What’s New in our Making A Museum Exhibit? From the Archives: Helen Hayes Theater Brick

The original Helen Hayes Theater once stood on 46th Street near Broadway. Built in 1911 – one of nearly 80 theaters to be built in the Broadway district between the IRT’s opening in 1904 and the stock market crash of 1929 – it was originally envisioned as an NYC version of the risqué Parisian venue Follies Bergère, with dancers roving among the audience seated at supper tables, but soon switched to a standard seating configuration and changed its name to the Fulton. In 1955, the theater was renamed the Helen Hayes to honor the EGOT winner and “First Lady of the American Theater.”

While in operation, the Helen Hayes/Fulton Theater hosted the initial run of many classic Broadway plays and musicals: The Jazz Singer in 1925, Dracula (starring Bela Lugosi) in 1928, Arsenic and Old Lace in 1941, Gigi (starring Audrey Hepburn) in 1952, Long Day’s Journey Into Night in 1956, and Equus in 1976, among many others. But by the 1970s, Times Square and the theater business had both changed substantially. Many live theaters had long since been converted to movie houses or turned to seedier entertainment. Theatergoers were increasingly uncomfortable attending shows in a notorious part of town.

In 1973, developer John Portman proposed a massive new hotel development on Broadway between 45th and 46th, on property where the Helen Hayes and four other classic-era theaters stood. Mayor Ed Koch strongly supported new development to revitalize the area, and under political pressure the Landmarks and Preservation Commission voted against designating the theaters. Actors, producers, and preservationists rallied with the goal of saving Broadway, staging numerous public protests and temporarily enjoining construction. But these efforts ultimately failed, and on March 22, 1982, destruction of the theaters commenced.

In April of that year, Scott Edelman, friend of the Reliquary and theater fan, reached through the construction fence surrounding the site of the future Marriott Marquis and retrieved a brick from the pile of rubble on the site of the Helen Hayes Theater. In 2015, he generously donated that brick to the Reliquary, and his accompanying letter to us shows his authentic love for this forgotten palace of the stage. You can see both in our exhibit.

Some have persuasively argued that the Broadway Massacre of 1982 was ultimately crucial in saving live theater in New York. The protest organizers redoubled their calls for protection of classic Broadway theaters and succeeded in landmarking 46 theaters and passing zoning to protect the historic Theater District while still allowing new mixed-use development. Continuing new investment, following Portman, and vastly reduced crime rates in Times Square have made it a top tourist attraction that draws significant revenue for the city and hundreds of thousands of visitors each year (sometimes, it seems, all on the same day!), attracting new demand for live theatrical productions.

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