Along with Lynn Fontanne, Helen Hayes (1900-1993), Ethel Barrymore (1879-1959) and Vivian Beaumont (1885-1962) are the only women to have Broadway theaters named for them. Two of these women were influential actresses, while the third was essentially, a philanthropist.
First Lady of the American Theater
There’s a moment in Stage Door Canteen where a soldier asks hostess Helen Hayes to dance. When she asks why, with all the pretty showgirls in the room, he wants to dance with her, he tells her he wants “to tell my grandchildren that I danced with Queen Victoria.” Having played Victoria onstage, she is charmed, so she can’t refuse his request.
Short of stature, Helen Hayes was a child star, beginning her career at the age of 5, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Her career would last 80 years and that career would be momentous. Her Broadway debut came in 1917 as Pollyanna. Robert Benchley said that people considered Hayes “a colorless milksop.” This description couldn’t be further from the truth.
Never a glamour girl, Helen Hayes’ acting style was one of practical modesty. After appearing with Alfred Lunt in Clarence, she set her cap on her co-star. Lunt, however, only had eyes for Lynn Fontanne. When she played Coquette, and married playwright Charles MacArthur in 1928, her image changed. Hayes was Catholic and MacArthur was divorced. In 1930, she gave birth to their daughter Mary, also an actress, who would die at 19 from Polio. In 1937 their son, James was adopted and later became an actor and would star on the first version of Hawaii-50. (Hayes would even appear in an episode).
Both Pollyanna and Coquette would be filmed with “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford, the silent film star who would win an Oscar for Coquette, her first sound film. Hayes herself won her first Oscar in 1931 for The Sin of Madelon Claudet, written for her by MacArthur. However, while she appeared in A Farewell to Arms and Arrowsmith, Hayes didn’t care for Hollywood. Madelon Claudet had been rushed into release so MGM could claim they’d discovered her. Hayes said that she never saw the completed film. She did occasional films over the years, but was devoted to the theater.
Two Respected Monarchs
In 1933, she was offered and accepted the role of Mary, Queen of Scots in Mary of Scotland. To prepare for the role, she visited the Morgan Library where she read several of Mary’s letters. One had been sent to her cousin, Elizabeth, whom Mary never met in real life. Hayes used the memory of this emotional letters’ words to fuel her characterization. Hayes lost the role in the film adaptation to her friend, Katherine Hepburn, however Hayes’ performance was later preserved on television.
Four years later Hayes took on the role of a lifetime: Queen Victoria in Laurence Housman’s Victoria Regina. Controversial because many of her family were still living, the script consisted of 32 short plays, narrowed down to ten for the London production. Vincent Price played Prince Albert. In the play, Hayes had to age over 60 years, and for inspiration, she used an encounter she’d had with Marie Curie. Both of these performances, preserved for television, are in the archives of the Paley Center for Media in New York.
In 1941, she was directed by Alfred Lunt in Maxwell Anderson’s propaganda play, Candle in the Wind, to great success. The U.S. Government even supported them by transporting actors, scenery and costumes on tour. After playing Harriet Beecher Stowe, she asked Anita Loos to write something with grit for her. Loos responded with the role of a mousy librarian who falls in love with a bank clerk in Happy Birthday and Helen Hayes became the first actress to win a Tony Award. Another legendary production was revival of Thornton Wilder’s Skin of Our Teeth, directed by Alan Schneider and supervised by Wilder himself. She costarred with Mary Martin, George Abbott and Frances Sternhagen. She also worked with Richard Burton in Jean Anouilh’s Time Remembered, (Hayes won a second Tony). After creating the role of Nora Melody in Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet, Helen Hayes’ days in the theater became numbered. An asthmatic, gradually she became severely allergic to theater dust.
Following the death of her daughter and husband, Hayes was persuaded to make the film version of Anastasia, starring with Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner. Grieving her losses, she became difficult to direct, had trouble concentrating, but gave a beautifully layered performance as the Dowager Empress.
