ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Will the Mark Hellinger Theater Ever See a Show Again?

By Robert Simonson
November 16, 2010

A question concerning the life and future of Broadway's opulent Mark Hellinger Theater, once home to My Fair Lady, and now a house of worship.



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Question: Will the Mark Hellinger Theater ever present shows again?  I can't believe the Nederlander Organization would sell one of the most loved and sought-after (not to mention arguably the most beautiful) of venues. Wouldn't it be advantageous for the Jujamcyns or Shuberts to make an offer to the Times Square Church to get it back on the boards? — Robert Koval, New York, NY

The short answer to the first of your questions is: No. The Hellinger will not be presenting shows anytime in the near future.

Today, Broadway real estate is at a premium, with the favored musical and play houses snatched up by producers as soon as they become vacant.

That was not the case in the dark days of the 1980s, when Times Square was still a dicey, somewhat dangerous place and Broadway's fortunes were not booming. So, in 1989, the Nederlander Organization, which owned the Hellinger, leased the theatre to the Times Square Church for five years at $1 million a year. "There's no shows being produced,'' James Nederlander Sr. told the New York Times at the time. ''We have to keep the theatres filled. We've got the Gershwin with nothing in it. We'll have the Nederlander as well. We don't have anything on the horizon to put in the theatre.''

Nederlander added: "We want to keep the theatre as a legitimate theatre. It's a short-term lease — five years is short term for me. It'll pass before you know it." But that was not to be. Two years later, the Nederlanders sold the 1930 theatre to the Church for $17 million. The church was formed in 1987 by Pastor David Wilkerson, who said he founded the house of worship to address the destitution and moral corruption he saw in the area. Previously, the Times Square Church held its services in Town Hall on 43rd Street and the Nederlander Theatre on 41st Street.

According to a March 2010 article in the New York Post, the church has been approached with offers to buy the theatre back since then, including, allegedly, British producer Cameron Mackintosh (who tried to buy it from the Nederlanders, but was rebuffed); former Canadian impresario Garth Drabinsky; the Shubert Organization; corporate producers Disney and Clear Channel; and lawyer and producer John Breglio, who controls the Michael Bennett estate.

All inquiries have been in vain. The Church, which reportedly collects a hefty amount of donations at every service, has no interest in moving out.

The theatre was designed by famous theatre architect Thomas W. Lamb, and opened as the Warner Bros. Hollywood Theatre, a deluxe movie house, on April 22, 1930. Despite being a film palace, the stage was designed to accommodate musical shows, and it began doing so in 1934. After briefly being rechristened the 51st Street Theatre, it was purchased by producer Anthony Brady Farrell, who renamed it for Mark Hellinger, who died in 1948. Forgotten today, Hellinger was an influential newspaper columnist, critic and Hollywood scenarist and producer in the 1920s, '30s and '40s, upon whom Walter Winchell fashioned his career.

Among the Hellinger's most famous tenants were My Fair Lady, Sugar Babies and Jesus Christ Superstar.

Theatre lovers need not despair of the theatre's fate entirely. The Times Square Church's services are open to the public, so one can enter anytime and drink in the grand, highly detailed interior, with its circular, three-story, domed rotunda and various wall murals depicting 18th-century French aristocracy. (The interior designs were by Leif Neandross.) The Church has been good about maintaining the structure, which is protected, inside and out, by the New York City Landmark laws.