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Free is the entertainment mantra as recession hits

PEOPLE are flocking to free outdoor cultural events from opera to rappers to Shakespeare, entertaining themselves on a budget amid the worst recession in some 70 years.

As more people opt to spend vacations at home, some US park groups are seeing audiences double, while donations and sponsorships of free summer programs are dropping.

In New York, the City Parks Foundation puts on nearly 1,200 free events, mostly in summer, and has seen crowds grow by at least 30 percent compared to last year.

"The recession is definitely playing a role," the foundation's executive director, David Rivel, said. "Fundraising is down about 20 percent, attendance is up about 20 to 30 percent, and we're doing the best we can."

A huge demand has risen for free sports programs, as many parents cannot afford sending children to camp, he added.

Waiting in the rain at New York's East River Park for hip hop artist Slick Rick to appear, Audrea Alicea, 40, said free events were good for "keeping the kids out of trouble."

"I go online to try to find stuff to keep my daughter entertained," said Alicea, a child care worker from Manhattan.

In London, the Royal Opera House has seen a 27-percent jump in crowds from last year for live broadcasts of opera and ballet on big screens in 20 locations around Britain.

"There is a huge hunger for free events given the current climate," spokesman Simon Magill said.

Free guided walks through London's Royal Parks has seen a 12-percent increase in attendance, a spokesman said.

In New York, long queues of people waiting for free tickets to "Shakespeare in the Park" stretch through Central Park.

Also in Central Park, more than 80,000 people attended a free performance this month by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

Alex Seki, 32 and unemployed, stood with his friends at the New York City Parks Foundation Slick Rick show for one simple reason. "If it's free, I'll be there," he said.

In Chicago, the Parkways Foundation, which is bucking the trend and on track for a 10-percent growth in fundraising, has established a US$100,000 scholarship program for children to attend its day camp and took over funding free "Movies in the Park" after the event lost its sponsor.


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