The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2022

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JUNE 2022 Issue

Death of a Theater

On the fortieth anniversary of the destruction of two legendary Broadway theaters, the Rail takes readers to the moment of demolition, spotlighting the activists who tried to stop it.

The Helen Hayes Theater, 1982. Photo: Gary Apple.
The Helen Hayes Theater, 1982. Photo: Gary Apple.

This account is drawn from archival research, author interviews, court filings, letters, video footage by Robert Armin, and contemporaneous press reports. No descriptions or quotations have been invented or fictionalized.

“I’ll tell you very frankly,” said the man in the trench coat. “These theaters are going to come down. The Supreme Court has lifted the stay.” A thousand sighs rose into the cold morning air. After eighteen days on the street, twenty-six months of organized protest, and a decade of debate, the decision had finally arrived. It was over. They had lost.

“Let me hear you say ‘shame’ as loud as you can,” continued producer Joe Papp, raging into a red microphone from his perch on the back of a flatbed truck.

“Shame!” replied the crowd.

“Let ’em hear it all over the goddamn world!”

They called back and forth, Papp and his people, the wind whipping their voices out along West 45th Street, where this open-air protest had been unfolding for the past two-and-a-half weeks. Eight theaters lined this single Times Square block, their stately façades extending west in a razzle-dazzle jamboree of light bulbs, marquees, and iron fire escapes. But to the east, across the street from Papp’s makeshift stage, the lively vista collapsed into a violent crumble of brick, terracotta, and steel. Only a few structures still stood in the bulldozed sprawl, among them the two theaters everyone had tried—had now failed—to save.

It was March 22, 1982. “Don’t let Koch forget it!” someone shouted from the crowd of people standing below Papp.

“He won’t forget it,” the producer called back. A tuft of gray-threaded brown hair flopped across his forehead. As founder of the politically-minded Public Theater downtown, Papp had experienced his share of run-ins with Mayor Ed Koch. But this present episode was unique in its contentiousness. Koch, along with two previous mayors and officials from every level of government, had welcomed hotshot Atlanta architect John Portman to New York City. They’d approved the plans for a 2,020-room hotel intended to revitalize Times Square. They’d signed off on the destruction of five historic theaters that lay in the development’s path. The less remarkable houses—the Bijou, the Gaiety, and what remained of the Astor—had already fallen. But the flamboyant Helen Hayes Theater, visible across the lot, and the plain-faced Morosco Theatre, directly behind Papp, had remained.

Both were among the best houses on Broadway. Intimate and expertly built, with excellent sightlines and horsehair plaster walls, they fostered a rich intercourse between audience and play. And what plays! The Morosco and Hayes had presented the original productions of Death of a Salesman, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Our Town, among other such masterworks. The Morosco had launched no fewer than seven Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, more than any other theater in New York.

Now it would launch no more. Just after ten o’clock that morning, the news had arrived at the Piccadilly Hotel—adjacent to the Morosco and also slated for demolition—where Papp had established an operations center in three suites on the twelfth floor. His temporary digs looked like the headquarters of a political campaign: beds pushed to the walls; actors sleeping on the floor; two women, both named Betty, furiously working the phones; volunteers noshing on fruit and coffee, turning whenever someone arrived to deliver the latest news. The day’s report had been the death knell. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, though apparently a theater lover, had refused to extend a “stay,” or postponement, on a case brought forth on behalf of the theaters. The state court’s unfavorable ruling would stand. The Morosco and the Hayes would fall.

But not before Papp and his team raised enough of a ruckus to ensure something like this never happened again. “Now, ladies and gentlemen,” said Papp, speaking steadily into the microphone, “I hope the police are ready to act out their role as we act ours, this time not upon the stage but upon the site.” He explained what would happen next. Before the wrecking crew had its way with the Morosco (and, later, the Hayes), protesters who’d volunteered to get arrested would proceed calmly onto the rubble-strewn lot next to the theater. As arranged in late-night phone calls with the police department, officers would ask everyone to leave. If the protesters refused, they’d be taken into custody for trespassing; there would be no handcuffs or roughhousing, just a simple tap on the shoulder to indicate arrest. The protesters would then file into paddy wagons that would take them to the Midtown North precinct, where they’d be subject to fifteen days in jail and a two-hundred fifty dollar fine, though the police had indicated such punishments were unlikely.

The Morosco Theater, 1982. Photo: Thomas Monaster/New York Daily News.
The Morosco Theater, 1982. Photo: Thomas Monaster/New York Daily News.

