composer, lyricist and performer, and backstage access to meet Broadway star Idina Menzel – went on throughout the day.

All proceeds went to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, a nonprofit organization that fundraises for the disease’s treatment. The group raised more than $700,000, an all-time high for the 28-year-old event; last year, it raised more than $630,000.

The event attracted a variety of people, from Broadway aficionados who wore theater memorabilia such as Mama Mia! t-shirts and Lion King hats, to casual tourists who funneled in from Times Square. Promoters of the musical “Kinky Boots” strutted through the street in thigh-high heels while handing out flyers. The best-selling table was “Wicked!” which raised more than $20,000 by auctioning off items such as pens, signed music sheets and masks.

The group’s director, Tom Viola, said that the event’s expansion contributed to the increase in funds.

“We had the opportunity to spread out into Times Square onto the Pedestrian Plaza on Broadway between 43rd and 44th streets, which we’d done once before three years prior,” said Viola. “It offered us additional space for booths and our silent and live auction area so we weren’t quite as tight on West 44th Street.”

Theater producers founded Broadway Cares in 1988 to raise funds and support the Broadway community. The organization combined with Equity Fights Aids in 1992 as a not-for-profit. Since its inception, the flea market event has raised more than $11 million.

Viola said that the organization’s commitment to HIV/AIDS treatment arose in the 1980s. New York’s theater groups had a significant LGBT population, which was heavily affected by the epidemic.

“It took so many brilliant artists and theater professionals from us prematurely,” Viola said. “Which made a connection to this cause one that will remain for a long time to come.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of HIV infections within the U.S. has remained stable, with approximately 50,000 new cases per year. Thanks to improvements in medical treatments in the past decade, what was once considered a death sentence is now seen as a manageable disease if diagnosed early. Still, Viola said that fundraising for the disease is strongly needed.

“The challenge now is that so many with HIV/AIDS don’t have access to lifesaving medications, nutritious meals and other important resources,” Viola said. “Fifty percent of those who need to be on those lifesaving medications are not, and it simply shouldn’t be the case. That’s a real problem, and Broadway Cares is helping fund organizations across the country by helping folks get connected and have a support system in place to stay healthy.”

About 81 percent of the organization’s revenues go toward The Actors Fund, an initiative dedicated to aiding members of the entertainment industry who are living with the disease. Proceeds go to housing expenses and insurance coverage for medication. The rest goes toward grants that help fund food services and recovery from Hurricane Sandy, medical services for artists and other projects.

While the flea market is one of the organization’s biggest annual events, it hosts a variety of other fundraisers throughout the year. In the past, it has held a dance festival on Fire Island, a series of burlesque shows, and a Broadway musical at the Al Hirschfeld theater.

“The theater community is an extraordinary one,” Viola said. “They are passionate and talented, but also some of the most compassionate people I have ever met.”