On July 6, 1939, Helen Hayes – known as the “First Lady of American Theatre” – took to the Lobero stage in the world premiere of a modern comedy-drama “Ladies and Gentlemen”.
Set in a courtroom, the play focused on the relationship between two jurors and had been specially written for her by Academy Award-winning writers Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht.
Helen Hayes was born in Washington, D.C. at the turn of the 20th century, and began her acting career in school plays and silent films. After moving to Hollywood, Hayes graduated to sound films and ended up winning an Academy Award for Best Actress for her first talking role in the 1931 movie “The Sin of Madelon Claudet”.
But theater was Helen Hayes’ true love, and in 1937 she appeared on Broadway in the role of Queen Victoria in the play “Victoria Regina”. British law stated that no king or queen could be portrayed on the British stage until 100 years after the start of their rule, so “Victoria Regina” opened one day after the centenary anniversary of Queen Victoria’s accession to the crown.
After an astounding 1,000 performances in which she had to wear a grey wig and billowy black gown to portray an elderly Queen Victoria, Hayes was eager for a more contemporary role. She found it in a play especially written for her by husband Charles MacArthur and his writing partner Ben Hecht. MacArthur and Hecht were the celebrated writing team behind the “The Front Page”, and “Ladies and Gentlemen” also featured their trademark witty and acerbic male-female banter.
“Ladies and Gentlemen” received glowing reviews. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote,
“Miss Hayes’ sorceries would be enough to make any play a success, but “Ladies and Gentlemen” in an excellent show in its own right. It is a lively theater-piece that mixes gayety and seriousness judiciously, and it contains some of the crispest lines that ever crackled across a row of footlights.”
Helen Hayes and “Ladies and Gentlemen” moved from its Santa Barbara premiere to two week runs in San Francisco and Los Angeles. In October 1939 the play opened on Broadway, where it had a successful run of 105 performances.
Helen Hayes’ acting career extended well into the 1970s, and she became one of only a handful of actors to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony award.
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