“This is a time to do something demonstrable,” continued Papp. “We have few opportunities to do these things. They’re rare—they come around once in a lifetime.” Behind the producer, under an awning built onto the flatbed, a line of seated actors listened closely. Until Papp’s arrival they’d been reading aloud from Strange Interlude by Eugene O’Neill, the Nobel Prize-winning playwright whose Broadway career had begun at the Morosco (with Beyond the Horizon) and ended at the Hayes (with Long Day’s Journey Into Night).

“Okay, stand by,” said Papp, turning. “All those people who are willing to be arrested for this extraordinary cause, very carefully—watch the traffic—cross over to the other side of the street.”

With that, some two hundred people marched onto the debris field. They wore Chuck Taylors, legwarmers, and puffy jackets. Some carried signs: “GIVE US A TOUCH OF THE POET, NOT THE BUILDER”; “THIS IS A TRAGEDY.”

Roving about the lot, Papp checked in with Officer Mickey Schwartz. Watchful of the huge crowd, Schwartz had called for more cops. Sixty officers were now on hand, including eight in riot gear. Papp had made clear his distaste for violence—“Any conflicts that arise between individuals and the police we disavow and find reprehensible”—but even he couldn’t stop one fellow who now rushed onto the flatbed and screamed into a microphone, “Shame on Koch!”

Irritated, Papp called for bagpipes. A mournful drone soon lifted from the opposite side of the street, drowning out much of what Papp and the police were now trying to explain through a pair of tan bullhorns. Arrestees should be at least sixteen, they shouted, or have parental permission. They should bring ID (“NOT a letter from your mother,” as an earlier procedural flier put it).

Wearing inky-black jackets and light blue helmets, the riot police cleared a pathway to the first paddy wagon. After an officer gave everyone a final chance to leave, the arrests began. Watching the protesters pile into the vans, onlookers started singing “Give My Regards to Broadway” and Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” Again and again they repeated the catchy, all-too-appropriate refrain: “Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone / They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot.

A sense of congeniality and anxious excitement passed through the crowd. Among a huddle of stars, actress Colleen Dewhurst sucked a cigarette and ran her fingers, heavy with rings, through her long brown hair. Richard Gere smoked too, as did Papp, though he opted for a fat cigar. When it came time for their illustrious klatch to get hauled off, the police were almost comically courteous. “Would you please get in?” they asked, indicating the sliding door entrance to the van.

Thirteen loaded cars ultimately pulled away from the lot, each to the wail of a siren and the fervid applause of those left behind. More protesters had wanted to join the ranks of the rebellious, but the NYPD had run out of cars. As for those who had been hauled off? They could add another distinction to their many laurels. Officer Schwartz told a journalist they were the most distinguished perpetrators he’d ever arrested in New York.

Not everyone thought so. To those who supported the incoming hotel, they were foolish “show-biz types” and “saboteurs of progress.” They’d threatened a three hundred million dollar blast of cash that promised to halt the downward spiral of a district and a city long swirling toward annihilation. First announced in 1973, the development had been conceived as a rehabilitative force that could create jobs and purge Midtown of the so-called “three Ps”: pimps, porn, and pushers. Though some Broadway insiders had originally objected to the plan, the hotel otherwise enjoyed widespread industry support in its early days. Few were happy to see the theaters come down, but most people agreed something needed to happen. Times Square’s sordidness was driving audiences away from a roster of theater productions that was already perilously small.

In 1975, Portman called off the project after failing to get enough financing. By late 1977, however, New York was on the mend—so much so that city officials reached out to ask if Portman would give the project another go. Portman said yes, but only if the city agreed to apply for a federal financing grant on his behalf. Officials quickly agreed to his terms.

By this point, however, the climate on Broadway had changed dramatically. Thanks to a few hit shows (A Chorus Line most notably among them), Broadway found itself on the upswing. In the 1977–78 season, box office revenue surpassed one hundred million dollars for the first time ever; attendance was similarly stellar. Many people now believed Broadway needed more venues, not fewer.

Journalists began covering the revived hotel with increased skepticism. Actress Jacqueline Kroschell collected hundreds of signatures in protest, demanding that Actors’ Equity Association try to stop Portman. The union officially entered the fray in January 1980, when it launched an ad hoc Committee to Save the Theaters. Actress Sandy Lundwall volunteered to lead the group. “There is something about where people have danced that rings true to your ancestors,” she would later insist. “We’re not all a bunch of mystical clowns, but most everybody who has worked in the theater has a feeling for the space—what has gone on before them there, who has played that stage. Many people feel like those ghosts are with them when they’re acting.”

Photographer unknown. Photo courtesy Lenore Loveman, from <em>Broadway Theatre District</em>, a study by Save the Theatres, Inc.
Photographer unknown. Photo courtesy Lenore Loveman, from Broadway Theatre District, a study by Save the Theatres, Inc.

