Mark Hellinger (1903-1947) had one of the more unusual career trajectories in show business…from newspaper writer to top movie producer. Along the way he touched many of our customary areas of interest, beginning in the Jazz Age, encompassing vaudeville, Broadway, and Prohibition-era speakeasies.
Expelled from high school for organizing a student action, NYC-native Hellinger first went to work as a waiter in a Greenwich Village night club, then got a job as an advertising copywriter, his first experience as a wordsmith.
In 1922 he went to write at the show biz publication Zit’s Weekly and that’s where he began to move into his chosen realm. A year and half later, Hellinger was hired to work at the city desk at the New York Daily News. That same year, his first play None Are So Blind was presented by the Drama League on Broadway. In 1925 he began writing the gritty weekly column “About Town” for the Daily News. His Broadway beat thrust him among the Jazz Age night club set, and he rubbed elbows with the likes of fellow columnist Walter Winchell, producer Florenz Ziegfeld, and performer/night club hostess Texas Guinan, and numerous gangsters. In 1928, he added a daily feature called “Behind the News” to his work schedule. The following year, he switched papers, bringing his talents to the New York Daily Mirror. That same eventful year, 1929, he married chorus girl Gladys Glad. The two toured the Loews vaudeville circuit with an act in 1930.
In 1931, Hellinger contributed comedy sketches to the Ziegfeld Follies and published his first collection of shorts stories, Moon Over Broadway. In 1932, he wrote the book for the Broadway musical Hot-Cha! starring Bert Lahr, and the Hollywood film Night Court was based on one of his short stories “Justice for Sale”. That same year he divorced Glad, although the pair soon remarried and remained hitched until his death 15 years later.
In 1934 he published his second book The Ten Million, and had two Hollywood films made based on his work, I Know Everybody and Everybody’s Racket and the Frank Capra picture Broadway Bill, which Hellinger also co-wrote. This proved a pivotal moment for him. In 1936 Hellinger produced a play called Double Dummy, his last Broadway Show.
The following year he moved out to Hollywood, here he adapted several of his short stories for the big screen at Warner Brothers in pictures like Walking Down Broadway, Racket Busters, and Comet Over Broadway. In 1939 he started getting his feet wet as a producer. Early pictures he worked on in that capacity included The Cowboy Quarterback (1939) with Bert Wheeler and Marie Wilson and the 1940 film noir classic They Drive By Night. Other notable films Hellinger produced included Jack Benny’s last starring vehicle The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), The Killers (1946), The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) and The Naked City (1948). The latter, a gritty police procedural inspired by Weegee, had narration provided by Hellinger, and was compared with the best of his column writing. It was a box office hit. But Hellinger wouldn’t be able to enjoy the triumph. He died of a heart attack at age 44.
In 1948, Broadway’s Hollywood Theater (237 West 51st Street) was renamed the Mark Hellinger Theatre in his honor. Since 1991 it has been home to the Times Square Church.