The Aficionado Goes Back to Church

It was time for yet another gathering of “The Bloggers Who Brunch” yesterday, as Esther, Steve and Doug, Chris, Hubert, and Alicia came in from out of town to join Sarah, Roxie, Byrne, Jimmy and myself over our usual Algonquin-esque gathering. The location this time was Cognac on 55th and Broadway, and as always the banter was witty, the brunch libations flowing as we caught up on what we had seen and what we were going to see in the near future.

Some of us weren’t seeing anything, so when our pals departed for their adventures we decided to keep the party rolling. In what could be classified as the first-ever Theatre Bloggers Bar Crawl, Sarah, Roxie, Byrne, Jimmy and myself headed up to Trattoria Dell’Arte on 57th to visit Noah, and have a drink (and stare at the giant sculpted breast on the wall). And then there were four as Roxie had to depart to strike the play she costume designed out in New Jersey. With nothing on our agendas, and a beautiful autumn Sunday in New York, the rest of us continued the party by taking Sarah to the Mark Hellinger Theater for the first time.

Last November, a small group of us went in on a Saturday and had a look around. No services were going on, so the place was rather empty and we could soak in the interior from the orchestra section. I’ll never forget that day as long as I live. The only thing none of us thought to do was take pictures of this glorious piece of architecture. On this field trip, SarahB made sure to document the trip for posterity, and all the photos are hers.

If there’s anything I won’t forget about this second trip, it is definitely Sarah’s reaction upon entering. I’ve done it myself; and I still was taken aback even though I’d been inside less than a year earlier. We hadn’t even gone into the theatre itself when I told her that Dear World, Coco, My Fair Lady and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue all played in this very theatre.

Sarah made the smart call of snapping some photographs of the interior. The lobby is quite reminiscent of the sort of theatres you find in London’s West End, and are a rare commodity in NY. The closest I’ve ever seen that comes to his is the New Amsterdam on 42nd Street, and even that pales in comparison to the Hellinger.

The lobby, which must reach about three stories in height, is a spacious elliptical area, with two separate staircases that lead to a comfortable mezzanine lounge. Everything about the interior still screams theatre, and I half expect the ushers to have a playbill for God starring David Wilkerson.

It is the most spacious lobby in any Broadway house, and these pictures do not begin to do it any justice. The house itself can seat approximately 1600 people and has excellent sight lines (and would be a sumptuous money-making house for many of the larger musicals and revivals).

The one thing that can be said for the Times Square Church is that they’ve spared no expense in the building’s upkeep. Since the building is protected by the city of NY as a landmark, they are required by law to maintain the original integrity of the architecture and interior design – the grandeur and beauty which make it such a remarkable Broadway house.
The church is in the hands of David Wilkerson, who last year famously (and in my estimation carelessly) predicted a vague disaster in the midtown area that would wreak havoc and cause riots, etc. It’s that sort of thinking that proselytizing that turned me off of organized religion in the first place. In fact while we were in the church, the minister implored the audience, “If you’re thinking of becoming a Jew, come talk to me first” in a tone that made Jimmy and I both look at each other in muted horror.

The church has no interest in selling, unless a more suitable venue can be found in the Times Square area. (The Minskoff anyone? No one would care). Unless there’s some divine intervention it’s highly unlikely the Hellinger will ever be a legit house again. And it is that divine intervention for which I will pray.

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.

Quote of the Day: Julie Andrews Edition

The Mark Hellinger Theater on West 51st Street was originally built by Thomas W. Lamb in the 1930s as a movie palace for Warner Bros. Herman Levin, our producer, took a gamble when he chose the venue as a home for My Fair Lady, since, before our occupation, it had been a bit of a white elephant and was situated a few blocks uptown from the main Broadway area. But it was a beautiful theater, especially the front interior of the building, the lobby being exquisite and ideally matching the elegance of our show. Though a little shallow backstage, it was one of the largest and best equipped of the New York theaters, and it had a seating capacity of eighteen hundred people.

Much later, in 1970, the Nederlanders purchased it, but after a string of flops, they leased and eventually sold it to the Times Square Church in 1989. Various parties have tried to reclaim the building as a legitimate theater in the years since, but to no avail – which is truly a shame, since Broadway must and should preserve every great theater it can.

– Julie Andrews in her memoir Home, now available in paperback.

