A Life in the Theatre: Theatre Owner-Producer James M. Nederlander

A Life in the Theatre: Theatre Owner-Producer James M. Nederlander Stage professionals look back at decades of devotion to their craft.
James M. Nederlander
James M. Nederlander

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He has been called "the last patriarch of Broadway." Indeed, if anyone is the grand old man of New York theatre, it’s James M. Nederlander. Jimmy, as just about everyone in the business calls him, is 82 years old now, and he has spent 65 of those years in the theatre—beginning in 1940, when he took a box-office job at his father’s theatre in his hometown of Detroit. For the last few decades, he has been the chairman of the Nederlander Organization, which owns and/or operates nine Broadway houses.

Since 1964, when he expanded the Nederlander family business from the midwest to New York City by buying the Palace Theatre, his productions, and those at his theatres, have won or been nominated for scores of Tony Awards. And last year, he was presented a Special Tony for Lifetime Achievement.

"That award really touched me," Nederlander recalls. "It’s from the people you work with. So it means something."

The Nederlander Organization owns and/or runs the Brooks Atkinson, Lunt-Fontanne, Marquis, Minskoff, Neil Simon, Palace, Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and—of course—the Nederlander Theatre, as well as 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. Nederlander’s business has also pioneered the concept of the outdoor amphitheatre as a performance venue and has presented the Bolshoi and Moiseyev ballets, the D’oyly-Carte and Peking operas, and concerts by Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Billy Joel, Barry Manilow and Willie Nelson, among many others.

It all began in 1912, when his father, David T. Nederlander, took a 99-year lease on the old Detroit Opera House. In 1940, when Jimmy was 18 and his dad was involved with the Shubert Theatre in Detroit, Jimmy was studying pre-law.

"But I didn’t have any money," he says. "So I decided to go to work in the theatre. I worked in the box office for $25 a week."

From there, it wasn’t long before he took his first steps as a producer. "We didn’t have any product," he recalls. "So I started producing shows. We did plays with Sylvia Sidney. We did My Sister Eileen."

World War II intervened, and he spent three years in the Air Force, beginning in 1943, traveling around the country and stopping off for 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 opened theatres in Toledo, Minneapolis and Chicago, as well as the Grand Riviera in Detroit in the mid-1950’s, which he began with a touring company of My Fair Lady. And then came 1964.

He would often visit New York to book shows, he says, "and I decided that 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. 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."

Then he began buying up available independently owned Broadway theatres, and he kept on producing. "If you own theatres, you must become a producer," he says, "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."

Of all the shows he has moved in, he says, he counts among his favorites Copenhagen and La Cage aux Folles.

"And one of the best things I did was Annie," he says. "It made the most money."

He has also had his share of flops. "My father told me that nobody can pick them right all the time, and he was right," Nederlander says. "All the great producers have had their flops, and we’ve had a lot of them. It’s really a crap shoot."

He prefers to recall rather than forget those flops, so he has lined the walls of his office bathroom in midtown Manhattan with posters of the best of the losers—including The Grand Tour, which starred Joel Grey; the musical version of Shogun; and Peter Allen in Legs Diamond.

"If a show isn’t a hit, you just go on to the next one," he says. "That’s the only philosophy you can have if you’re a producer."

Nederlander turns 83 on March 31, but he says he has no plans of retiring. "I’m still here," he says. "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."

Which calls to mind his other philosophy: "You’ve got to keep going," he says. "You need to keep moving, and get out of the way of the fastball."