SARS scare saps sales

Toronto theater, concert auds still staying home

TORONTO — Anxiety about SARS appears to be keeping audiences out of theaters in Toronto.

Canada’s biggest theater town is seeing declining ticket sales even at long-running hits such as “Mamma Mia!,” which has played to significantly smaller houses in recent week.

Toronto has been the hardest-hit city outside Asia following the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in China. The city’s tourist and convention trade, already a victim of numerous cancellations attributed to fear of SARS, was further affected when the World Health Organization issued a warning to travelers to stay away from Toronto.

Although the WHO lifted the travel advisory less than a week later, on April 29, tourists’ travel and theatergoing patterns are part of the continuing SARS fallout.

Several artists, such as the rock band Styx, singer Aretha Franklin and actor-writer Claire Bloom, have canceled scheduled shows and promotional tours. And numerous concert and theatergoers from Toronto, other parts of Canada and outside the country are canceling reservations or just not showing up for tickets already sold.

“Currently our houses are thinner,” admits John Karastamatis, spokesman for Mirvish Prods., producers of “Mamma Mia!” and “The Lion King.” Instead of the full houses of the last few years, he says, numbers are down by 20% or more.

But, he points out, the slowdown is not entirely attributable to fear of SARS. “Things have slowed down because of the war in Iraq, because of 9/11, because of the economy. People are just traveling less.”

Advance ticket sales at the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, a short distance from Toronto, also are down compared to last year, says Shaw senior communications manager Odette Yazbeck, mainly in advance bookings from the U.S.

While preview attendance and bookings (April 3-May 19) are “about the same as last year,” bookings for the regular season are “marginally” below normal.

But the Stratford Festival, two hours west of Toronto, appears untouched by SARS apprehension, says fest media manager Kelly Teahan. “It’s a concern, and clearly it’s a situation we’re monitoring, but at this point, it has not affected us.”

But for all, the main concern, says Karastamatis, is “fear about the future.”

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