Second Stage Plans to Purchase Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre | Playbill

News Second Stage Plans to Purchase Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre
Second Stage Theatre, the not-for-profit Off-Broadway company founded in 1979 by director Carole Rothman and actress Robyn Goodman, has acquired the rights to purchase Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre, a spokesperson for the plan confirmed.

The theatre company that is devoted to contemporary American playwrights and theatre artists plans to stage productions at the West 44th Street theatre — currently the home of the Tony-nominated musical Xanadu — beginning in 2010. The company has "entered into the quiet phase of a capital campaign to acquire, renovate, preserve, and operate the new facility and to start an endowment for the organization," according to a statement.

Founding director Rothman told The New York Times, where the news was first reported in its online edition July 16, that her company will raise $35 million for the purchase and renovation.

The 597-seat Broadway residence will be "dedicated exclusively to the development and presentation of contemporary American theatrical productions." The company will also continue to present productions at its current Off-Broadway homes: the 296-seat building on West 43rd Street and the 108-seat McGinn/Cazale Theatre.

Rothman said in a statement, "Acquiring the Helen Hayes is the natural, yet amazing next step for Second Stage in bringing our mission of presenting innovative American theatre to the heart of Broadway. With this acquisition, we have both the tremendous opportunity and responsibility to help ensure that contemporary American theatre remains a vibrant part of Broadway and, in turn, benefits from the power of Broadway to draw and excite new audiences across the nation."

The Helen Hayes has been owned and operated by Martin Markinson (and the late Donald Tick) since 1977. He'll continue to run the venue until 2010. He said in a statement, "This is the perfect theatre for Second Stage. The size is well-suited for the presentation of new and innovative work, as we have had the good fortune to realize over the years, and it resonates with the history of the theatre as an incubator for innovative works. I think it's important that original, American drama has a strong presence on Broadway, so I'm thrilled that Second Stage will establish its permanent home at the Helen Hayes Theatre." The Helen Hayes Theatre opened as The Little Theater in 1912. It became the Helen Hayes in 1983 when the original Helen Hayes Theatre, located on West 46th Street, was demolished.

According to its official website, Second Stage Theatre was founded "to give 'second stagings' to contemporary American plays that originally failed to find an audience due to scheduling problems, inappropriate venues or limited performance runs. Since then, Second Stage has evolved from a small theatre into an Off-Broadway institution dedicated to developing plays, artists and audiences."

In the past six years, a number of Second Stage productions have gone on to Broadway runs: Metamorphoses, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and The Little Dog Laughed.

"When I joined Second Stage two years ago, one of my main objectives was to find the company a permanent home," Ellen Richard, Second Stage's executive director, said in a statement. "Opening our third home in a building which we will own provides a firm foundation for long-term planning and financial stability, which is especially important to the health of a not-for-profit theatre company."

Second Stage is currently producing a revival of Richard Nelson's Some Americans Abroad at its Off-Broadway home on West 43rd Street.

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Here's more about the Helen Hayes Theatre, from Louis Botto's "At This Theatre":

In July 1983, the former Little Theatre at 240 West 44th Street 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 other theatre bearing the name of Helen Hayes, on West 46th Street, was torn down in 1982 to make way for a new hotel.

The Little was built by producer Winthrop Ames and opened on March 12, 1912. Ames, an aristocratic New Englander, rebelled against Broadway commercialism and built the Little, 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, the auditorium that had no balcony or boxes and was built on an incline that afforded an unobstructed view of the stage.

The opening play was John Galsworthy's The Pigeon, which critic Ward Morehouse described as "a thoughtfully written comedy that brought forth human and delightful characterizations from Frank Reicher and Russ Whytal."

Ames's 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 Granville Barker, starring Marguerite Clark and Ernest Glendinning (1913), and Cyril Harcourt's comedy "A Pair of Stockings" (1914).

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 October 20, 1920, was produced by John Golden, and ran for 725 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 only lasted 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 promotors 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 a half century later. It was about the right of wives to share in their husbands' income.

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 reports 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 it 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 oddly titled "Pigs" turned out to be one of the year's best. Produced by John Golden, it starred Wallace Ford as a speculator who bought fifty 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;" and 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 was known as the New York Times Hall from 1942 until 1959, when it became the 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 Mr. Costigan's comedy "Baby Want a Kiss." The critics gave it the kiss of death. In 1964, when the Pulitzer Prize 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 Merv Griffin and David Frost TV shows.

In 1974 the Little went legit again and housed a play called "My Sister, My Sister." "The Runner Stumbles" (1976) was a success, but Unexpected Guests (1977) was a failure.

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 fifth-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 "Curse of the Aching Heart," (1982), starring Faye Dunaway; and "Solomon's Child" (1982), an expose 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 play about the gay life. The comedy originated at LaMama E.T.C., was next done at the Richard Allen Center for Culture, and then 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 performance by an actor went to Mr. Fierstein.

The Helen Hayes is currently owned 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 beautifully redesigned by ADCADESIGN: Wayne Adams, John Carlson, and Wolfgang H. Kurth.

Since "Torch Song Trilogy" this theatre has housed 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 Noel Coward songs and skits, starring Mr. Cook, Patrick Quinn and Catherine Cox; "Mummenschanz/The New Show" (1986), a new edition of the popular mime show; "The Nerd "(1987), the late Larry Shue's amusing comedy about a man posing as a jerk to help out a friend; "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: "Miss Margarita'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's fantasy which originally starred Alec Baldwin Off-Broadway, moved here with Timothy Hutton in Baldwin's role, and Mary-Louise Parker, Barnard Hughes and Debra Monk; "The High Rollers Social and Pleasure Club" (1992) a musical revue set in New Orleans; "3 From Brooklyn" (1992) Rosalyn Kynd in a revue about Brooklyn; "Shakespeare For My Father" (1993), Lynn Redgrave in a highly-praised one-women show about her late father, actor Michael Redgrave; and Joan Rivers in "Sally Marr....and her escorts" (1994).

The theatre's most recent tenants include Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway; Bridge & Tunnel; Latinologues; Jackie Mason: Freshly Squeezed; Golda's Balcony; Say Goodnight Gracie; The Smell of the Kill; By Jeeves; George Gershwin Alone; Dirty Blonde; Getting and Spending; Colin Quinn—An Irish Wake; Band In Berlin; Night Must Fall; Epic Proportions; The Last Night of Ballyhoo, (Tony, Best Play); and Rob Becker’s Defending the Caveman.

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