The Fulton Theater on 46th Street was renamed the Helen Hayes in 1955, but when it was lost, Hayes was the only performer who immediately had another theater named for her. The charming Little Theater on 44th Street continues as the Helen Hayes. She even helped issue tickets on opening day, and found comfort that she would always be remembered on Broadway.
In 1971 she starred with James Stewart in a revival of Harvey, later filmed for television. This was her final stage performance. But Hayes wasn’t finished yet!
Airport and The Snoop Sisters
Director George Seaton cast Hayes as Ada Quonsett, the elderly stowaway who helps to thwart disaster in this all-star version of Arthur Hailey’s bestseller, Airport. She was honored with an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for this role. This was the first of the popular big star disaster genre. ABC began making TV Movies of the week and along with Myrna Loy, Sylvia Sidney and Mildred Natwick, she starred in Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate. Based on a novel by Doris Miles Disney, it’s about a quartet of lunch companions who create a fictional woman for a computer dating service, only to attract a psycho killer. A year later, Hayes and Natwick became The Snoop Sisters, mystery writing sisters who also solved crimes. Hayes would also play Miss Marple in a trio of TV movies.
Helen Hayes was honored with a multitude of awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Arts, Grammys, Emmys, two Tony Awards, two Sarah Siddons Awards in Chicago and in her hometown, Washington, D.C. the Helen Hayes Awards have honored professional theater since 1984. For her 80th birthday, the town of Haverstraw, NY named their new hospital for her. She served on the Board of Visitors for the rest of her life.
Helen Hayes died on St. Patrick’s Day in 1993 from congestive heart failure. Not every one of her performances is readily available, but enough of them can be found on disc and the internet and they speak to the greatness of this extraordinary actor.
The Other First Lady of the American Theater: Ethel Barrymore
She wasn’t just glamorous, but with a commanding voice and a natural style, if any other actress deserved the label “First Lady of the American Theater” it would be Ethel Barrymore. Along with her brothers Lionel and John, the Barrymores have been America’s premier acting dynasty, with Drew Barrymore as its most recent member. (John and Lionel will be discussed in a later article). As a child, the Ethel and her brothers spent time in England, while their father acted in plays at the Haymarket Theater. Her desire was to become a concert pianist, and she was a lifelong baseball fan. Following her father’s death in 1893, she and Lionel worked while John stayed with their grandmother.
She became a style setter, and women would copy her hair and clothing. It was during her appearance in Rosemary (1896) that Maude Adams, best known as the first Peter Pan, made Ethel aware of her famous drawl. That same year, playwright William Gillette took her to London where she played opposite the renowned Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. (Irving’s London theater, the Lyceum, still stands near The Strand and is presently the home of The Lion King. Many of his artifacts are displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Ellen Terry’s ashes are interred, along with those of Michael Redgrave and Edith Evans, at the St. Paul Actor’s Church in Covent Garden, the portico of which, is featured in My Fair Lady).
Questioning her talent, Irving asked her what people were saying. She told him they thought she was good and looked right, but she was always Ethel Barrymore. Irving told her to make sure they never said anything else. Winston Churchill proposed to her and, although she turned him down, they remained lifelong friends.
With newfound confidence, she returned to America, where she would triumph in Clyde Fitch’s Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines. Taking a lesson from her mother, she learned to toss off lines, which gave her acting a more relaxed tone. Following the Broadway run, Ethel Barrymore often took the show on tour. Cornelia Otis Skinner (Our Hearts Were Young and Gay) noted that Barrymore preferred audiences across America because she appreciated how they were always amused and entertained.
