UPDATE, Tuesday, 7:30 AM: Co-owner Martin Markinson responds: “We’ll honor the contract if they raise the money,” Helen Hayes Theatre co-owner Martin Markinson told Deadline on Tuesday morning in a telephone interview from his very warm home in Santa Fe, NM. “They [Second Stage] want the theater, but it’s costing us money. We have four productions that want to come in, some of them limited runs. We thought Rock Of Ages would run six months and the damned thing ran four years. The longer I’m in the business, the less I know.”
Markinson said there is no truth to the suggestion that his partner, Jeffrey Tick, was looking to sell the theater for more money. “Jeffrey wants the theater, and if the deal does not go through, he will either buy me out or I’ll sell my share,” said Markinson, a longtime supporter of Second Stage’s bid to take over the Hayes. “We’ll know on Thursday.”
PREVIOUS EXCLUSIVE, MONDAY PM: The fate of the 579-seat Helen Hayes Theatre, one of the last independently owned houses among Broadway’s 40 designated theaters, will be decided in New York State Supreme Court after arguments on Thursday. At issue is whether the nonprofit Second Stage Theatre, which contracted to buy the West 44th Street theater eight years ago, is entitled to a 90-day period to raise the additional $21.4 million necessary to close the $24.7 million deal. Otherwise, co-owners Jeffrey Tick and retired producer Martin Markinson, who lives in Santa Fe, NM, claim the right to return the deposit and retain ownership or sell to another buyer.
If the sale goes forward, Second Stage would become the fourth nonprofit with a Broadway flagship, meaning productions mounted in those theaters are eligible for Tony Awards, which the companies insist are major bait in attracting first-class writers, actors, directors and designers. Lincoln Center Theater operates the Vivian Beaumont; the Manhattan Theatre Club operates the Samuel J. Friedman; and the Roundabout Theatre Company operates the American Airlines, the Stephen Sondheim and Studio 54.
The Hayes most recently was home to Rock Of Ages, which had a profitable run due mostly to the fact that its production costs had been recouped while playing in a larger Broadway theater before transferring. Although its size — the Hayes is the smallest Broadway house — made it impractical to most commercial producers, prudent management has shown that there’s money to be made: Prior engagements include long runs of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy.
In a suit filed Friday in New York State Supreme Court, Second Stage claims that the owners didn’t give them enough warning that Rock Of Ages was going to close and that it had the right to extend the closing date from February 17 to May 18. The company’s management, artistic director Carole Rothman and executive director Casey Reitz also claim that Tick and Markinson want the deal to unravel because the Hayes — which was known as the Little Theatre until a 1983 name change — is worth more now than it was in 2007.
“Because of the collaborative nature of our relationship (including Second Stage’s agreement to allow Little Theater to host what turned out to be a tremendously successful musical, Rock Of Ages, generating significant revenue for Little Theater and its owners, rather than close at an earlier date) and these ongoing discussions in which Little Theater promised to be flexible, I was surprised to learn from the media, without any advanced warning, on November 18, 2014 that Rock Of Ages would be closing,” Rothman said in an affidavit filed with the Court.
Second Stage then was informed, she wrote, “that the contract with Rock Of Ages was expected to ‘expire on or before January 18, 2015’ and that Little Theater had set the closing date [of the sale] for February 16, 2015. … We suspect that, given the increase in real estate values which occurred during the time of the Rock Of Ages‘ run, to which we had consented at Little Theater’s request, Little Theater may have been trying to cancel its contract with Second Stage, a non-profit, in order to sell the Helen Hayes elsewhere at a higher price.”
Second Stage’s ambitious plans for the Hayes include creating an endowment fund, boosting their fundraising goal to more than twice the cost of buying and renovating the Hayes. But nonprofit ownership in the Broadway district has proven to be a tricky business, and not one loved by competing landlords. The Roundabout, for example, is renting the Sondheim to the very profitable production of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and is about to take a commercial tenant after the closing of Cabaret at Studio 54. Lincoln Center Theater also has rented out the Tony-eligible Vivian Beaumont Theatre to commercial producers.
“This is a matter of time, not of money,” Reitz told Deadline. “Our financing is in place to purchase the Helen Hayes Theatre, and we have a legal claim for additional time. … We have patiently been waiting to take ownership of the theater and it is unfortunate that the owners have had a change of heart and are now trying to withdraw from the agreement. We look forward to presenting our case in court on Thursday.” The company says that selling the naming rights to the theater will be a major part of its campaign but that it was difficult to raise money when they could not offer a specific date for taking over the theater.
Markinson could not be reached for comment. Tick, whose father was Markinson’s original partner in owning the theater, has insisted that he has no intention of selling at a higher price and that Second Stage simply doesn’t have the money. With producers waiting as long as two years for a Broadway house to free up for a show, the Hayes suddenly has become a prize property. Whose prize is yet to be determined. Stay tuned.