Happy Birthday, Little Theatre: Helen Hayes Theatre Is a Century Old March 12

News   Happy Birthday, Little Theatre: Helen Hayes Theatre Is a Century Old March 12
Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre on West 44th Street turns 100 on March 12. Martin Markinson and Jeff Tick, who own and operate the venue — first called The Little Theatre back in 1912 — will celebrate with a toast with friends, staff and guests. A more formal private centennial celebration is planned for May 24.

The Helen Hayes Theatre. The words
The Helen Hayes Theatre. The words "Little Theatre" can still be seen on the facade above the doors.

The Hayes is the smallest of Broadway's venues; 583 seats are sold for the current tenant, the Tony Award-nominated musical Rock of Ages. Off-Broadway's not-for-profit Second Stage Theatre is in the process of purchasing the venue as its Broadway home.

The Little Theatre, at 240 W. 44th Street, opened with John Galsworthy's play The Pigeon. Drawing from Playbill's "At This Theatre" — Louis Botto and Robert Viagas' popular history book of  Broadway venues (on sale at PlaybillStore.com) — here's an abridged look at the life and times of the Hayes:

In 1979, The Little Theatre was purchased by the Little Theatre Group — Martin Markinson and Donald Tick — with Ashton Springer serving as managing director. In 1981 this group spent a considerable amount to restore the house. Its interior was redesigned by ADCADESIGN: Wayne Adams, John Carlson, and Wolfgang H. Kurth.

In July 1983 theatre was officially renamed the Helen Hayes Theatre in honor of one of America's most beloved actresses. The tribute was deemed fitting by the theatrical community, since the first theatre bearing the name of Helen Hayes, on West 46th Street, had been torn down in 1982 to make way for the Marriott Marquis Hotel.

A century ago, The Little Theatre was built by producer Winthrop Ames. Ames, an aristocratic New Englander, rebelled against Broadway commercialism and built the Little, then with only 299 seats, as an intimate house for the production of noncommercial plays that were too risky to stage in large Broadway theatres. The New York Times admired the theatre's red-brick, green-shuttered exterior, its Colonial-style lobby with a fireplace, and the auditorium, which had no balcony or boxes and was built on an incline that afforded an unobstructed view of the stage.

Ames' policy — to produce "the clever, the unusual drama that had a chance of becoming a library classic" — continued to be reflected in the Little Theatre's fare. Among the early productions, all financed solely by Ames, were George Bernard Shaw's The Philanderer (1913); Prunella, a fantasy by Laurence Houseman and Harley Granville-Barker, starring Marguerite Clark and Ernest Glendinning (1913); and Cyril Harcourt's comedy A Pair of Stockings (1914).

Visit PlaybillStore.com to purchase "At This Theatre"

By 1915 Ames was having financial problems with the Little. Because of his theatre's small seating capacity, the impresario was losing money, even with hits. On March 11, 1915, The New York Times reported that Ames was in danger of losing his house. To prevent this, Ames planned to increase the seating capacity to 1,000, add a balcony, and make the stage larger. In 1920 Burns Mantle reported that the Little had been remodeled and the seating capacity was now 450 seats.

Ames, whose money came from his family's manufacturing interests, began leasing the Little to outside producers such as the highly respected John Golden and Oliver Morosco.

During the 1918-19 season, Rachel Crothers directed her own comedy, A Little Journey, at the Little. It ran for 252 performances. This was followed by another hit, Please Get Married, a farce starring Ernest Truex.

The true purpose of the Little Theatre, to present new playwrights and experimental dramas, was fulfilled by its next two bookings. In January 1920 Oliver Morosco presented Mamma's Affair, a first play by Rachel Barton Butler that won a prize as the best drama written by a student of Professor George Baker's famous "English 47" class at Harvard. Morosco presented a cash award to the author and mounted her play successfully with Effie Shannon. The other drama was Eugene O'Neill's first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, which had been playing matinees at other theatres before it was moved to the Little. It starred Richard Bennett and won the Pulitzer Prize.

