Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The 1912 Helen Hayes Theater -- 240 West 44th Street

photo by Alice Lum

In the first decade of the 20th century Manhattan’s theater district had firmly rooted itself in the Times Square neighborhood, having gradually relocated from 23rd Street.   On the side streets along Broadway rose grand Beaux Arts or Classic-revival theaters with lavish interiors capable of seating large audiences.  Winthrop Ames had other ideas.

Born into a wealthy Massachusetts family in 1871, Ames attended Harvard University where he majored in drama (much to the consternation of his socially-prominent family).    Upon graduation, he was convinced to find a more conventional profession.  He did not join the family business, Ames Shovel & Tool Company, however.  Instead he worked with Bates & Guild, the publishers of The Architectural Review.  Ames had studied architecture in college, as well.

The draw of the stage was too much to resist and six years later, in 1904, he partnered with Loren F. Deland to produce a wide array of entertainments—from light opera to modern drama--as managers of the Castle Square Theater in Boston.  Then, after extensively touring Europe in 1907 to learn about modern technicalities of theater design, Ames moved to New York and managed the large New Theater.  It was an experimental American version of European dramatic arts that soon failed.

Ames felt the problem with the New Theater was not what it offered—non-commercial repertory theater based on the government-subsidized theaters like the Comedie Francaise—but the ponderous problems of running a large house.  What was needed, he felt, was a little theater.

In 1912, he built the Little Theater, paying for it with his own money.  He leased land from the John Jacob Astor Estate on the south side of 44th Street between Eighth Avenue and Broadway where middle-class brownstone residences still lined the block.  

Architects Ingalls & Hoffman were responsible for the design, which also stepped away from the conventional design of Broadway theaters.  Ames instructed them on what he had seen in Europe:  small auditoriums in which the audience was nearly a part of the play.  And he it all to have a home-like atmosphere.

Theatre Magazine published a drawing of the new theater in 1912--NYPL Collection

The firm produced a neo-Georgian structure of red brick and stone, with shuttered windows and splayed keystones.  Inside, the Adams-like detailing continued, giving the theater patron the feeling of being a guest at the home of a friend, rather than entering a lavish gilded hall.  The lounges had crackling fires in homey fireplaces to enhance the mood.  There was no balcony and the auditorium could seat a mere 299 patrons in an intimate setting with no seat being overly-far from the stage.

One critic wrote, “This is the house of Mr. Winthrop Ames; the patrons are his guests for the nonce, in an old colonial house behind a garden wall…The auditorium is most unusual.   It is as though a high and spacious room in a private house had been converted into a theater, by putting in an inclined floor and cutting a proscenium opening in the further wall.”

When the theater was completed, brownstone residences still lined 44th Street -- photo NYPL Collection

Not every critic agreed, however; some feeling that the new theater tried to be “aristocratic.”  And when Ames set the ticket prices at the surprisingly-high $2.50 for all seats, eyebrows were raised.  The common theater-goer, people complained, could not afford such expense.

But Ames pushed on.  He opened the theater with John Galsworthy’s The Pigeon to the acclaim of drama critic Ward Morehouse who deemed it “thoughtfully written” and said it “brought forth human and delightful characterizations.”

Adams-style decorations adorn the portico and a neo-Georgian entrance smacked of an elegant residence -- photo by Alice Lum

In March that year, he staged Charles Ran Kennedy’s one-act play The Terrible Meek, a historical drama centered around the crucifixion.  The New York Times critic was stunned.  “The effect was remarkable.  The usual applause was omitted, women put on their hats and wraps without a word, and the men in the audience, if they talked at all, did so in whispers and muffled tones.  Not until they had passed from the theatre into the street did most of them attempt to comment on what they had seen.”

Ames' goal, he said, was to stage “the clever, the unusual drama that had a chance of becoming a library classic.”  And, financing the productions with his own money, he continued with new plays like George Bernard Shaw’s The Philanderer in 1913, and Cyril Harcourt’s comedy A Pair of Stockings in 1914.

But by March 11, 1915, Ames was struggling.  The New York Times noted that the producer was in financial difficulty and could lose his theater.  The plays were successful, the audiences and critics gushing with compliments, but the house was too small to support itself.  Ames’ lofty ideal was a victim of its own design.

