The Jan. 18 closing of the musical “Rock of Ages” heralds what could be the end of an honor bestowed on a Rocklander for the ages.
The nonprofit Second Stage Theatre is buying Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre on West 44th Street and selling the naming rights to the 102-year-old venue. The name, Executive Director Casey Reitz has said in published reports, will undoubtedly change, meaning that for the first time in 60 years, the name of Helen Hayes — a 60-year Nyack resident who was proclaimed “the first lady of the American theater” — will not grace a Broadway theater.
“Helen Hayes is a kind of a mystery because she was in all these plays, but only a few movies,” said Michael Kantor, co-author (with Laurence Maslon) of “Broadway: The American Musical” and an accompanying 2004 PBS documentary series. “In my living room, I have an Al Hirschfeld drawing of Helen Hayes performing in ‘The Velvet Glove.’ I know a lot about Broadway, but I’ve never even heard of ‘The Velvet Glove.’ She was the first lady of the American theater because she performed in a million shows, including ‘The Velvet Glove.’”
Hayes won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards, long before anyone coined the term “EGOT” for those so honored. Born in Washington, D.C., in 1900, she made her Broadway debut at age 9 and went on to appear in 46 productions there. Her career had notable milestones in eight of the 10 decades of the 20th century. And her legacy may have a notable milestone with this turn of events in the 21st century.
Though she stood just 5 feet tall, Hayes was a theatrical giant. She was present at the creation of the Tony Awards in 1947, and tied with Ingrid Bergman for the very first best actress Tony. (Hayes for “Happy Birthday,” Bergman for “Joan of Lorraine.”)
She was an author, a producer, a star of radio, TV and film, and an avid gardener. She invited garden clubs to see her breathtaking roses at her home at 235 N. Broadway, purchased in 1932 for a “Pretty Penny,” which became the property’s name. A rose has been named for her. Hayes died on St. Patrick’s Day, 1993. Her son, James MacArthur, the actor of “Hawaii Five-O” fame, died in 2010 at age 72.
As big as she was on Broadway, she might have been even bigger in Rockland County.
Rockland still remembers Hayes fondly, with her name attached to the Helen Hayes Hospital in Haverstraw, a center for rehabilitation and renewal, and the Helen Hayes Youth Theater, born as an outreach from the Helen Hayes Theater Company, which was in the downtown theater from 1996 to 2005. When the theater went under, it was reborn as Riverspace Arts until 2011, when a summer flood inundated the space. Efforts to replace the venue have started and stopped ever since, without the Helen Hayes name attached.
At one point, the highest high school musical honors in the Lower Hudson Valley were named for her, “The Helens,” until the Kennedy Center, which bestows similar honors to professionals in the Washington, D.C., area, complained. The honors are now called The Metropolitan High School Theater Awards, the Metros.
Hayes commuted to Broadway, but called Nyack home for 60 years, becoming a philanthropist who lent her time and talents to causes across Rockland. In her 1993 obituary, The Journal-News reported: “During World War II, she worked one day a week in a Main Street dress shop to free regular workers for war-related effort, and she was one of the entertainers at Camp Shanks.”
The theater on West 44th Street is the second to bear Hayes’ name. The first was on West 46th Street, near Broadway, which was called the Helen Hayes from 1955 to 1982, when it was razed to build the Marriott Marquis hotel.
Kantor doesn’t see the renaming of the theater — something that occurs with regularity on Broadway — as necessarily a slap at Hayes’ legacy.
“I don’t think it’s disgraceful to rename a theater after a person whose legacy doesn’t help revitalize the American theater,” he said.
“The Helen Hayes is the smallest of all Broadway houses. It’s a jewel box for plays, for dramas. And Second Stage is going to bring new American dramas to that stage, so we ought to be happy about that. And those of us who remember Helen Hayes for ‘The Velvet Glove’ might shed a tear or might figure out other ways to toast her legacy. The moment to get upset is when theaters are torn down.”
Irvington native Maddie Corman has a connection to Second Stage — where she made her New York debut in 1983, at age 14, in “Landscape of the Body” — and to the Helen Hayes, where she made her Broadway debut in 2010, in “Next Fall.”
Working at the Hayes, Corman said, was “magical.”
“Touring the theater for the first time and being backstage on opening night, it all felt special. And the fact that it was the Helen Hayes. To be in a theater where there’s an actor on the marquee, not the Staples Theater or the CVS Center, meant something.”
Still, Corman echoes Kantor’s thought about a theater by any name being sweet.
“I’m just happy it’s staying a theater and not becoming a Starbucks,” Corman said. “To me, we want new plays, we want good plays, we want to encourage new artists and employ old artists. Broadway theaters are important to me, and the Helen Hayes is a jewel. It really allows for a more intimate experience. Second Stage will take good care of that.”
CMG Worldwide, the holder of licensing for the Hayes Estate, was unaware of the impending name change, which isn’t a licensed use of the Hayes name, but a memorial use.
Clare Neumann, chief counsel for CMG, said Hayes’ name still draws revenue, and her likeness has been approved for use in some memorabilia and an app that features iconic leading ladies. The U.S. Postal Service put Hayes on a stamp in 2011.
“I would say it’s a very valuable property,” Neumann said, adding that the estate is open to talking with Second Stage about keeping the name.
“The estate is accustomed to receiving money for the use of the name, because it’s a valuable intellectual property asset,” Neumann added. “But I think any kind of discussion is possible. We would certain be open to a dialogue. Anything’s possible.”
Casey Reitz, at Second Stage, did not respond to repeated calls for comment.
“In the days of Helen Hayes, there were many more straight plays than musicals on Broadway. That’s gone the other way now. I think Helen Hayes would be thrilled to know there was more drama happening on the Great White Way. I think bringing new energy and money — and even a new name — has got to be a good thing.”
What’s in a name? Consider the space at 213 W. 42nd Street, steps from Times Square.
In 1998 the Canadian concert promoter Livent combined two 42nd Street theaters — the Lyric and the Academy — into one, selling naming rights to Ford Motor Co., and The Ford Center for the Performing Arts was born. It was home to “Ragtime,” which lasted on Broadway longer than did Livent, which went belly up in 1999.
After changing hands, from media company SFX to radio goliath Clear Channel to Live Nation, in 2005 the Ford Center was renamed the Hilton, after the hotel chain. It was home to “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “The Pirate Queen” and “Young Frankenstein.”
In 2010, it became the Foxwoods Theatre, named for the Connecticut casino and hosted Broadway’s longest preview period, 182 days, as “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” drew crowds, pans and major medical claims.
In 2013, The Ambassador Theatre Group bought the venue and restored one of the original theater’s names, The Lyric, as a home for the raved-about revival of the Leonard Bernstein-Betty Comden-Adolph Green musical, “On the Town.”
The Shuberts named two of their theaters for two of their executives. The Plymouth, built in 1917, was renamed for longtime Shubert chairman Gerald Schoenfeld in 2005; the Royale, built in 1927, was renamed for Shubert president Bernard B. Jacobs the same year.