“I always thought he’d live to be 100—more, even—like George Abbott,” producer Ken Waissman remarked as he entered Temple Emanu-El July 28 for the funeral of James M. Nederlander, last of the founding fathers of today’s Broadway.
So, too, did Nederlander himself, it was revealed late during the hour-long service.
“His goal was to live until 100,” recalled his daughter-in-law, Margo. “He wanted to have his birthday at Yankee Stadium—so much that he had Dr. Conrad Blum write a prescription for that. It is still right on his desk.” The patriarch of the theatre real estate dynasty fell six years short of his avowed mark July 25 when he passed away in South Hampton, and she made a point of thanking “a wonderful family of doctors and nurses and caregivers [who] were there for my father-in-law 24/7, really for the last 10-12 years,” singling out 19 by name. “They were referred to as a consortium,” she said. “They worked together like I’d never seen, a group of giants in the medical field. They helped him maintain his dignity, his style, his…‘being Jimmy’ is the only way to describe it.”
Her husband—James L. Nederlander, president of the Nederlander Organization—spoke last and briefest, profoundly touched by the turnout. “First and foremost, I want to thank you for being here. It means more to us than you can imagine.”
From a slow pan of the crowd, it was clear that a theatrical titan had fallen. The entire first-night list for the past 40 years seemed to be duplicated in broad daylight.
Among the mourners: Philip Smith, Rocco Landesman, Paul Libin, Robert Wankel, Charlotte St. Martin, Philip Birsh, George Lane, Terry Allen Kramer, Stewart F. Lane, Jamie deRoy, Nick Wyman, Stephen Bogardus, Jeff Calhoun, Tom Viertel, John Hart, Kevin McCollum, Jeffrey Seller, James Lapine, Chris Boneau, Joey Parnes, Leonard Soloway, Adrian Bryan-Brown, Heather Hitchens, Frank Wildhorn and Lionel Larner.
The event’s “star-turn” came from Joseph Nederlander, the wheelchair-bound brother of the deceased, who brought the house down with two choice anecdotes.
The first occurred at the SRO funeral for theatre producer and restauranteur Joseph Kipness when Jimmy Nederlander came upon David Merrick, who was plainly upset by the impressive turnout. “How do you figure Joe Kipness got all these people?” he wondered aloud. “What’ll happen? How many people will I have when I pass away?” “Don’t worry, David,” Netherlander replied reassuringly. “We’ll paper it.”
The other found the two brothers butting heads about bringing Medea, the Greek tragedy, to Broadway. Finally, Joe confronted Jimmy over the wisdom of presenting a play where “a mother cuts the heads off her children…. ‘Why would you produce a show like Medea?’” He said, ‘I thought it was about newspapering.’”
His other brother, Robert E. Nederlander, was the first to address the congregation. “James was a pioneer,” he said of the man who built a theatrical empire largely on a handshake. “He was a risk-taker, but the risk was within the family—not other people. He gave everybody a fair shake. If you needed money, he was there to help you out. If you wanted advice, he was there to help you. He was a stick-to-it guy.”
The musical selections for the funeral were, yes, show tunes—but unexpected ones that were movingly appropriate. Tommy Tune sang “September Song” (by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson, from Knickerbocker Holiday), neatly and creatively meshed with another September song (Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends” from American Idiot). And there was a special, discernibly poignant pull to “Tomorrow,” sung 39 years later by the star who introduced it, Andrea McArdle.
A very touching testimonial was delivered by Nick Scandalios, who started as a receptionist at the Nederlander Organization “Aug. 31, 1987,” and, largely through Nederlander’s mentoring and encouragement, is now an executive vice president.
He remembered diagnosing the doomed Legs Diamond musical when it was careening toward a fast run and impressing Nederlander with his acumen—“Jimmy saying, ‘You know, you’re a smart young man,” and me, the cocky 23-year-old, saying, ‘Thanks, I think so.’ He turned to me and said, ‘My dear young man, at this point in your life, it matters much more that I think you’re talented than you do.’”
Their kinship continued right to the end. “Our last conversation on the day he left us was not the conversation of a man about to leave. It was very much like the one we always had. Jimmy said, ‘What’s doing?’ I gave him an update on the theatres. We bantered a bit. He asked his current favorite question, ‘How’s the advance on Hamilton?’ He said, ‘How are the kids?’ I said, ‘Fine.’ ‘How are you? Do you need anything?’ ‘No, Jimmy, I’m fine.’ ‘OK. Well, take care of yourself.’ And we said goodbye.
“Goodbye, dear friend. I love you dearly. I only hope that some day I can find the strength to do for someone what you have done for me. Your legacy will live on.”
Producer Emanuel Azenberg, a major Broadway player who estimated he and the Nederlander Organization have had 40 or 50 business transactions during the past 45 years, recalled his first emersion into the company camp in 1963—a chaotic scene in which D.T. Nederlander was firing a technician “for giving a show the correct kilowatts,” and his sons, Jimmy and Joey, were rehiring him in the next room. “My conclusion was, ‘These people are crazy.’ I seriously considered the Army.”
It was Azenberg’s theory that James Nederlander was one of those guys who had greatness thrust upon him in a category not used to greatness. “Mike Nichols was a great director. Jerome Robbins was a great Broadway choreographer. And Richard Rodgers was a great Broadway composer. Jimmy Nederlander was, of course, also great, but a great Broadway…what? Nichols, Robbins and Rodgers had such singular talents and gifts they had categories to be in. Jimmy Nederlander was a great Broadway…theatre owner? No. It doesn’t work. It has no resonance. There are great actors, great dancers, great designers, even great stagehands. You need a specific category for him. Maybe he should be a great American success story.
“Jimmy started in New York in the ’70s, borrowed some money, built a national and international theatre organization—a theatrical empire. He took real risks and real failures, persevered and had some losers and equally big winners. He dealt with both winners and losers with a professional equilibrium. He took no pride at the winners, and he pointed no fingers at the losers. Now, thousands of people have jobs, some of whom are out there [in the audience] because of his efforts, and he never broke from being a nice man—a mensch, kind of an appropriate word in this building.”
Four years ago, Azenberg co-produced a couple of revivals that drown in red ink—Brighton Beach Memoirs and Ragtime—and it was then that he discovered the kind of greatness that Nederlander was. When they met two weeks later, Nederlander was pretty frontal: “‘You lost a lot of money, didn’t ya?’ he said. I nodded, and he said, ‘Well, I’m paying for half’—he had nothing to do with the shows. I said, ‘Jimmy, I’m a big boy. I can handle all this.’ And he waved his arm with his one good hand and said, ‘That’s what friends are for.’ James was a good man. He was a great friend.”