Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Loss of the Mark Hellinger Theater


It's hard for me to fathom what the theatrical world was like twenty years ago, long before Broadway shows started using twitter and Facebook for publicity. A time when the American musical was considered near-extinct and the British imports were in vogue. News was broadcast on radio or television. Or you'd wait for the morning (or evening) papers. You didn't have All That Chat available to get an instant account of a first preview, or the latest information from out of town. It was a time when friends called other friends to dish about what they had seen as opposed to posting it anonymously on message boards. Times Square was still a few years away from Mayor Giuliani's clean-up. Twenty years ago, I was six years old and didn't know what Broadway was, let alone where it was. It was during this time that the crown jewel of Broadway houses, the Mark Hellinger Theater, was in the first year of its lease to the Times Square Church.

Tonight I discovered by chance that as an alumni of my college, I could still access their library databases, one of which included the archive of the New York Times from 1851-2006. The search results contained scanned images of the original articles as they appeared in print, often with accompanying photographs. The collection is concise; you can pretty much find anything you want to know. So I started having a look around and checked out some a few musicals I find interesting.

Some of the titles in my search were Coco, Illya Darling, Dear World, and of course, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. As I was looking through these articles, which cover everything from first announcement to closing notice, I realized that most of the shows I was researching were musicals that played the legendary Hellinger up on W 51st Street.

Last November, a few theater bloggers and I made a pilgrimage to the theater where we were awestruck at the beauty of its interior - with its opulent ceilings and proscenium, as well as its jaw-dropping two-tiered lobby. The theater famously housed the world premiere of Casablanca in 1942 and its most recognized legitimate tenant was the original production of My Fair Lady in 1956. The theater is classified as a landmark by the City of New York, a designation which was instituted for most buildings in the area as a direct result of outrage over the demolition of the Morosco, Bijou and original Helen Hayes Theaters in the early 1980s. In case you're curious, they were razed to make way for the gargantuan Marriott Marquis Hotel.

So into this database I entered the terms "Mark Hellinger" and "Times Square Church" and found several articles detailing the transition of the theater from the Nederlander Organization to the TSC.

According to a news item by Mervyn Rothstein on February 9, 1989, the theatre was to be leased to the TSC for $1 million per year for five years. The announcement came while the Peter Allen musical Legs Diamond, the latest in a string of failures at the venue, was still running (or rather, limping). The TSC was to start occupying the theater once that musical closed (the show announced its notice a week later, shuttering on February 19).

James M. Nederlander, chairman of the Nederlander Organization is quoted in the article, defending the decision:

"There's no shows being produced. We have to keep the theaters filled. We've got the Gershwin with nothing in it. We'll have the Nederlander [the previous space occupied by TSC] as well. We don't have anything on the horizon to put in the theater."

"We want to keep the theater as a legitimate theater. It's a short-term lease - five years is short term for me. It'll pass before you know it. If someone comes up with a show at the end of the term we'll put the theater back in. It's just a question of product. If I had a show, the show would have gone in. In show business, you have to take the first booking."

Rocco Landesman, of Jujamcyn, expressed surprise, but understood and appreciated the economics behind the decision, adding that if he were offered that deal, he would have likely accepted. Independent producer James B. Freydberg; however, expressed considerable outrage at the move,

"It certainly makes it clear to me that they're in the real-estate business and not the theater business. As a producer, I would like to feel that the theater owners are really in the theater business first. It's also really not looking into the future. If Cats is to continue to play, and Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera, and with Aspects of Love and Miss Saigon coming, there are going to be fewer large musical theaters available. And if one of the larger and better houses is going to be locked away for five years, it shows very little insight into the future of the theater."

The next article I encountered from May 24, 1989, discussed the difficulties the Nederlander organization was having filling its many New York theaters, with the powers that be (Mr. Nederlander and Arthur Rubin) resorting to filling the Gershwin Theater, Broadway's largest house, with concerts by major celebrities like Barry Manilow and Patti LaBelle. In the difficult economic times, the group was losing a lot of money investing in failures, while the rival Shubert organization seemed to have booked all of the major, long-running British megamusicals in their best houses.

By this point, the TSC had taken up residency in the Hellinger, while many other of the Nederlander Theaters such as the Lunt-Fontanne, Neil Simon, New Amsterdam, Palace, Brooks Atkinson, Harris and the eponymous Nederlander were all dark or undergoing construction. (The Harris Theater on 42nd Street never reopened and was demolished to make way for Madame Tussaud's). In an article that ran the following week, it was announced that things were so desperate for the Nederlanders that they were considering a deal to convert the Lunt-Fontanne into a cineplex. At the end of this article (dated June 1), Mr. Nederlander denies that the Nederlander Theater was to become a discotheque saying, "The deal fell through."

Rothstein reports on January 10, 1990 about the postponement of Miss Saigon to spring 1991 by impresario Cameron Mackintosh. The producer felt that there was no appropriate theater available for the show, and is quoted as saying, "It's a fairly open secret I've been hoping to go into the Mark Hellinger Theater. I think now that's unlikely." There would have been an 18 month wait as a 52-story hotel was being erected over the space, which involved ripping out the original dressing rooms. The wait was not something conducive to Mr. Mackintosh's plan. The piece also states that he tried to buy the theater, "I think anybody and their wife would like to purchase the Hellinger. But the Nederlanders made it quite clear they're not interested in selling, and I don't blame them." The article ends with a rumor that Les Miserables would transfer out of the Broadway Theater into another Shubert house to make room for Miss Saigon (Les Miz moved to the Imperial that October, where it ran for over twelve years).

