In July 1983 the former Little Theatre at 240 West Forty-fourth 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 first theatre bearing the name of Helen Hayes, on West Forty-sixth Street, had been torn down in 1982 to make way for the Marriott Marquis Hotel.
The Little Theatre 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, 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.
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 —t o 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).
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 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, New Jersey, 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.
In 1979 the 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 beautifully redesigned by ADCADESIGN: Wayne Adams, John Carlson, and Wolfgang H. Kurth.
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’s 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.
The theatre’s next tenant was Defending the Caveman, a comic monologue on the differences between men and women. It had a prosperous run of 671 performances, a record for a nonmusical solo show. It made way for another success: Alfred Uhry’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo (1997), starring Paul Rudd and Dana Ivey, which ran for 557 performances. The play dealt with the conflicts within an Atlanta Jewish family at the time of the 1939 premiere of the film Gone with the Wind in that city. The play won the Tony Award as Best Play of the season, making Uhry the only playwright to win a Tony Award, a Pulitzer Prize (for Driving Miss Daisy), and an Academy Award (for the screenplay of Driving Miss Daisy). Tony Awards were also won by Dana Ivey and Terry Beaver for their performances in The Last Night of Ballyhoo.
This theatre’s next two entries were not successful: Getting and Spending (1998), a play by Michael J. Chepiga, which originated at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego (41 performances); and Band in Berlin, a musical about the Comedian Harmonists, a real-life troupe of singers popular in Germany in the 1920s but banned by Hitler in the 1930s because it combined Jewish and non-Jewish performers.
In 1999 Night Must Fall, a revival of Emlyn Williams’s 1936 thriller about a psychotic killer, moved here from the Lyceum Theater. Based on an actual London murder case, it starred Matthew Broderick, Judy Parfitt, and Pamela J. Gray and was produced by Tony Randall’s National Arts Theater. It ran 96 performances.
Night Must Fall was followed by a comedy called Epic Proportions, by Larry Coen and David Crane, which spoofed the absurdities of filming a Hollywood biblical spectacle with thousands of extras — all played by a cast of just eight. It starred Kristin Chenoweth and Richard B. Shull. Unfortunately, Shull died during the play’s run. He was replaced by Lewis J. Stadlen. The play ran for 84 performances.
On May 1, 2000, Dirty Blonde, a hit Off-Broadway play, moved here from the New York Theatre Workshop. The comedy dealt with the famed actress/playwright Mae West. It was written by Claudia Shear, who also starred in a dual role as West and one of her fans. The play was conceived by Shear and James Lapine, who directed it. Kevin Chamberlin and Bob Stillman costarred in a variety of roles. The play proved an instant hit and was nominated for five Tony Awards.
Hershey Felder wrote, acted in, and played piano in George Gershwin Alone, his solo tribute to the great Broadway composer. It opened April 30, 2001, and shared its fascinatin’ rhythm with audiences for 96-man performances.
Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and prolific British playwright Alan Ayckbourn shared an interest in P. G. Wodehouse’s stories about dim-witted aristocrat Bertie Wooster and his superhumanly capable butler, Jeeves. In the 1970s, between Lloyd Webber’s hits Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, they collaborated on a flop musical adaptation called Jeeves. In the late 1990s the two writers returned to this project, determined to whack it into shape. The result was By Jeeves, a scaled-down version of the story (including the lovely takeout song “Half a Moment”), which had a modest run in London. It moved to the Hayes October 28, 2001, just weeks after the September 11 attacks, and Lloyd Webber himself attended box office opening day, greeting ticket buyers on the sidewalk out front and congratulating New Yorkers on their stiff upper lip. The generous gesture didn’t help the slightly twee and very British musical, which lasted only 73 performances, the composer’s shortest Broadway run to date.
Michele Lowe’s black-comedy wish-fulfillment play The Smell of the Kill showed a group of women who are so sick of their loutish husbands that they concoct a plan to murder them all. The play opened March 26, 2002, and closed after 40 performances.
Rupert Holmes, better known as a composer, lyricist, and mystery writer for shows such as The Mystery of Edwin Drood, earned a Tony nomination for his gentle solo show Say Goodnight, Gracie, a portrait of comedian George Burns. Frank Gorshin embodied Burns for 364 performances, starting October 10, 2002.
