James M. Nederlander Sr., the longtime patriarch of the Nederlander theatre-owning dynasty, which includes nine Broadway theatres, died the evening of July 25 in South Hampton, NY. He was 94.
Mr. Nederlander transformed what was a regional theatre business based in Detroit into a New York powerhouse when, in the 1960s, he set his sights on New York City and began buying Broadway theatres. The Nederlander Organization now has holdings second only to the Shubert Organization.
His son James L. Nederlander, President of The Nederlander Organization, issued the following statement: “He was my best friend, and partner in every aspect of our business. We collaborated every day. The world has lost one of its great impresarios.”
The Nederlander theatre business was begun by David Tobias Nederlander, the son of a Detroit cigar maker. In 1912, he took out a 99-year lease on the Detroit Opera House on Cadillac Square. He later operated the Shubert and Cass theatres in that city. His son, James — one of six children, including five brothers — was studying pre-law by 1940, but, because he had no pocket money, decided to work in his father's box office for $25 a week.
It wasn't long before he took his first steps as a producer. “We didn't have any product,” he recalled. “So I started producing shows. We did plays with Sylvia Sidney. We did My Sister Eileen.”
Following three years in the Air Force during World War II, Mr. Nederlander spent six months on Broadway at the old 44th Street Theatre with the Air Force production of Moss Hart's Winged Victory. The production featured several hundred actors, among them Private Karl Malden, Private First Class Edmond O'Brien and Staff Sergeant Peter Lind Hayes.
After the war, he began investing in theatre real estate in earnest. He opened theatres in Toledo, Minneapolis and Chicago, as well as the Grand Riviera in Detroit in the mid-1950s, which he began with a touring company of My Fair Lady.
In 1961 his father, his brothers and he began managing and booking productions for the newly redesigned Fisher Theatre in Detroit. A major subscription house, it still operates today. The Gay Life; Hello, Dolly!; and Fiddler on the Roof all played pre-Broadway engagements there.
In 1964 he decided the “name of the game was New York. I was walking along the street with a theatre colleague and he said, ‘Why don't you acquire a theatre in New York?‘ and I said, ‘Where?’ And he told me about the Palace,’” naming the famed vaudeville house at the northeast corner of Seventh Avenue and 47th Street. “So we went up to see the president of RKO, which owned it, and I made a deal with him on the spot. And then I went back to Detroit and raised the money. And we remodeled the Palace and opened it with Sweet Charity.”
He then began buying up every available independently owned Broadway theatre. He also kept on producing. “If you own theatres, you must become a producer,” he said, “whether you like it or not. You have to keep the theatres filled. I always say I'm in the moving business — I move them in and I move them out.”
After his father died in 1967, he became the head of the family business. Even as he aged and became an elder statesman, he continued to be known by most everyone in the theatre as Jimmy. Another nickname was Senior, to distinguish him from his son and heir apparent, James L. Nederlander.
James M. Nederlander was a nuts-and-bolts businessman, and most of his statements about the theatre had to do with the bottom line. “One of the best things I did was Annie,’” he once said. “It made the most money.” He kept posters of the short-lived shows he backed in the bathroom of his midtown Manhattan office.
In 2004 he was presented a Special Tony for Lifetime Achievement. The Nederlander Organization currently owns and/or runs the Brooks Atkinson, Lunt-Fontanne, Marquis, Minskoff, Neil Simon, Palace, Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and — of course — the Nederlander Theatre, the name of which was changed from the Trafalgar in 1980. (It is named after Mr. Nederlander's father, David T.) Among current hits at Nederlander theatres is the blockbuster Hamilton at the Rodgers and the long-running The Lion King at the Minskoff.
Mr. Nederlander never overtook the Shubert Organization, which owns 17 Broadway theatres, but, since the Shubert outfit was taken over by two of its lawyers, Gerald Schoenfeld and Bernard Jacobs, in the 1960s, the Nederlander Organization can be called the largest family-run theatre-owning concern on Broadway.
The Nederlanders also own venues in Chicago, Tucson, Detroit, Los Angeles, San Diego and London. Over the years, he has produced or co-produced many classic Broadway hits, including The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Copenhagen, Noises Off, The Will Rogers Follies and the original productions of La Cage aux Folles and Nine. Mr. Nederlander's love of baseball led him (along with each of his four brothers) to purchase an ownership interest in the New York Yankees in 1972.
Mr. Nederlander was the recipient of many distinguished honors including the United Nations Foundation Champion Award (2012), The Broadway League’s Schoenfeld Vision for Arts Education Award (2011), the New York Pop’s Man of the Year (2008), the Tony Awards’ Special Tony Award for Life Time Achievement (2004), The Actors’ Fund Medal of Honor (2002), United Jewish Appeal-New York Federations’ Bernard B. Jacobs Excellence in the Theatre Award (1997), and the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located outside the Pantages Theatre at 6233 Hollywood Boulevard.
He co-founded the Theater Hall of Fame at the Gershwin Theater in 1971, and was himself inducted in 1992 for his lifetime achievement.
The National High School Musical Theatre Awards were nicknamed the “Jimmy Awards” after him, to honor his patronage of the prizes for outstanding young musical theatre performers from across the U.S.
He received an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts at the Forty-third Commencement exercises at The University of Connecticut School of Medicine, School of Dental Medicine and Graduate School on Monday, May 12, 2014.
Like many dyed-in-the-wool Broadway businessmen, he never considered retiring. “I’m still here,” he said when he was 83. “And I have no regrets. I did what I wanted. I worked hard at it, and I wound up successful. At one time I was going to write a book and call it I Did What I Wanted. I think retiring is the biggest mistake people can make, unless they have something to do to keep their mind occupied. I think people who retire fade away.”
Mr. Nederlander is survived by his wife Charlene S. Nederlander, his son James L. Nederlander and daughter-in-law Margo M. Nederlander, his grandchildren James M. Nederlander II and Kathleen M. Nederlander, his stepdaughter Kristina Gustafson and her children Gunnar Gustafson and Krisanna Gustafson.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Nederlander Research Foundation GT001174 at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, or the Actors Fund of America in the name of James M. Nederlander.
Funeral services will be held at Temple Emanuel, 1 East 65th Street at 1 PM ET on Thursday, July 28.