Harry Jay Nederlander, one of the six children of theatre operator David T. Nederlander, the Detroiter who started an international theatre empire, died Jan. 5 at his home in Rancho Mirage, CA, after a long illness.
Mr. Nederlander, 84, was most recently in charge of the management and booking of the Fisher and Masonic Temple Theatres in Detroit (in tandem with his brother, Robert, and executive director Alan Lichtenstein), the two major touring houses in the Motor City. The Fisher, home to many pre-Broadway engagements, including Fiddler on the Roof, Applause and Big, celebrated its 40th anniversary under Nederlander management in fall 2001. Mr. Nederlander, the oldest sibling in the family, had battled skin cancer for many years.
More significantly, perhaps, for 15 years Mr. Nederlander was in charge of the Birmingham Theatre, the unique 1,100-seat winter stock house in suburban Detroit, 1979-1994. Mr. Nederlander hired New York producers Jay Brooks and Jim Janek to put together plays and musicals (many that would make their Michigan debuts) whose creative teams included Broadway talent. Nunsense and Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? would set Michigan long-run records there and enjoy return engagements, but riskier or Off Broadway-style fare that might not have made it to the larger Detroit venues also played the Birmingham — Agnes of God, Master Harold...and the boys, Crimes of the Heart, Nuts, Driving Miss Daisy and more. Ask New York actors over the age of 30 if they've heard of the Birmingham and you can bet the answer is yes. A revival of Girl Crazy there starring Lorna Luft was said to have prompted interest in a new studio recording of the Gershwin show.
Mr. Nederlander ended his run at the Birmingham in June 1994. Times were tough and Mr. Nederlander said then that he could not afford to continue producing shows and maintaining the upkeep of the theatre, which was his responsibility per the lease.
The former movie and vaudeville house was later converted into a lush multiplex movie theatre in the posh suburb of Birmingham. At the final performance of the theatre's last Nederlander show, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, in June 1994, the cast sobbed on stage, along with the theatre employees who sat in the house. A unique phenomenon — a commercial subscription operation of six or more original productions per season, 84 shows in all — was gone. Ted Pappas, Marin Mazzie, Worth Gardner, Charles Busch, John Amos, Mark Jacoby, Jack Weston, Imogene Coca and Bonnie Franklin were among artists who worked there. "It's not easy," said a noticeably shaken Harry Nederlander at the time, as he walked through the empty auditorium after the performance. He said it troubled him that 30 longtime employees would be out of work.
Mr. Nederlander also ran a non-theatrical business, Mobile Home Materials, for many years. During World War II, Mr. Nederlander served in the Army Ordinance Corps. He attended Detroit Country Day School and the University of Michigan.
Growing up in Detroit, where his father ran the Shubert and other legit theatres, Mr. Nederlander and his brothers handled jobs in their father's venues — from janitorial tasks to working in the box office. The family would, of course, grow from a regional concern to an international theatrical force, owning or operating theatres on Broadway and in London and in major cities around the U.S., and producing Tony Award-winning plays and musicals (Annie, among others). In 1973, Mr. Nederlander became an investor in the New York Yankees. He maintained homes in Bloomfield Hills, MI, and Rancho Mirage, CA.
Mr. Nederlander is survived by his wife, Marjorie, sons Wayne, Skip and Scott, daughter Kathryn Raft, and grandchildren. His five siblings, sister Frances, and brothers James of Manhattan; Fred of Franklin, MI; Joseph of Bloomfield Hills, MI; and Robert of Manhattan, also survive. Sarah Applebaum Nederlander, the Nederlander family matriarch affectionately known as "Apple," died at the age of 97 in 1991.
A memorial service for Mr. Nederlander will be held in the Detroit area Jan. 11.