Producer Joe Papp had said he would be willing to be arrested to save two landmark Times Square theaters from destruction, and today--joined by such Broadway stars as Treat Williams, Michael Moriarty, Tammy Grimes and Richard Gere--he was.
His efforts, however--which came after the U.S. Supreme Court this morning cleared the way for demolition of the Helen Hayes and Morosco theaters--were in vain.
The builders moved in as Papp, and some 200 others, were taken away, after an emotional but well-orchestrated demonstration in which the most violent action consisted of the impassioned cries of "Shame, shame!" And while the picketers' signs reading "Gershwin Lives" and "Give Us a Touch of the Poet, Not the Builder" lay discarded on a rubble-filled lot, the workers prepared to demolish the two delicate buildings that had housed eight Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, and in their place raise the 50-story luxury Portman Hotel with a 1,500-seat theater. The six-month battle to save the theaters--which had crescendoed in the past week with daily sidewalk theatrical demonstrations--was lost.
Shortly after the word came down to the troops this morning, Papp led a glittering group of stars--many of whom had graced his plays--to the lot beside the theaters. New York's Finest, apprised of this production, awaited them with barricades. Papp puffed his cigar jauntily, huddling with the celebrities--Gere, Moriarty, Grimes--as the lesser lights were led away, keeping his own star turn for last. When it came, there was a brief walk to the paddy wagon and a sidewalk press conference before hopping into the van.
"I feel so proud of these people, I feel so proud of New York," he said. The crowd had offered no resistance to police. Those arrested were charged with criminal trespass and released on their own recognizance.
The original homes of such plays as "Our Town," "Death of a Salesman," "Shadow Box" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night," the theaters on West 45th Street had been praised by actors for their acoustics and scale as much as their architecture. This morning, at the sidewalk rally held while awaiting word on the fate of the theaters, the actors and show business people, a prestigious and successful group that included director Elia Kazan and actress Geraldine Fitzgerald, reiterated those feelings.
"I'm sick and tired of reading that this is about sentiment," said Jose Ferrer. "It doesn't have to do with that schmear. It has to do with hearing voices without amplification; of knowing what actor is talking without holding your hand up; of having a house that is small enough so that people can recognize you on the street, not that you always want them to recognize you on the street."
"The theater is like an instrument," said Michael Moriarty, respectably outfitted for arrest in tie and dress overcoat. "An actor plays it like an instrument."
He said this from a platform stage across from the Hayes and Morosco--a stage filled with New York actors who clearly knew each other well. Susan Sarandon embraced Elia Kazan; there were hellos and hugs as Christopher Reeve and Treat Williams took the stage; Raul Julia looked on affectionately as Placido Domingo--acompanying himself on a piano--went into one number, then, after the bravos, did an encore. "That's a performer," Treat Williams said. Domingo, in a gray roll-neck sweater, spoke briefly and charmingly in a rich Spanish accent.
"I was on my way to the recording studio so I think I stop and sing a song," he said, before going into "O Sole Mio."
He kept his remarks on renovation short. "We have enough big buildings, as long as we have good theaters along with it," he said.
That the Supreme Court decision might be against them--and that their arrests, if they protested, would follow--was something for which the demonstrators were prepared. Papp, awaiting the Supreme Court decision, had told the demonstrators that their imminent arrests would be "an act of democracy . . . an act of precisely what is beautiful and essential in New York" and urged those who had decided to be arrested to "submit to arrest." Hearing of the decision, he directed his troops, as one might direct a cast, to be peaceable, allowing the hope that "the police will act out their roles as we act out ours." When he led the protestors across the street to the wreckers and some independent spirit grabbed the mike and yelled, a bit too heatedly, "Shame on Koch," the director was peeved.
"Who is that?" he yelled at an assistant. "Tell them to shut up. Get the bagpipes on!"
Forty-five minutes later, Papp was led away. Police Chief Milton Schwartz was asked by one reporter: "Hey, Chief--you the coproducer on this thing?" The builders began to clear the picket signs from the site. Christopher Reeve, Superman to the teen-age girls who clustered around him, stood across from the site, explaining that he hadn't gotten himself arrested because he was a practical guy and felt a statement had been made and didn't believe in breaking in law. He reminisced a little, too.
"I never played there," he said, "but I've walked down this street since I was 10; I went looking for work since I was 14; I wanted to play there some day . . . "
Some of the actors, already arrested and released, returned to the site. They sang spirituals, as is not uncommon for underdogs. They looked at the workers around the Helen Hayes and Morosco, who were still merely cleaning rubble. They waited for the last show.