Ames swallowed those ideals in favor of financial sense and commissioned architect Herbert J. Krapp to enlarge the space.  The three-year renovation began in 1917 and when it was completed in 1920 there was now a larger stage and a balcony that increased the seating capacity to 450.  To augment income Ames began leasing the theater as well to other producers, such as Oliver Morosco and John Golden.

The replacement shutters, which the AIA Guide to New York City called "awful pseudo-shutters that, of course, don't shut," take the place of the green originals -- photo by Alice Lum

Throughout the years, the Little Theater was home to productions by up-and-coming playwrights that included some major hits.  Rachel Crothers directed her own play, A Little Journey, that ran for 252 performances.  Eugene O’Neill’s first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, was staged here, winning the Pulitzer Prize.  In October 1920, Frank Craven’s The First Year opened and would go on for an astonishing 760 performances.

Despite the successful plays, by 1922 Ames had lost half a million dollars on the Little Theatre.  When he died in 1937, his fortune was gone.  His estate amounted to about $77,000 and his wife left their mansion in humiliation to live in a small bungalow on the grounds.

Nevertheless, the Little Theatre continued on, producing new works by exciting playwrights with both known and upcoming actors.  In 1930, Edward G. Robinson was noticed for his role in Mr. Samuel, and in 1936 Sir Cedric Hardwicke made his American debut here in Promise.  The great Cornelia Otis Skinner put on a one-woman show, Edna His Wife, in here in 1937. 

In 1931, The New York Times now owned the theater building, which abutted its headquarters, and announced plans to demolish it to create a delivery truck entrance to the Times Building.  The negative reaction from the public caused the newspaper to rethink its plans, and it became the unlikely owner and producer of a Broadway theater, now called New York Times Hall.

The Times briefly leased the theater to CBS Studios -- photo NYPL Collection

Then, in 1941 The New York Times closed the doors, using the space only for an occasional lecture or concert.  For a decade the product of Winthrop Ames’ dreams sat dark.   ABC-TV leased the space in 1951 to use as a television studio until 1963.

That year a private corporation purchased the building and re-established it as a legitimate theater.  It opened with a gospel spectacle Tambourines to Glory by Langston Hughes and Jobe Huntley.  The following year Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and James Costigan appeared in Baby Want a Kiss, an Actors Studio production.  Later in 1964, when the Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Subject Was Roses was staged here, the theater was renamed the Winthrop Ames.

That name did not last long.  Later that year, the theater was leased to Westinghouse Broadcasting to be used, again, as a television studio.  For a decade productions like the David Frost and Merv Griffin shows were aired from here.  Viewers of the Merv Griffin Show heard Arthur Treacher nightly announce, “From the Little Theatre in Times Square, it’s the Merv Griffin Show.”

Finally, in 1974 the Little Theater opened as a legitimate theater once again.  In 1977, a play moved in that would have warmed the heart of Winthrop Ames.  Gemini, by Albert Innaurato, was the “clever and unusual drama” Ames had searched for.  The show ran 1,788 performances, the longest running play in the theater’s history and the fourth-longest running on Broadway.

In 1979, the building was purchased by the Little Theatre Group headed by Donald Tick and Martin Markinson.  Two years later they restored the building and commissioned ADCADESIGN to refurbish the interiors.

Like Gemini, Torch Song Trilogy by Harvey Fierstein and Prelude to a Kiss by Craig Lucas epitomized the original purpose of the Little Theatre–bringing thought-provoking, new works to the New York audience.

In order for the immense Marriott Marquis Hotel to be constructed in Times Square, numerous buildings had to be demolished.  Among these was the Helen Hayes Theatre on West 46th Street.  It was an awkward moment in 1982 when the beloved actress’s namesake theater was razed while she was still alive.

The original carved plaque announcing the theater's name survives above the entrance -- photo by Alice Lum
To remedy the situation, the Little Theater was renamed the Helen Hayes in July 1983 as a tribute to the veteran actress who had become an icon in the theatrical community.   The delightfully-unique theater is still the smallest theater in the Broadway district and, like Winthrop Ames, its management is decidedly independent.


  1. The original shutters had proper proportions and were large enough to cover the windows (IF they had closed) but the modern ones are just junk from a hardware store.

  2. You are absolutely correct and, just before I posted this, I started to make note of that but for some reason didn't. Thanks for pointing it out. It is clear from the vintage photos that the originals were well-designed.