Little Theater

238 W 44th St New York

LGBT Theater District/Little Theater
NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project
Written By NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project

The first initiative to document historic and cultural sites associated with the LGBT community in New York City, illustrating the richness of the city's history and the community's influence on America.

Overview

The Little Theater was built in 1912 to house intimate theater and is the smallest house on Broadway. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the theater was home to two pioneering plays with gay themes – Albert Innaurato’s Gemini (1977) and Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy (1982).

History

The Little Theater (renamed the Helen Hayes Theater in 1983) was a project of Winthrop Ames, heir to a large New England industrial fortune, who rejected the family business and turned instead to theatrical producing. Ames envisioned his Little Theater as a house where the actors and audience would be in close proximity. Relating to the feeling that audience members were guests in Ames’ house, he had the theater designed in a “homey” Colonial Revival style.

The theater has hosted two intimate family dramas that were pioneering Broadway plays dealing with gay themes. In 1977, after Off-Broadway and regional productions, Albert Innaurato’s Gemini opened and played for 1,819 performances. The protagonist of this antic comedy is Francis Geminiani, a working-class young man returning to his Philadelphia home from Harvard to celebrate his 21st birthday. Among other issues, Francis is confused about his sexuality, which is left unresolved at the end of the play. The previous incarnation of the play ran at the Circle Repertory Theater in Greenwich Village, which produced many gay-themed plays; it won a 1976-77 Obie award.

In 1982, Harvey Fierstein burst into the Broadway theater world with his Torch Song Trilogy, in which he also starred.

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“Harvey Fierstein is easily the most unusual star Broadway has seen in awhile. . . . He is believed to be the first Broadway star who is both gay and willing to say so publicly.” Jerry Parker, 'Newsday,' June 22, 1982

Torch Song Trilogy comprises three separate plays, International Stud, named for the gay bar at 117 Perry Street which had a famous back room, Fugue in a Nursery, and Widows and Children First!. The plays premiered individually at Off-Off-Broadway’s La Mama Experimental Theater Club. They were then combined into a four-hour, three-act Off-Broadway production by The Glines, an organization founded by John Glines that presented gay-themed plays, before moving to the Little Theater where it ran for 1,222 performances.

The play centers on the character of Arnold Beckoff, a gay, Jewish, drag queen, who craves a committed, romantic relationship and a traditional family with a husband and child. Torch Song Trilogy won an Obie award and Tony and Drama Desk awards for best play and best actor (Fierstein). Accepting his award for producing the play, Glines thanked his lover, co-producer Larry Lane, becoming the first person ever to acknowledge a same-sex partner on a televised awards ceremony. A revival of Torch Song Trilogy, renamed simply Torch Song, starring Michael Urie, played at this theater in fall 2018.

Building Information

Architect or Builder: Ingalls & Hoffman Year Built: 1912

Sources

Elenore Lester, “Innaurato – His Passion for the Outcast is Finding a Place on Stage,” The New York Times, May 29, 1977. Emmanuel Nelson, Encyclopedia of Contemporary LGBTQ Literature of the United States (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2009). Jerry Parker, “A Gay Voice on Broadway,” Newsday, June 22, 1982. [source of pull quote] John Clum, Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992). Neil Genzlinger, “Albert Innaurato, Playwright Who Lit Up Broadway in ‘70s, Dies at 70,” The New York Times, September 27, 2017. Nicholas de Jongh, Not in Front of the Audience: Homosexuality on Stage (London: Rutledge, 1992).

Cover Photo

Christopher D. Brazee/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2017.

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