May 14, 2012

At the Helen Hayes Theatre, A New Act for Second Stage

(revised July 2012) While walking along W. 44th Street in New York's Theatre District, the theatre at 240 W. 44th stands in marked contrast to its neighbors. Built by producer Winthrop Ames and designed by Harry Creighton Ingalls (1876-1936) of the firm Ingalls & Hoffman in 1912, the building when viewed from the street looks like a charming neocolonial inn. Built in sturdy red brick with white trim, the top two floors are adorned with shutters and the lower of the two with small curved Juliet balconies. The arched entrance on the left is flanked with pairs of columns painted white. Above the red awning that identifies this place as the Helen Hayes Theatre, a white classically-inspired plaque marks the theatre's original name, the Little Theatre, with its 1912 origin noted in Roman numerals.

The Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 W. 44th Street.

At the time of its opening in 1912, a contemporary reviewer described the exterior as follows,

"We are reminded of elm trees and a calm New England green; for the design of the fa├žade is ancestrally American. Here is not strained and tortured imitation of the Greek or adaptation of the Romanesque, no puffed and timid rococo, no meretricious, glittering art nouveau; but a simple, chaste Colonial design, lovely in unobtrusive dignity." - from "The Advent of the Little Theatre" by Clayton Hamilton, The Bookman, v. 35, p. 239.

In its earliest days, the Little Theatre was an intimate affair of 290 seats with no balcony. It functioned as a chamber theater for predominantly well-to-do New Yorkers. Winthrop Ames had wanted a cozy setting for staging contemporary new plays and experimental productions. The original lobby even included a fireplace. Artistic tapestries adorned the curved walls. The 1912 article in The Bookman, while praising the worthiness of the inaugural production of John Galsworthy's play, The Pigeon, wondered aloud whether or not the theatre was perhaps too small and too restrictive in ticket price for "the most intelligent class of theatre-goers." These were the enthusiastic audience members who do not buy the pricey orchestra seats but rather pack a theatre's galleries and balconies. By 1915, Ames started to lose money on his intimate house, so he ordered a renovation and expansion to accommodate more seats, including the construction of a balcony.

from the article, "The Advent of the Little Theatre" by Clayton Hamilton, The Bookman, v. 35
The original theater from 1912 did not include a balcony. It was added later.

With nearly 600 seats, this truly little theater is still the smallest house on Broadway. A walk inside the theatre today (currently housing the musical Rock of Ages) reveals many of the elements of the original, including the decorative oval-shaped ceiling with winged female creatures festooned in a garland, the architect's signature columns, and the picture frames lining the curved walls that once held the tapestries. The acoustics remain exceptional. A specialist in theaters and private homes, architect Ingalls also designed Henry Miller's Theatre (rechristened the Stephen Sondheim Theatre in 2010) at 124 W. 43rd Street in red brick Georgian style from 1918.

The exterior of the theater largely stays unchanged, yet what has gone on in this place over a hundred years has definitely changed with the times. Through its early years, the Little Theatre fulfilled its mission to produce exciting new dramas, with Ames sometimes leasing the theatre to other artistically compatible producers including John Golden and Oliver Morosco. In the early days, the theatre enjoyed many hits, including works by women playwrights. A Little Journey, a comedy written and directed by Rachel Crothers, was one of the highlights of the 1918-1919 season. After its debut in a couple of other theaters that failed to live up to quality production values, Eugene O'Neill's first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon (1920), opened March 9, 1920 for an extended run in the Little Theatre.

decorative ceiling and balcony
The Helen Hayes Theatre
The Little Theatre, like many other theatrical houses, suffered during the economic crisis of the 1930s, and for the next decades, it underwent varying uses. The New York Times company bought and renamed the space as a conference hall. In the late 1950s, ABC acquired the building, adapting it for use as a television studio under its old name of the Little Theatre. The Dick Clark Show originated here from 1958 to 1961, and later Westinghouse Broadcasting assumed the lease for The Merv Griffin Show and The David Frost Show. Intermittently during this time, the Little Theatre would operate as a legitimate stage. One of the greatest successes came in June 1982 when Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy, a landmark play about gay life that originated at La MaMa E.T.C. downtown, moved to this stage on 44th Street.

In 1983, the theatre was renamed the Helen Hayes Theatre to honor the acclaimed "First Lady of the American Theater." The existing Helen Hayes Theatre (1911) at 210 W. 46th Street, although listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was demolished that year to make way for the new Marriott Marquis complex. In addition to the demolition of the Hayes, the nearby Bijou (1917) and the Morosco (1917) fell under the wrecking ball. Many people from the theater community, including Joseph Papp, rallied to save the building. But since the actress had managed to outlive her namesake, the Little Theatre on W. 44th Street became the Helen Hayes.

The Helen Hayes Theatre is getting a new life with its acquisition by the Second Stage Theatre (2ST). The spirit of Winthrop Ames's original mission to present new works for audiences blends well with the vision of Second Stage, the company founded in 1979 to give new life or "second stagings" for worthy contemporary works in need of a second chance. The contemporary non-profit subsequently added to its mission the development and production of new works as well as programs for young theater artists. 2ST currently works out of two spaces - its small 108-seat theatre on the Upper West Side, and its second theatre on 43rd Street, a 296-seat space designed by Rem Koolhaas and opened in 1999.

The Helen Hayes Theatre will now provide Second Stage with a larger, yet still intimate space, for its productions. Owning and operating its own space will also allow 2ST a greater flexibility in revenue and in the length of runs. Fittingly, the theatre noted for its intrinsic American design will soon serve as the home for a production company dedicated to new works by American playwrights. Programming for Second Stage at the Helen Hayes Theatre is scheduled for the 2013-2014 season.




View Helen Hayes Theatre in a larger map



Resources:
Second Stage Theatre Company on Facebook

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple. Many thanks to Karen Goldfeder of 2ST and Sharon Fallon of the Helen Hayes Theatre for sharing their passion for this legendary theatrical space.

Helen Hayes Theatre was one of 40 sites selected in 2012 for the Partners in Preservation initiative in New York City, a program that raises awareness of historic preservation by involving the public in distributing grants. 

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