The Helen Hayes Theatre is the smallest Broadway theatre, and has been privately owned and managed by Martin Markinson and Donald Tick since 1979. The theatre was initially built with only 300 seats by Winthrop Ames who was against commercialism on Broadway, and so he constructed the theatre to house intimate and noncommercial productions. He desired that the venue be used solely for the presentation of experimental plays and new playwrights. It was conveniently named the Little Theatre. Today, when the theatre is not being used for theatrical productions, CBS uses the venue for radio recordings.
The Little Theatre Movement and Beyond
On March 12, 1912, the Little Theatre opened with John Galsworthy’s play The Pigeon. Rachel Crothers staged her own comedy, A Little Journey, in 1918. It was followed by another successful farce featuring Ernest Truex called Please Get Married. Eugene O’ Neill’s first full-length Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Beyond the Horizon, played at the Little Theatre in 1920. The cast included Richard Bennett. On October 20, 1920, the theatre served as home to the profitable production of The First Year. It was written by actor Frank Craven who also starred in it along with Roberta Arnold. The theatre was leased to the New York Times in 1931 and transformed into a conference hall called the New York Times Hall. The theatre was used for television shows by ABC in 1958 and once again named the Little Theatre. From February 1958 through September 1961, The Dick Clark Show began broadcasting there. ABC also aired the daytime show Who Do You Trust? with Johnny Carson during this time from the venue.
In 1964, it was temporarily named the Winthrop Ames Theatre. Again It became the Little Theatre from 1965 until 1983. The Merv Griffin Show was filmed there during the early part of that phase by Westinghouse Broadcasting, followed by The David Frost Show. The game show Beat the Clock was also produced there from 1969 to 1970.
Albert Innaurato’s comedy Gemini opened at the Little in June 1977, and it exemplified the type of production Winthrop Ames desired in his theatre. It ran for 1,788 performances, making it the Little’s longest-running show and the fourth longest-running drama in Broadway history. Other notable legitimate productions include The Last Night of Ballyhoo, Sally Marr and Her Escorts featuring Joan Rivers, Lynn Redgrave’s Shakespeare for My Father, The Nerd, Romance/Romance, Prelude to a Kiss, and Rock of Ages.
In 1983, the theatre was rechristened to honor Helen Hayes when the popular actress’ namesake theatre (the former Fulton Theatre) was destroyed in order to build the New York Marriot Marquis.
A Cozy Venue
Architect Harry Creighton Ingalls of the firm Ingalls & Hoffman designed the Helen Hayes Theatre. The exterior displayed red bricks and green shutters, and the lobby was designed in a Colonial-style and featured a fireplace. The auditorium was constructed on an incline that offered an open view of the stage. In 1915, Ames was struggling financially with the Little Theatre and was at risk of losing his house. Herbert J. Krapp redesigned the theatre in the 1920s to increase its seating capacity, create better acoustics, and increase profits. The house still remains cozy and features exceptional sightlines.
Not a Bad Seat in the House
To this day, the Helen Hayes Theatre remains the smallest theatre on Broadway and strongly independent in its administration. This warm and welcoming venue is perfectly suitable for chamber musicals or straight plays, and there is not a bad seat in the house.