“Ethel Barrymore roared in and grabbed hold of Charlie: Do you think you’re too good to write for the Barrymores? You lazy good-for-nothing Broadway hack, you’re going to write Rasputin and the Empress for us…she kicked him in the shins. She threw things at him, saying “this is for John and this is for Lionel, Charlie agreed to write the picture. It had been Irving Thalberg who’s managed to bring all three Barrymores, Lionel, Ethel and John, together in one film. He’d imagined Charlie would be thrilled to write the screenplay. Ultimately it was to cause him more trouble. The Barrymores fought for the limelight in every scene. Here were three giant egos each determined to make a better showing than the others.
“That’s all there is, there isn’t any more.”
It was during her appearance in Sunday, she uttered the words, “That’s all there is, there isn’t any more,” which she repeated frequently whenever she appeared onstage. She played Nora in A Doll House, Juliet, Lady Teazle in The School for Scandal, and was noted for bringing a maturity to the role of Ophelia as well as for wisely underplaying Portia in The Merchant of Venice.
Ethel Barrymore wasn’t just a star who went from production to production. The professional theater was thrown into chaos when a strike occurred in 1919. While some of the Old Guard, among them George M. Cohan, opposed it, Barrymore and many others worked toward an actors union, and the result would become the Actor’s Equity Association.
Ethel Barrymore Colt
There are varied accounts of how Ethel Barrymore met Russell Griswold Colt, but they were married in 1909. The marriage was always shaky and ended in 1923, however the couple had three children, all of whom had careers in show business. Samuel was an agent; John Drew was an actor and their daughter, known professionally as Ethel Barrymore Colt, had a return to theater late in her life when she appeared in the original cast of Follies. Career and family always came first, so, following the divorce, the Catholic Ethel Barrymore never remarried.
With Lionel cast as Rasputin, John as Prince Paul Chegodieff and herself as Czarina Alexandra, their film, Rasputin and the Empress evidently, Ethel threw a public tantrum which resulted in the screenplay written for them by Charles MacArthur. This is the only record of the siblings appearing together, and, due to a lawsuit by the wife of a Rasputin murderer, most films now have the all persons fictitious disclaimer. The film was a modest success.
She had the honor of opening the Hudson Theater, created the title role in Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Wife, directed by George Cukor and opened her namesake theater in 1928. The Ethel Barrymore continues to this day!
The Corn is Green
At the age of 60, what is probably remembered as her best role came, when she was offered the role of Miss L. C. Moffat in Emlyn Williams’ The Corn is Green. It’s the story of a dedicated teacher in a coal-mining village who helps an illiterate teenager overcome his fears to become a scholar. The show was a smash hit, and the play is worth revival. While Bette Davis played the role on film (and later in an unsuccessful stage version). It was remade for television by George Cukor directing Katharine Hepburn in 1979 and more recently informed the plot for Billy Elliott.
Barrymore and company went on a tour that lasted for several years. When Barrymore was cast opposite Cary Grant in None but the Lonely Heart, the producer put the Corn cast on hiatus, and they resumed when filming was completed. Barrymore gave a beautiful performance which rightly won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, however, she wasn’t impressed by the award. The following year, she played the invalid mother in the thriller, The Spiral Staircase. Other films included Portrait of Jennie, The Story of Three Loves and Johnny Trouble. She appeared on radio, including Miss Hattie, a sitcom that strongly supported the war effort.
“The Barrymore Curse” will be discussed in the next article, however both Ethel and her brother, Lionel, suffered from crippling arthritis in their later years. Ethel Barrymore passed on from heart failure two months before her 80th birthday. She was entombed at Calvary Cemetery next to her brothers.
Vivian Beaumont Allen
She has a theater named for her, but little information is available on Vivian Beaumont (1895-1962). She was an actress, philanthropist and heiress, yet there are no credits listed for her on the Internet Broadway Database. Her father, J. E. Beaumont, founded the May Company department stores, and she was heiress. With a donation of $3 million, she funded the construction of her namesake Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center. The theater originally housed the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center in the 1960s and is now the mainstage for Lincoln Center Theater, which recently presented revivals of South Pacific, The King and I and in 2018, My Fair Lady. Vivian Beaumont Allen is interred at the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.