The Mark Hellinger Theater was sold to the TSC sometime in fall 1991, according an article in the Times on December 7, 1991. No details of the sale were officially announced, but it was estimated that the Hellinger was worth between $15 and 18 million. This time, vice-president Rubin went on the record,

"I'm a theater person and I hate to see any theater go. It's a question of economics. We can't fill the theaters we have, and the city has not given us tax abatements when the theaters are dark."

The pastor of TSC, Rev. Donald Wilkerson only told the newspaper that "The theater is landmarked and it will remain the same." In fact, having been inside and seeing the work that has been done, the interior has been painstakingly maintained in all its original splendor.

Alex Witchel had offered more information about the sale, including James Nederlander's statement on the matter as well as the journalist's own opinion on the matter in her December 13, 1991 "On Stage and Off" column.

Mr. Nederlander said, "It's a sign of the times. The church had three more years on their lease and there are no productions around now to fill the theater. We have enough musical houses - a surplus, as far as we're concerned. If you haven't got anything to put in it, what can you do?"

Ms. Witchel asks the question, "Why not sell the theater to legimate theater operators?" as opposed to the outside TSC, adding that Mr. Nederlander admitted that at one time or another Michael Bennett, Cameron Mackintosh and the Jujamcyn organization had all expressed interest in purchasing the theater, but "that the price was never right." As per the article, the final sale was priced somewhere around $17 million. Rocco Landesman makes yet another appearance in the saga, offering that the price they received was more than most theater operators could afford, adding one pearl of wisdom: "What this proves is that landmarking a building doesn't save a theater." Nederlander compared the treatment of theaters in NYC to those in London, which receive tax abatements when the houses are empty. Witchel goes on to mention that Mr. Nederlander's woes continued with the total failure of Nick & Nora, which not only turned off the lights at another one of their houses, but also cost Mr. Nederlander his $1.5 million investment.

Hindsight really is 20/20, isn't it? If the Nederlanders hadn't sold off the house, they would have had another large-scale venue which would have been perfect for the Nederlander housed productions of Show Boat and Sunset Boulevard. Hell, while I'm speculating, it would have been a formidable place to house the original production of Ragtime as well as many other significant musicals. But the TSC remains firmly ensconced in the Mark Hellinger Theater; a thriving religious community that has several thousand worshippers each week. Offices have been established and a great deal of the church's money has been spent to accommodate the landmark statutes.

Will the Mark Hellinger Theater ever be restored as a legitimate theater? The easy answer is no. The TSC has been settled in for over twenty years and unless they were seeking to upgrade to an even larger venue, it makes very little sense for them to go anywhere. However, I like to hold onto a glimmer of hope that one day we might get the space back. Meaning no disrespect to those who worship and the powers that be at the TSC, but St. Patrick's Cathedral is a church, the Mark Hellinger is not. It's my quixotic wish that at some point in my lifetime the theater will be restored to legitimacy as a Broadway house.

It's ironic that now, in what is the worst economic crisis the country has seen since the Great Depression, that there doesn't seem to be any shortage of plays and musicals filling up the theaters in Midtown. So if you're ever in New York, and have some time to kill in the area, I highly suggest taking a walk up to 51st and Broadway to have a look inside. When you do, you'll understand why I mourn the loss of this indelible part of our theatrical history.

6 comments:

Jay said...

In the middle of a sudden April blizzard, my grandmother and I fought our way through the snow from a restaurant on 49th Street to the Mark Hellinger Theatre to see the second performance of "My Fair Lady." We had seats in the center of the 4th row mezzanine. I knew the moment the curtain went up on that scrim and the overture began that I was going to have one of the most exciting nights of my life.

The show is indelibly printed in my memory. I can still run pieces of it through my mind when I listen to the original cast recording. I remember going backstage to get autographs (one could easily walk through the stage door in those days without being stopped). And Kitty Carlisle breezed by me on her way to someone's dressing room humming "I Could Have Danced All Night." I managed to get my playbill autographed by both Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. I still have it and treasure it, just looking at it vividly brings back the memory of that night so many years ago.

I saw many musicals at the Mark Hellinger -- Coco, Timbuktu, On A Clear Day, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and, if memory serves, Ankles Aweigh with the Kean sisters. What a shame it's no longer in use as a theatre. It was a lot more glamorous than the Gershwin or any of these new barns they call theatres.

robertian said...

Um, whoever this Jay fellow is, he should write a book! What memories!

Esther said...

I remember going there with you! It's so beautiful inside. What a loss. Someone I work with saw My Fair Lady at the Mark Hellinger with his father when he was a kid. And I agree with Jay, some of the "barns" are the opposite of glamorous!

Kevin Daly said...

Jay, I've heard stories from a couple of people regarding the first couple of performances and the electricity and buzz that was felt as a result.

I can't believe you could just walk in a stage door; what indelible and beautiful memories.

You've seen a lot of shows that I wish I could have seen (especially "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue") at the theater. Thank you so much for sharing!

Jay said...

I know just the trick to get the church out of the Mark Hellinger Theater: tax all religious In$titutions!

Jay said...

I know just the trick to get the church out of the Mark Hellinger Theater: tax all religious In$titutions!