Helen Hayes’ name may not grace the marquee of a Broadway theater for much longer, but the man who’s shopping the building’s naming rights says the new venue will remember “the first lady of the American theater” in some way.
Casey Reitz, the executive director of Second Stage Theatre, which is negotiating the purchase of the Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway, said the nonprofit will find a way to honor the beloved Nyack resident, who died on St. Patrick’s Day 1993.
The news that the theater would likely be renamed — and that the Hayes name would leave Broadway after 60 years atop marquees — brought swift reaction. Cyndi Lauper, a Tony-winner for “Kinky Boots,” tweeted: “Wow, seriously going to rename the theater? No sense of history. What is NYC coming to?”
Reitz, whose name is pronounced “Ritz,” said it was too early to be specific about how the new Second Stage would memorialize Hayes — who was in 46 Broadway productions and won the first best-actress Tony Award, in a tie with Ingrid Bergman in 1947. Reitz said he has been in touch with CMG, the firm that handles the Hayes estate.
“We’re trying to start a conversation about trying to find a way to help ensure that we can maintain Helen Hayes’ legacy on the theater in some form or fashion, which is certainly something we’ve been thinking about for a long time. I said ‘Let me send you some information on the theater and you can absorb that, and hopefully we can have a conversation and see what’s possible.
“We certainly recognize the importance of Helen Hayes and always wanted to not just wipe the slate clean and pretend she didn’t exist or the name didn’t exist,” Reitz said. “We want to find a way to honor her. One of the former owners of the building is honored in the building in some way, so we want to find a way to pay attention to what has come before us.”
The name above the marquee is just about the only thing Second Stage can change on the landmarked exterior of the original structure, built in 1912 as The Little Theatre. But the part of the building that was appended in the ‘20s is not landmarked.
Reitz said that the original theater had no balcony. Ten years later, the owners bought the townhouse next door, combined the buildings and built a balcony to add seats.
“It’s pretty cool,” Reitz said. “You can see almost where the seam is and the stairwell to take you up to the balcony is housed within this old townhouse and that’s where the stage door is. The exterior of that building is not landmarked.”
Even with the added balcony, the Hayes is Broadway’s smallest theater, seating fewer than 600. Its current tenant, “Rock of Ages,” closes its five-year run at the Hayes on Jan. 18.
Asked if it were possible for the Hayes name to be included in the naming rights, Reitz paused.
“It’s hard to say,” he said. “I think that whoever we partner with to name the theater would have a say in that. I couldn’t speak for them. I’ve seen that happen before. The most recent one I can remember was when it was the Cadillac Winter Garden Theater. And it’s now the Winter Garden Theater again. I don’t know how that deal came to be or why it went away. My sense is that people want it to be their name and we’re going to have to circle in Second Stage’s name to that, as well.”
Thinking of that, of selling the rights to the name and having Second Stage in the name and being asked about retaining Helen Hayes’ name, Reitz chuckled.
“It’s going to take days to say the name of the theater,” he said with a laugh.
Naming rights can expire, Reitz said, “but in general, what I’ve seen is that if it’s an individual or a state they tend to be more in perpetuity and if it’s a corporation, they tend to have expiration dates.”
Second Stage currently has two Off-Broadway theaters.
The Tony Kiser Theatre, at 43rd Street and Eighth Avenue, was named for a longtime Second Stage board member.
The McGinn/Cazale Theatre, at Broadway and 76th Street, was named for actor Walter McGinn (the late husband of Second Stage co-founder Robyn Goodman) and John Cazale, who played Fredo Corleone in “The Godfather.”
Photos: Actress Helen Hayes is honored at the American Field Service salute in New York City on Aug.5, 1975. (AP Photo/Carlos Rene Perez) The Helen Hayes Theatre marquee may be a thing of the past after Second Stage Theatre buys the Broadway house and sells the naming rights. Photo by Carucha L. Meuse/The Journal News.