It was followed by another Tony-nominated solo show, William Gibson’s Golda’s Balcony, in which Tovah Feldshuh played Israeli founding mother Golda Meir. Feldshuh was also Tony-nominated as Best Actress in a Play and incarnated the prime minister for 493 performances, from October 15, 2003, to January 2, 2005.
Jackie Mason returned to Broadway with his eighth comedy show, this one titled Jackie Mason: Freshly Squeezed, filled with his patented takes on politics, culture, and the modern woild. It stayed at the Hayes for 172 performances.
Cheech Marin, half of the comedy team of Cheech and Chong, made his Broadway directorial debut with Latinologues, a showcase for Latino comedians. The bill featured Rick Najera, Eugenio Derbez, Rene Lavan, and Shirley A. Rumierk. It played 93 performances starting October 13, 2005.
Sarah Jones, daughter of a United Nations diplomat, put her observations to work in Bridge & Tunnel, a solo show in which she embodied a whole rainbow of recent immigrants to New York. It opened January 26, 2006, and occupied the Hayes for 213 performances, winning the 2006 Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event.
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.
The popular downtown comedy musical club act known as Kiki and Herb (actually Justin Bond and Kenny Mellman), came uptown to the Hayes for a 27-performance late-summer 2006 limited run titled Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway.
From a semi-drag act, the Hayes next turned itself over to a puppet show — but a distinguished one. Jay Johnson: The Two and Only (September 28, 2006) was also an autobiography. In addition to more traditional puppet high jinks, Johnson and his “costar” Bob narrated Johnson’s life story as a ventriloquist, notably his relationship with his mentor. Though the show ran only two months and didn’t survive until the June Tony Awards, it won the 2007 Tony for Best Theatrical Event.
On July 10, 2007, the Hayes got one of the great sleeper hits of modern times, a full-scale musical called Xanadu, which was based on a spectacular flop disco-era film musical of the same name but reconceived as a tongue-in-cheek campfest by librettist Douglas Carter Beane. Cheyenne Jackson (replacing James Carpinello, who injured himself during previews) played a man whose life dream is to open…a roller disco. Kerry Butler played one of the Greek muses who decides to help him, and Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman played her sister muses, who plot her failure. Also featuring Tony Roberts as Zeus(!), the musical fantasy drew incredulous reviews from critics who couldn’t believe how much they liked it, and Xanadu roller-skated its way to a 512-performance run.
With the thirtieth anniversary of the Little Theatre Group approaching, Markinson and Tick’s family announced in summer 2008 that they had entered into an agreement with Off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre to transfer ownership of the Helen Hayes Theatre. Second Stage, whose flagship 296-seat stage was a converted bank building about a block away at the corner of Forty-third Street and Eighth Avenue, was planning to create a Broadway pied-à-terre like Manhattan Theatre Club’s Friedman Theatre and Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre and Studio 54. Second Stage was hoping to take ownership sometime in 2012. The New York Times reported that the 597-seat Hayes would be “dedicated exclusively to the development and presentation of contemporary American theatrical productions.”
In the meantime, New Vaudeville clown Slava Polunin transferred his Slava’s Snowshow to the Hayes in December 2008 after giving more than 1,000 performances Off-Broadway. It played out the holidays and prepared to tour.
In January 2009 the Hayes became the third Broadway stop for the long-running hit The 39 Steps, which had opened at the American Airlines Theatre, then moved to the Cort for several months. In early 2010 The 39 Steps took its fourth New York step and moved Off-Broadway.
In its place came Next Fall, Geoffrey Nauffts’s play about religion and gay relationships, which had been developed by the Naked Angels company Off-Broadway. It lasted for 132 performances.
Comedian Colin Quinn, best known for his stint on "Saturday Night Live," opened his one-man show, Colin Quinn: Long Story Short, on November 9, 2010. The show, directed by Jerry Seinfeld, ran for 135 performances and was filmed for television by HBO.
The Helen Hayes remains Broadway smallest theatre and fiercely independent in both its management and programming.