Yesterday, we wrote about the rich history of the 112-year-old Hudson Theatre, which will soon be restored to its former glory as a Broadway house. But the Hudson is not the only jewel-box venue in midtown that theater lovers dream of seeing back in the stage business. There's the Times Square on 42nd Street, notable for its stately classical colonnade; there's the Liberty, tucked away behind the Applebee’s across the street from it. But above all, there is the Mark Hellinger on 51st Street: a breathtakingly beautiful stage palace that Broadway sold away almost a quarter-century ago.
This weekend, New Yorkers will have the rare opportunity to actually see a show at the Hellinger—and for free! There is, of course, a big catch, and we’ll get to that in a moment. But first, a few words about the theater itself. Built as a lavish movie house in 1930, when it was called the Hollywood, the Hellinger is an architectural stunner of red and gold, whose soaring ceilings are decorated with a dozen murals in the style of 18th-century French painting. Considered by many to be the most sumptuous of all Broadway houses, the Hellinger has been painstakingly maintained throughout the decades. (You can find pictures of it here and here, among other sites.)
In 1949, the venue became a full-time theater, and was rechristened the Mark Hellinger, after a powerful theater journalist who had died two years earlier. My Fair Lady opened there in 1956, and stayed for six years. But lean times for Broadway were ahead. After a string of flops in the 1980s, culminating in the legendary 1989 disaster Legs Diamond, the struggling Nederlander Organization sold it in 1991—to what has surely been their lasting regret—to the Times Square Church, which has used it for religious services and community activities ever since.
Which brings us to the aforementioned show. This weekend, at the times when it usually offers church services—Friday (December 18) at 7pm, and Sunday (December 20) at 10am, 3pm and 6pm—the Times Square Church will instead be mounting Outside the Inn, a free holiday play with music. Here is how the TSC website describes it:
“Outside The Inn begins in present day. A joyful, loving character, Uncle Mark tells the Christmas story to his nieces and nephew as a dramatic tale with songs and adventure. Uncle Mark takes them on a journey through Bethlehem, outside and inside the inn. The Bethlehem Inn is buzzing with excitement when a high ranking Rabbi checks in, occupies more space than he needs and plans for an Old Testament reading for everyone there. The shepherds’ lives are riddled with matters relevant to today involving alcoholism, anger and death. It’s an engaging story with laughter, sorrow, healing and the celebration of Jesus.”
Granted: As Bible musicals go, this seems unlikely to rank up there with Jesus Christ Superstar, which played the Hellinger from 1971 through 1973. And yes, we’re a little wary about that stuff about the pushy and greedy rabbi, too. But for those to whom theater itself is a kind of church, the chance to see a stage play at this storied venue may be too good to pass up. Broadway lovers, rejoice! The Hellinger has risen.