What Is It Like to Own a Broadway Theatre?

Interview   What Is It Like to Own a Broadway Theatre?
 
In Martin Markinson’s new memoir Come On Along and Listen to My Life in Theatre, the owner of the Little Theatre turned Helen Hayes spills details of his 40-year theatre career.
Harvey Fierstein and Martin Markinson
Harvey Fierstein and Martin Markinson

Martin Markinson began working at age 16. His father had passed away when he was 11, and he was a real-life newsie at age 12; but when he turned 16 he quit school and worked full time. He carved a path in the insurance business, but decided to give up the secure life and dive into the theatre. He began producing shows in 1975; he bought Broadway’s Little Theatre on 44th Street in 1979, and owned and operated it until 2015, when he sold it to Second Stage.

“Broadway is such a big industry and being controlled by so few people, makes you feel a little elite,” he tells Playbill of his theatre-owning days. “It gave me a chance to read scripts and to make a decision, right or wrong, as to which show I should take.”

Torch_Song_Trilogy_Broadway_Production_Photos_1982_Harvey_Fierstein_HR-2.jpg
Harvey Fierstein Ken Howard

Over four decades, Markinson wielded his influence over the Broadway landscape, producing shows like Torch Song Trilogy by Harvey Fierstein, And A Nightingale Sang by C.P. Taylor, Passion by Peter Nichols and Corpse by Gerald Moon. His theatre only hosted four of the shows he produced during his career, and Markinson digs deep into his career on both sides of the aisle (producing and owning) in his memoir Come On Along and Listen to My Life in Theatre.

“When I bought the theatre, I went to see Jimmy Nederlander, Sr. when he was alive, and I said, ‘Jimmy, I just bought the Little Theatre and I don’t know much about a theatre and I was wondering if you can give me some advice?’ And he said, ‘What are you? Nuts? What are you going to do with that theatre? It’s only 500 seats. You’ll never get a show, and how can you compete with us? You made a big mistake.’ So I decided to go see Bernie Jacobs and he told me the same thing,” Markinson recalls. “I went home and I decided: I made a decision, I’m going to make this thing work.”

Here, Markinson teases some of the stories in his new book, reveals how much it cost to buy and run the Little Theatre, and what it was like to be a gatekeeper of Broadway.

What made you want to become a theatre owner?
As a theatre owner, I had to try to get shows to book at my theatre and I was competing with the three other theatre owners at the time, the Shuberts, the Nederlanders, and Jujamcyn. Owning the theatre, for me, I felt like I was part of an elite group that virtually controlled Broadway because every producer that wanted to come to a Broadway theatre had to talk to any one of the four of us.

What did producers have to convince you of that would make you decide to host a show?
They first had to give me their budget to see if they can indeed financially work in my theatre, because I only had 500 seats. Being a “middle house,” I had favorable union contracts, so my pitch to producers was that you can probably run in my house $25,000–$35,000 cheaper a week, which is sometimes the difference between profit and loss. Of course, my theatre was really in terrible condition and most producers always believe they have a hit show. They always want a bigger house to be able to sell more tickets. You have to understand, I was like a little boutique surrounded by huge department stores. Theatre owners, all of us, always wanted a show that was going to be a hit and keep the theatre lit for a long time.

People may not realize theatre owners are the gatekeepers of what we end up seeing on Broadway.
Absolutely. There’s roughly about 45 shows that want to come to Broadway each year. They can’t all make it. Remember, there are 41 theatres on Broadway, and a lot of them have hit shows and are never available. If you have a play, you want to go into a playhouse, unless you have a major star. You don’t want to go into a big musical house. If you have a large musical, you can’t go into a playhouse, it’s too small. A producer has to really make sure if he’s going to invest a year or two of his life, he has to make sure that he can get a theatre.

What happens when a theatre is empty?
You’re paying taxes, insurance, staff, it’s very expensive. The difference between the other theatre owners and myself is that if they had two or three dark theatres, they might have had five or six that were lit, so the money they made from the other theatres covered the cost of the theatres that were dark. I lived and died with my one theatre, so if I were dark, I had to hurry up and try to find a show. What happens is that if you have a show running and it’s not doing well and the producer decides to close, my next show that wants the theatre might not be ready for months. The rule is that if the theatre owner has a real good show he wants, he can’t kick the show out that’s already in there, unless that show goes below a certain gross for two consecutive weeks. Conversely, if a producer decides to close a show, all he has to do is break the contract and give one week’s notice to the theatre owner.

You bought the theatre for $800,000. How much did it cost to rent the theatre in the earliest years?
There’s two things: They pay a rent, which was like $10,000 a week, and then they pay a percentage of the gross, and they pay all expenses other than your staff. So when a theatre is lit, the theatre owner makes money. When the theatre is dark, then he has to pick up all of the expenses and that’s when you lose a lot of money.

Tell me about producing the original Torch Song Trilogy and bringing it to your Little Theatre.
I saw the show and I loved the show and I said I want to produce this show. The show that I had at my theatre was about to close, so I knew my theatre was going to become available. It was a very difficult sell because it was really the first gay-themed show that played on Broadway. I thought it was a very important show, and a wonderful show. We opened Torch Song right after the Tony Awards and it took us a year for the next Tony Awards and we won. That put our theatre on the map.

What made you decide to rename the theatre?
In 1982 when they tore down the Morosco and the old Helen Hayes, I went to Mrs. Hayes and I said, “Mrs. Hayes, your name has to be on a marquee, would you mind if we used your name and changed the name of our theatre from the Little Theatre to the Helen Hayes Theatre?” She knew the theatre, loved the theatre, remembered what played there since 1912 and she said, “By all means, you can use my name.”

Click here to order your copy of Come On Along and Listen to My Life in Theatre.

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