Stars Appear to Applaud the Centennial of Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre
By Robert Simonson
Harvey Fierstein, Dana Ivey, Alfred Uhry, Alison Fraser, Mary Testa, Jonathan Hadary, Sarah Jones, Mandy Patinkin and more gathered May 24 at Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre to celebrate its 100th anniversary. Playbill was there, too.
Winthrop Ames' ears must have been burning on May 24.
Who was Winthrop Ames? The man who built the Little Theatre — the Helen Hayes Theatre, to you moderns — that's who. What was May 24? The day the current owners of Broadway's smallest house, Martin Markinson and Jeffrey Tick, decided to throw a party to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the venue on West 44th Street. The Helen Hayes is actually one-hundred-years-and-two-months old, if we're being exact. It was opened on March 12, 1912, by Ames, a Harvard-educated scion of an aristocratic New England family who aimed to buck Broadway's commercial ways by building a theatre dedicated to intimate plays. (He also built the nearby Booth, and was a playwright and director.) He named the 299-seat structure, appropriately enough, the Little Theatre.
The Helen Hayes — so renamed in 1983 after the original Helen Hayes Theatre was torn down to make way for the Marriott Marquis Hotel — remains a home to intimate work. The theatre's history has had its hiccups over the years: The New York Times owned it for a spell in the 1930s; it was an ABC television studio from 1942 to 1959; and was leased to Westinghouse Broadcasting from 1964 to 1974 (David Frost, Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett shot their talk shows from here). Currently, however, it's enjoying its longest run as a legit stage; nothing but theatre has been presented here since 1974.
The two present owners marked the occasion with a ceremony in the auditorium, followed by a lunch at Sardi's, which sits next door.
Martinson and Tick are an unusual species among Broadway theatre owners — unlike the Shuberts, Nederlanders and Jujamcyns, they possess a single house. Martinson told the crowd how both James Nederlander, Sr. and the Shuberts' Bernard B. Jacobs told him he couldn't make a go of it with only one house. He ignored their advice, and has now owned the theatre longer than Ames did.
"Ames wanted noncommercial plays here to elevate the level of show on Broadway," joked Tick, surrounded by the set of the long-running '80s-rock musical Rock of Ages. "And now we have a stripper pole on stage and the ability to serve Jell-O and tequila shots in the auditorium." He then named a number of the many productions that have played the Hayes. "There have been open engagements. There have been limited engagements. There have been open engagements that became limited engagements."
Harvey Fierstein, whose play Torch Song Trilogy played a long run at the Hayes, hosted the event. Introducing him, Martinson recalled, "Jeffrey's father and I got very, very lucky. We stumbled across a playwright and actor who had a play called Torch Song Trilogy and he brought it to this theatre. It ran three years. And that is really what put this theatre on the map."
Fierstein recalled first visiting the theatre in the early '70s, when it was still a television studio hosting talk shows. He was far from the only former Hayes star to revisit the stage on May 24. A parade of nearly two dozen creatives who have called the theatre a temporary home in the last 30 years stepped up to the podium to offer remarks and remembrances.
Playwright Alfred Uhry and actresses Dana Ivey and Jessica Hecht reminisced about putting on The Last Night of Ballyhoo. Hecht and Ivey performed a short segment from the first scene of the play. Steve Guttenberg recalled stepping into the production of Craig Lucas' Prelude to a Kiss. Also representing the cast of Kiss was actress Debra Monk, whose first Broadway play it was. Monk recollected co-star Barnard Hughes standing in the middle of the Hayes stage one afternoon looking out at the house and rhetorically asking, "Aren't we lucky?"
Playwright-composer Rupert Holmes recalled the experience of staging his one-man play about George Burns, Say Goodnight, Gracie, and how he liked to imaging that Burns, who lived a long life, probably visited the theatre where, years later, his life was depicted. Jay Johnson, the ventriloquist and star of Jay Johnson: The Two and Only, told of his experience seeing what he came to regard as a theatre ghost during one performance. (No one believed him.) "The theatre's exactly how I remembered it, except the seats were blue, and now they're red — and filled," he quipped. "It's hard to believe this building is 100 years old. Until you go down and flush the toilets. Then you know."
Jonathan Hadary, a star of two long-running Hayes shows, Gemini and Torch Song, recalled an earlier event at the theatre, when the name was changed from Little Theatre to Helen Hayes. Hayes herself was at the event. "She said," recalled Hadary, "that she hadn't shed any tears when the Helen Hayes theatre was torn down. But she added that she had been taught that tears were for the stage and the bathroom. And she had shed many tears in the bathroom."
Alison Fraser talked about her career-making turn in the musical Romance/Romance. Mandy Patinkin remembered bringing his solo show Dress Casual to the theatre. Sarah Jones, in her remarks, revived two characters from her solo show Bridge and Tunnel. Kevin Chamberlin recalled the nerve-wracking experience of, as a closeted gay young man, seeing Torch Song in the theatre with his mother. Years later he appeared in drag on its stage as one of the stars of Dirty Blonde. "I'd come a long way," he laughed.
Appearing last were the bookwriter and three of the stars of the musical Xanadu: Douglas Carter Beane, Jackie Hoffman, Mary Testa and Kerry Butler.
Actors being actors — always looking for work — more than a couple of the speakers called out from the stage to Markinson. "I'd love to come back!" they said.
Second Stage Theatre, the nonprofit Off-Broadway company devoted to contemporary American theatre, continues raising money toward making the Hayes its Broadway home; it will also continue producing at its two Off-Broadway venues. Second Stage did not have a presence on stage at the Hayes centennial event, which was, after all, a chance to look backward before moving forward.
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