Joining her at the committee was actress Lenore Loveman, Equity’s recently hired Director of Membership Education and Communication. Lenore had a strong personal connection to the fight: at fifteen, she’d gone to the Morosco, alone, to see the original production of Death of a Salesman. That experience had helped lead her to a career in the theater.

Neither Sandy nor Lenore knew much about city politics or preservation law. But they did know that the Morosco and the Hayes were worth saving, that these beautiful turn-of-the-century spaces buoyed plays and musicals as no modern theater ever could. And so, from a tenth-floor office above Times Square—in view of the contested block itself—the two women got to work.

Lenore and Sandy soon learned that much of the controversy came down to the question of taxpayer dollars. Because Portman was using federal funds to help finance his hotel, he’d been required to review the project’s impact on the existing area; except in certain circumstances, developers weren’t allowed to use public money to tear down historic buildings. In the course of that review, officials had called the Hayes “one of the finest theaters in the Times Square area” and “unquestionably” deserving of a place on the National Register, a list of buildings worthy of preservation. But city officials had negotiated around this classification. With their help, Portman had entered an agreement that had allowed him to tear down the theater, provided he paid for architectural drawings, photographs, and the conservation of some interior sculptures.

Even worse, the city had virtually ignored the other houses on the site, including the Morosco, a theater of far more historic importance than the Hayes. Lenore and Sandy soon realized this oversight could be an opportunity, as historic significance was a qualification for National Register status. If they could force the city to re-evaluate the site, maybe they could earn protections for the Morosco, or at least trigger a prohibitively expensive construction delay.

Courtesy of Lenore Loveman.
Courtesy of Lenore Loveman.

Following a campaign kickoff rally in front of the Hayes, hundreds of volunteers signed up to help the preservation effort—most notably philanthropist Joan Davidson, who founded her own Save Our Broadway committee. Other important figures joined Sandy and Lenore’s committee, including journalist Roberta Gratz and lobbyist and fundraiser Bobbie Handman. Over the next several months, they lobbied city, state, and federal officials, made their case to local community boards; organized flyering campaigns in Times Square, and brought high-profile advocates onto the cause. (Actor Gene Wilder shouted his support in a characteristically emphatic Mailgram: “IS THERE NOT SOME WAY THE HELEN HAYES … AND MOROSCO THEATERS CAN BE SAVED BEFORE AMERICA TURNS INTO ONE GIANT HOT DOG STAND?”)

The hotel was far from universally reviled around Broadway. A vocal contingent of theater owners and producers continued to support Portman, most notably Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Shubert Organization, by far the largest theater landlord in town. Even actress Helen Hayes herself supported the hotel. “I must confess I’m not on the side of saving old buildings in New York,” she wrote in a letter to Portman, who’d been courting her approval. “I don’t like to confess this because I hate to hurt people who have a different idea about me … I hope [the preservationists] give up soon and let you get on with the building.”

The hotel was to have a new Broadway theater inside it, but actress Elizabeth Ashley spoke for many committee supporters when she told a journalist the plan was:

The equivalent of stamping on a Stradivarius violin and then trying to replace it with a banjo … What people don’t understand is that a theater isn’t just a big hall you stick a bunch of chairs in. A theater is a living, breathing thing … It’s like a surfboard or a sailboat; it’s got an intrinsic structure and balance to it.

Through 1980 and 1981, multiple lawsuits were filed in an effort to make precisely these points—and to force a re-evaluation of the theaters. Architect Lee Pomeroy even drafted plans that showed it was possible to build the hotel on top of the Morosco and Helen Hayes Theaters.

All those efforts came to a climax on the evening of November 17, 1981. While working late at the union, Lenore and Sandy learned that the Department of the Interior had found the Morosco eligible for the National Register. “I still think of that as one of the great, happiest moments of my life,” Lenore later recalled. “If I had gotten cast in a Broadway show, I don’t think I could have been more excited.” The two women went back to Lenore’s apartment for champagne.

But the victory was to prove short-lived: within twenty-seven hours of the ruling, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation had effectively nullified the designation. Actors’ Equity subsequently signed on to a lawsuit disputing the swift overturn—but on the morning of March 22, 1982, the suit was pronounced dead.

A forty-ton Caterpillar excavator would soon gnaw into the Morosco’s eastern sidewall.

“We want Joe! We want Joe! We want Joe!”

Never one to deny his audience, Papp climbed the steps to the flatbed. Though it was now approaching 2 p.m., several hours after the arrests, the Morosco still loomed behind the truck.

