The History Of The Hayes Theater On Broadway looks at the history and story of the smallest Broadway Theater in existence in New York City. With a seating capacity of 597 seats, the Helen Hayes Theatre is very small. That reflects its origins in the Little Theatre Movement of the early 20th century, which pushed for smaller theaters that would host more intimate, more experimental, and less profit-focused shows. Despite its troubles in the past, the Hayes Theatre is living up to that promise in the present.
Winthrop Ames was the scion of a rich, prestigious family. Initially, he went into publishing because he was discouraged from following through with his love of theater. Later, Ames decided to pursue that passion anyway after he had the chance to study the new theaters and theater systems springing up in start-of-the-20th-century Europe. He became involved with two large-sized theaters. One was Castle Square Theatre in Boston, while the other was New Theatre in New York City. His negative experience with managing the latter convinced him that he wanted to work with something smaller in scale.
As such, Ames set out to build that theater in late 1911. He had Ingalls & Hoffman design a brick-clad building with colonial, Federal, and Georgian influences. Moreover, he decided upon a single-level auditorium with neither boxes nor balconies. Something meant to give every seat more-or-less the same view of the stage. Ames called in a considerable number of construction workers for the job, with the result that his Little Theatre was ready by early 1912.
Under Winthrop Ames’s Ownership
The Little Theatre opened with a play called The Pigeon. Subsequently, it hosted various shows, such as The Terrible Meek, The Flower of the Palace of Han, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In 1914, the Little Theatre had its first hit with A Pair of Stockings, which ran for 223 performances. Following that, the Little Theatre continued to host more successful shows under Ames’s direct management. Examples included but weren’t limited to A Little Journey starting in 1918, The First Year starting in 1920, and Pigs starting in 1924.
By 1915, Ames had realized that something needed to change if he wanted to make a profit from his Little Theatre. He charged the same price for every single seat, meaning he needed more seats if he wanted to make more money. Due to this, he leased a nearby building in preparation for an expansion, though he couldn’t proceed until 1919 and 1920 because of a dispute with the New York City Department of Buildings. Still, he succeeded in renovating his Little Theatre, as shown by how it has a Herbert Krapp-designed balcony.
Ames’s direct management ended in 1929. He retained ownership of the Little Theatre for a time. However, the venue was in the metaphorical hands of The New York Times by 1931.
Under The New York Times’s Ownership
On the whole, The New York Times didn’t seem to have a clear plan for the Little Theatre. It let the building continue as a theater for a time. Then, The New York Times leased it to CBS as a broadcast studio from 1935 to 1936. After the building was vacated in preference for more spacious accommodations elsewhere, it let the building return to being a theater for a time. That lasted until the late 1930s and early 1940s when The New York Times thought about demolishing the building to free up the site before being talked out of it by the neighbors, who were concerned about the effect on their property values.
The Little Theatre continued to see a mix of uses in the 1940s and 1950s. It hosted some live shows during this period, but it did so as a conference center rather than a Broadway Theater. Furthermore, the Little Theatre also served as a broadcast studio for ABC throughout most of the 1950s. Its relative importance can be seen in how it was the home of both Dick Clark’s The Dick Clark Show and Johnny Carson’s Who Do You Trust?
During Troubled Times
Things didn’t improve much after the Little Theatre left The New York Times‘s ownership. Sometimes, it hosted live shows. Other times, it served as a broadcast studio. The general decline of the area had a terrible effect on the Little Theatre, as shown by how it stood vacant for a time in 1972 and 1973 before reopening for less than reputable reasons. Eventually, it would see a rebound when Westinghouse Broadcasting bought it from its previous owner after he defaulted on his mortgage in 1974.
Returning to Being a Broadway Theater
That was the Little Theatre’s return to being a Broadway Theater. It didn’t remain under the same owners from the mid-1970s through the late 2000s. However, it remained in continuous use as a venue for plays and other live shows. Moreover, the Little Theatre hosted some notable shows in this period, such as Gemini starting in 1977, Prelude to a Kiss starting in 1990, Dirty Blonde starting in 2000, and Xanadu starting in 2007. Besides shows, it also came up in the news for a couple of reasons in the 1980s. First, it was renamed the Helen Hayes Theatre in 1983 because the legendary actress said she preferred her name on a small theater when she was offered what is now the Marquis Theatre. Second, its facade and a part of its interior received landmark status in 1987 because of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission’s efforts to protect the Broadway Theater district in that decade.
Under Second Stage Theater’s Ownership
In 2008, the owners of the Hayes Theatre agreed to sell the building to the non-profit Second Stage Theater. The sale wasn’t finalized until 2015. To an extent, that was connected to the spectacular close-to-four-year run of Rock of Ages after it transferred to the venue in 2011, though there were other issues at work. Still, the sale went through, with the result that the Hayes Theatre became one of the few Broadway Theaters owned and operated by non-profits.
Subsequently, the Hayes Theatre received a renovation, which was funded by Second Stage Theater selling the alley between it and the Jujamcyn-owned St. James Theatre. Since then, the building has consistently served as a home for the works of living American playwrights, with a particular focus on those who are either women or minorities. The Hayes Theatre continued this until the COVID-19 closures in March 2020 but has resumed this since its reopening in November 2021.
Jackson, Kenneth T. The Encyclopedia of New York City. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.
Haskell, David. The Encyclopedia of New York. New York: Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2020.
Bloom, Ken. Broadway: Its History, People, and Places: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2004.
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