The Little next housed one of its gold mines. The First Year, by actor Frank Craven, who starred in it with Roberta Arnold, proved to be a sensation. It opened on Oct. 20, 1920, was produced by John Golden and ran for 760 performances.

Producer Golden and playwright Craven thought that lightning might strike twice. In 1922 they tried again with Craven's Spite Corner, a small-town play about feuding families and lovers, but the comedy lasted only three months.

Guy Bolton, the prolific playwright who wrote many hit musicals and plays in his long career, had two comedies produced at the Little in 1923. The first, Polly Preferred, starring the vivacious blonde Genevieve Tobin and William Harrigan, was a daffy hit about a chorus girl who is sold to promoters like a product in a store window; the other, Chicken Feed, subtitled Wages for Wives, was really ahead of its time. It would have delighted women's lib advocates a half-century later.

At this time Ames still owned the Little, but he leased it to John Golden, F. Ray Comstock, and L. Lawrence Weber, with Weber also managing the theatre.

Brooks Atkinson reported in his book "Broadway" that by 1922 Ames had lost $504,372 on the Little Theatre. His other theatre, the Booth, which he built with Lee Shubert in 1913, was a commercial house and is still successful today. When Ames died in 1937, his estate had dwindled to $77,000, and his widow was forced to move from the sprawling Ames mansion to a small cottage on their estate.

In 1924 a play with the odd title Pigs turned out to be one of the year's best. Produced by John Golden, it starred Wallace Ford as a speculator who bought 50 sick pigs, cured them, and sold them at an enormous profit. He was greatly helped by his girlfriend, played by the refreshing Nydia Westman, who garnered love letters from the critics. The hit ran for 347 performances.

Thomas Mitchell proved popular in a 1926 comedy, The Wisdom Tooth, by Marc Connelly; 2 Girls Wanted was a smash in 1926; The Grand Street Follies, a popular annual revue that spoofed the season's plays and players, moved here from the Neighborhood Playhouse in 1927; and Rachel Crothers returned to the Little with Let Us Be Gay, a 1929 hit starring Francine Larrimore and Warren William.

In 1930 Edward G. Robinson was praised for his acting in Mr. Samuel, and Elmer Rice's The Left Bank (1931), about Americans in Paris, entertained patrons for 241 performances. A spate of plays with "Honeymoon" in their titles moved in. Honeymoon and One More Honeymoon were short-lived, but Pre-Honeymoon, by Alford Van Ronkel and Anne Nichols (author of Abie's Irish Rose), was a big enough hit to move from the Lyceum to the Little and to cause the theatre's name to be changed to Anne Nichols' Little Theatre.

In 1936 Sir Cedric Hardwicke made his U.S. debut in Promise. In 1937, when Cornelia Otis Skinner opened her one-woman show, Edna His Wife, the house reverted to being called the Little. A sparkling revue, Reunion in New York, opened in 1940 and reunited a group of talented performers from Vienna who had been introduced to New Yorkers previously in another revue, From Vienna (1939).

The Little Theatre ceased being a legitimate Broadway theatre for the next two decades. During this hiatus, the house, located adjacent to the headquarters of The New York Times, was known as the New York Times Hall from 1942 until 1959, when it became an ABC television studio. The Little returned to the legitimate fold in 1963 with Tambourines to Glory, a gospel music play by Langston Hughes and Jobe Huntley. The Paul Taylor Dance Company appeared there in the same year. In 1964 Habimah, the national theatre of Israel, staged The Dybbuk, Children of the Shadows and Each Had Six Wings. Later that year Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and James Costigan appeared in the Actors Studio production of Costigan's comedy Baby Want a Kiss. The critics gave it the kiss of death. In 1964, when the Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Subject Was Roses moved to this theatre from the Royale, the theatre's name was changed to the Winthrop Ames. In March 1965 the name went back to the Little, which it retained until 1983.