“First,” said Papp into the mic, “I want to pay my respects to all the people that are wearing this pink badge of honor.” A rose-colored summons pinned to Papp’s suit jacket fluttered in the wind. Many of the “Morosco 200,” as the arrestees now called themselves, had returned to the site sporting this same getup. It was their only souvenir: on arriving at the precinct, they’d been promptly freed, instructed only to appear in court next month. (Returning to 45th Street, actor Mike Kellin told a journalist, “Critics once said I couldn’t get arrested. And I proved them wrong!&#148

“It’s both a great victory for New York, and a great defeat for New York,” continued Papp. “But the victory is here: we are determined that this entire district will be declared an historic district.” At the time, just two Broadway theaters enjoyed the legal protections of landmarking, and there was every reason to believe the Morosco and the Hayes were just the beginning of the destruction: while discussing other new developments, a prominent city official had recently estimated that only a third of New York’s Broadway theaters were worthy of protection.

“This is a really important statement that’s been made,” said Papp, “and it will never be forgotten.”

Photo: Lee Pomeroy.
Photo: Lee Pomeroy.

Papp was right; it wouldn’t. In the years to come, twenty-eight historic theaters would receive New York City landmark status. The hotel would rise (today it operates as the Marriott Marquis), but in triggering such an extraordinary resistance, the development would ensure that no similar acts of theatrical destruction ever took place, at least not on Broadway. Theaters that might have fallen victim to the incoming development booms would instead survive, ensuring that, for all its corporate insanity, Times Square would remain a place where theatrical productions—handmade works of art that don’t scale—would still flourish, in the theaters that suit them best.

After finishing his address, Papp summoned a group of actors to read from The Royal Family. Similar readings had unfolded here over the past few weeks. A twenty-four-hour “dramathon” had even featured around-the-clock performances of eight classic plays originally presented in the theaters: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at 8 p.m., Our Town at 12:30 a.m., The Shadow Box at 3 a.m., and so on. People had stuck around even on days without constant performances: Papp had wanted an “honor guard” on-site at all hours to ensure the wrecking teams didn’t try to sneak in under cover of darkness.

As it was, they didn’t have to sneak. Around 2 p.m., a man wearing a helmet and aviator glasses walked onto the rubble patch and hopped into the crouched backhoe. The machine’s red, hydraulic arm sat snarled in on itself; the word GODZILLA was printed across the white haunch of the cab. Taking a seat, the operator turned on the engine.

As the backhoe’s tank-like track pads advanced on the theater, word of a twenty-minute legal postponement hit the crowd. But the smiling driver seemed not to have gotten the news. He rolled back and forth a few times, placing the open claw just inches away from the wall. Then he turned off the machine and hopped out, the same unctuous grin still curled across his face. Yes, he’d known about the extension. He’d just wanted to toy with the crowd.

The performers returned to The Royal Family, picking up at the line where they’d paused: “Acting is everything.”

Twenty minutes came and went, but no further postponements arrived. Again the operator saddled into the backhoe. Again he turned on the ignition.

“They’re going to go for it,” someone said, according to a journalist.

And then, at precisely 2:28, they did. Or tried to: snapping at the wall, the claw bit only air. “Go ahead, fight back, baby,” shouted actress Colleen Dewhurst from across the street, where others were now singing “America the Beautiful.” After a few more grabs, the operator started pushing the backhoe directly into the wall. But even here the theater resisted. “The old lady’s putting up a good fight, isn’t she?” said Dewhurst.

She was. And then she wasn’t. Suddenly a lateral seam cracked through a line of brick, its gentle slope matching the line of the mezzanine inside. There was a bang, and then a whoosh, and then a puff of smoke. “They have done it,” a reporter heard Dewhurst say to a friend. “They have done it.” A huge hole was now visible in the side of the theater.

Godzilla continued to snap at the opening, widening its circumference with each mechanical bite. Papp stood watching with his wife. He balled a fist and pressed it to his right eye. “I felt like I was being hit,” he later recalled in an interview. Other onlookers also used similarly violent language to describe the scene. “I felt like they were taking a slash out of me,” said Dewhurst. “I think we all did.” The scene was “a desecration,” various protesters recounted, “a death,” “theatricide,” even “a murder”: “The only thing missing was blood.”

Instead, there was dust. A cremation of brick and plaster puffed into the sky, mixing with a ream of “Save the Theaters” fliers someone had hurled from the upper floor of the Piccadilly Hotel. Turning on a hose, the wrecking crew sprayed the site to keep down the debris. Soon, behind the scrim of grime, one of the Morosco’s four chandeliers twinkled into view, its brass and crystal trembling with each thrust of the backhoe. And then—then the chandelier was falling, disappearing, shattering out of sight.


Harrison Hill

Harrison Hills writing has appeared in The Cut, GQ, The Guardian, Vogue, Travel + Leisure, AFAR, The American Scholar, The Threepenny Review, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2022

All Issues