The Theatre Aficionado Goes to Church

The Broadway community lost one of its greatest assets in 1989 with the closing of the Mark Hellinger Theatre. The Nederlanders, who owned the building, leased it to the Times Square Church for liturgical uses and eventually sold the building to the Church for $17,000,000 in 1994. Every time I pass 51st and Broadway, I look at the facade and there is a little part of me that looks on with a sense of mourning as it once housed some of the best and some of the worst of Broadway. Its history is one for the ages.

The theatre (originally the Hollywood Theatre), designed by architect Thomas W. Lamb, was built in 1930 by Warner Bros to serve as their premiere movie house in New York City (and the first to be designed specifically for the talking picture). So for the first several years of its existence, it was a cinema palace (whose original entrance was on Broadway; the 51st Street entrance and lobby was the secondary) then becoming a legitimate playhouse, before becoming a movie house again. Little sidenote to film fans (eg Esther): the world premiere of Casablanca occurred at this theatre in December 1942, prior to its LA release, which explains why a 1942 film is a 1943 Oscar winning Best Picture).

In 1949, the theatre was officially established as a Broadway house under the name Mark Hellinger (for the recently deceased critic and producer) with the musical All for Love. The venue is probably most famous for having housed the original production of My Fair Lady in 1956. However, there were many other productions: Two on the Aisle, Plain and Fancy, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Illya Darling, Dear World, Coco, Jesus Christ Superstar, Seesaw, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the acclaimed Houston Grand Opera revival of Porgy and Bess in 1976, and Sugar Babies, the last commercial success to appear at the theatre. There wasn’t a singular success during the 80s, with shows such as A Doll’s Life, Merlin, the flop revival of Oliver! with Patti LuPone, Grind and Rags.

I was in NYC for brunch with a lot of the regulars: Sarah, Kari, Roxie, Esther, Jimmy Moon and Sarah’s friend Joe. When the uptowners ventured home via the 10, the foursome that was left: Roxie, Jimmy and Esther (both of whom had matinee tickets) and myself headed South. I was insistent to Roxie that we were to make a pilgrimage of sorts to the Times Square Church. Several months earlier I stopped in briefly on my way through town, however, there was a service going on and I was only able to get a brief glimpse into the lobby.

Much to my dismay, we found the doors locked. However, a person who appeared to be a worker there (they had just gone through an extensive renovation of the theatre and the marquee – the theatre is considered a landmark and its original integrity must be maintained), let us in and instructed us to go down the aisle to the front of house and just look up.

As I walked in down the aisle, there was this warmth that filled me as I stepped from out from under the overhang of the mezzanine. It was almost as if the opulent interior and the ghosts of all the performances that occurred at the theatre (Bert Lahr! Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison! Barbara Harris and John Cullum! Melina Mercouri! Angela Lansbury as Countess Aurelia! Katharine Hepburn! Patricia Routledge’s “Duet for One”!) The utter glory of the Mark Hellinger just threw us all for a loop. For several minutes, we just stood staring up at the ceiling, with its chandelier emblazing the pristine ceiling paintings. I took a glance around at my friends, whose jaws had succumbed to the forces of gravity (all the while realizing mine had as well). Stepping into the lobby was a similar experience. Grand, ornate, circular with draperies and such detail in the design, we were just as equally floored, with Esther and myself stepping over to read the plaque placed in the lobby in 1949 upon the dedication of the theatre to Mark Hellinger (written by his friend Walter Winchell).

Reflecting on this later in the Drama Bookstore, Roxie and I discussed how we both separately imagined first night crowds walking through the lobbies, with tuxedoes and evening gowns (ties, tails and fur coats, et al). Stepping inside takes you back to an era when going to the theatre was as glamorous every night as it was on opening night.

If there is one thing to lament in all of this, it’s only that the space is unlikely to ever become a theatre again. It was rumored that when the Nederlanders were looking to unload, they rejected an offer from Cameron Mackintosh to buy the property outright, instead selling it to the Times Square Church (which originated with services at Town Hall, and later leased the Hellinger when Legs Diamond closed in 1989). No offense to the ladies and gentlemen of the church, but I would prefer the space reverted back as a legitimate playhouse. Perhaps give the place a new name, such as the Hammerstein Theatre; with its 1500+ seats, it would be ideal for many a musical.

If you’re ever walking up around 51st and Broadway and have a few moments to spare, stop in and take a look at a piece of theatre history. Anything I’ve written here can’t even remotely begin to do the experience justice.

(Note: the photo above shows Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe in the lobby of the Hellinger in December 1956, as photographed for Life magazine by Gordon Parks).