From late 1964 to mid-1974 the theatre was leased to Westinghouse Broadcasting and hosted the David Frost and Merv Griffin TV shows. Fans of the latter program may remember announcer Arthur Treacher's cheery opening: "From the Little Theatre in Times Square, it's the Merv Griffin Show!"

In 1974 the Little went legit again and housed Ray Aranha's play My Sister, My Sister. The Runner Stumbles (1976) was a success, but Unexpected Guests (1977) was a failure. Lamppost Reunion, Louis LaRusso II's much-heralded play about a Frank Sinatra-like singer returning to his old haunts in Hoboken, NJ, managed a run of only 77 performances.

In June 1977 Albert Innaurato's comedy Gemini moved in, and it epitomized the kind of show Winthrop Ames wanted in his theatre. The play was first done at Playwrights Horizons, then at the PAF Playhouse in Huntington, Long Island, followed by a production at the Circle Repertory Company. Finally, this production was moved to the Little, where it ran for an amazing 1,788 performances, making it the Little's longest-running show and the fourth-longest-running straight play in Broadway history.

The Little's next three shows did not fare well. They were Ned and Jack (1981); William Alfred's The Curse of an Aching Heart (1982), starring Faye Dunaway; and Solomon's Child (1982), an exposé of fanatical religious cults.

In June 1982 another ideal Little Theatre play came to the house. It was Torch Song Trilogy by Harvey Fierstein, who starred in his trio of bittersweet comedies about gay life, all with the same central character. The triptych originated at La MaMa E.T.C., was next done at the Richard Allen Center for Culture, and then appeared at the Actors' Playhouse before it moved to the Little. Torch Song Trilogy won the 1983 Tony Award for Best Play, and a Tony for Best Actor in a Play went to Fierstein.

Torch Song Trilogy was followed by such varied productions as The News (1985), a rock musical about sensational journalism; Corpse! (1985), a comedy thriller starring Keith Baxter and Milo O'Shea; Oh Coward! (1986), a revival of Roderick Cook's 1972 revue of Noël Coward songs and skits, starring Cook, Patrick Quinn, and Catherine Cox; Mummenschanz/The New Show (1986), a new edition of the popular mime show; The Nerd (1987), Larry Shue's amusing comedy about a man posing as a jerk to help out a friend; Scott Bakula and Alison Fraser in Romance/Romance (1988), two charming one-act musicals that moved here from Off-Broadway; Mandy Patinkin in Concert: Dress Casual (1989), the singing actor in a diverting program; Artist Descending a Staircase (1989), Tom Stoppard's complex comedy about the art world; and Miss Margarida's Way (1990), Estelle Parsons in a return engagement of her acclaimed one-woman show about an explosive teacher and her unruly pupils.

Prelude to a Kiss (1990), Craig Lucas' fantasy that originally starred Alec Baldwin Off-Broadway, moved here with Timothy Hutton in Baldwin's role, plus Mary-Louise Parker, Barnard Hughes, and Debra Monk. The 1990s saw The High Rollers Social and Pleasure Club (1992), a musical revue set in New Orleans; 3 from Brooklyn (1992), Roslyn Kind in a revue about Brooklyn; Shakespeare for My Father (1993), Lynn Redgrave in a highly praised one-woman show about her late father, actor Michael Redgrave; and Joan Rivers in Sally Marr . . . and her escorts (1994). Rivers not only starred in this play about Lenny Bruce's mother, but cowrote it with Ernie Sanders and Lonny Price. She was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance. The voice of young Lenny Bruce was supplied by Jason Woliner.

In November 1994, the popular Flying Karamazov Brothers juggling troupe opened here in their fourth Broadway appearance. They called their vaudeville show The Flying Karamazov Brothers Do the Impossible. They entertained for 50 performances.

On April 27, 2006, during the run of Bridge & Tunnel, Hayes co-owner Donald Tick passed away. His name continued to appear as a principal of the Little Theatre Group.

For more complete information, visit the At This Theatre section in Playbill.com's Broadway listing for Rock of Ages.

A sketch of the Helen Hayes Theatre.
A sketch of the Helen Hayes Theatre.
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