Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre turns 100 today. The smallest of Broadway’s venues – just 583 seats are sold for the current tenant, the Tony Award-nominated musical Rock of Ages – The Little Theatre was officially renamed the Helen Hayes Theatre in 1983 to honor America’s “first lady of the stage.” It was a fitting tribute given that the first theatre bearing the name of Helen Hayes, on West 46th Street, had in 1982 – along with the Morosco Theatre – been torn down in an act of vandalism to make way for the ungainly Marriott Marquis Hotel. I’ve always had a bit of a sentimental bent for this theatre. It was at The Little where I saw one of my first Broadway shows: Harvey Fierstein’s breakthrough Torch Song Trilogy with Estelle Getty, a very young Matthew Broderick, and Harvey himself. Later, I spent almost a decade toiling in the neighboring Sardi’s building, at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. Walking daily past what had since become the Helen Hayes I never failed to be fascinated by the ever-changing marquee which heralded the parade of plays and musicals that attempted to settle in and call it home.
Borrowing from Playbill’s “At This Theatre” (Louis Botto and Robert Viagas’ history book of Broadway venues on sale at PlaybillStore.com) here’s a very abridged look at the early years of the old theatre, as well as the all-too-common fate of its passionate producer:
A century ago, The Little Theatre was built by producer Winthrop Ames. An aristocratic New Englander, Ames 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). 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.
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. 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.