Theatre-Makers Share Their Memories of Jimmy Nederlander

Special Features   Theatre-Makers Share Their Memories of Jimmy Nederlander Broadway lost one of its titans this summer when James M. Nederlander, chairman of the producing and theatre-owning conglomerate the Nederlander Organization, died at age 94.
James M. Nederlander
James M. Nederlander

If you’re seeing Hamilton, Wicked, The Lion King, An American in Paris, Cats, On Your Feet!, Waitress or any show at one of the many theatres with the cheerful Nederlander “N” logo on the door, you are the guest of one of the great gentlemen of the American theatre—someone who is due a tip of the hat for saving and preserving the beautiful theatres in which these shows are performed.

Nederlander grew up in a family steeped in the theatre. In 1912 James M.’s father, David T. Nederlander (1886-1967), scion of a Detroit commercial real estate family, took a 99-year lease on the Detroit Opera House. (Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre is named for him.) Thanks to James M.’s visionary leadership, the Nederlander Organization later expanded into New York and has grown into the second largest theatre-owning company on Broadway—after the Shubert Organization—and one of the biggest producing entities in the United States.

For the past several decades he ran the company with his son, James L. Nederlander, who told Playbill, “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 father and son management team came to be known to Broadway insiders as Jimmy Senior and Jimmy Junior.

During the lean years of the 1970s and ’80s, he filled those theatres with as many traditional plays and musicals as he could book. Nederlander became co-producer on the original Broadway productions of classics like Nicholas Nickleby, La Cage aux Folles, Nine and the company’s crown jewel, Annie. Along the way he worked with—and competed with—some of the other greats of the past half century.

Here, Jimmy Senior’s compatriots of the theatre remember the man who passed away July 25.

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Thomas Meehan and Charles Strouse
Thomas Meehan and Charles Strouse

Charles Strouse, Composer of Annie:
Whenever I went to see a producer, it would always be a frightening, distant meeting. But when I met Jimmy, I felt at home right away. [When we brought him Annie] he said, “Okay, boys, show me something!” We played him the first song, and he jumped up from the sofa and said, “We’re going to do this!” He didn’t ask how many characters it had or anything else; he just gave it an enthusiastic, ebullient reception.

Thomas Meehan, Librettist of Annie:
When I first met Jimmy Nederlander, in the late winter of 1977, he had only recently bought the Alvin Theatre, on West 52nd Street—now of course known for years as the Neil Simon—and had booked Annie to be his first major Broadway production. “Listen, fella,” he said to me in his famed gravelly voice, a feisty five-foot-five nestled in a huge swivel chair behind an enormous aircraft carrier-like desk. “If you guys can turn this Annie thing into a hit, a run-for-years smash, tell ya what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna change the name of the theatre from the Alvin to the Annie. Both of ’em five letters long, don’t ya see? Three of them the same letters—it’ll cost next to nothing to make the change.” And you know what? After the show had been running for three years or so, he did—the Alvin Theatre became the Annie Theatre for all of the rest of the years we ran [there]. That was Jimmy Nederlander for you—from the get-go and throughout his long producing career, forever thinking positively, big—a cockeyed Annie-like optimist!

Philip J. Smith, Chairman of the Shubert Organization:
We were friendly competitors. A lot of people tell stories to the contrary and talk about a feud, but Jimmy and I were friends since the 1960s. Did we have our differences? Of course. But we always worked together to resolve them amicably. Here’s an early example: Jimmy wanted to bring The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby to New York [in 1981], but he didn’t have a theatre available. Director Trevor Nunn liked the [Shuberts’] Lyceum, but we convinced him of the wisdom of going into a larger house, the Plymouth, which is now known as the Schoenfeld.

We co-produced that show with Jimmy, half a million from us and half a million from Jimmy, and in the beginning it was very touch and go with not much in the way of ticket sales. Part of the problem was the fact that you needed to see [the show] over two nights and we—Jimmy made all decisions jointly with us—agreed that we would not sell a ticket to a single night. You had to buy both. People resisted at first. We were worried we’d lose the entire investment. But word started to get out about the performance of Roger Rees, later a great star, but someone no one knew at the time. Business started to turn around. It later won the Tony Award.

One of the last projects we worked on together was the current revival of Cats. We had the production, but we didn’t have a theatre for it. Jimmy offered the Neil Simon, which is a very good theatre. So we began in a partnership with Jimmy and we were in a partnership with him again at the end.

Elizabeth I. McCann
Elizabeth I. McCann

Elizabeth I. McCann, Producer:
Jimmy never took no for an answer. Years ago in London, he had seen an RSC production of Sherlock Holmes. He was determined to have it [for Broadway]. But the RSC always did deals with David Merrick. Every time he came back from London he would complain about having driven up to Stratford to see the chiefs of the RSC only to be turned down. They were waiting for David. But he never gave up—he kept going back. Finally, it happened that David made a demand that the RSC could not meet and Jimmy prevailed. It was the beginning of a long relationship with the RSC through many productions, and most notably Nicholas Nickleby.

Robert E. Wankel, President, The Shubert Organization:
Jimmy was a crucial figure in the ongoing success of theatre on Broadway, across the country, and beyond. His impact will always be felt. He lived a wonderful life full of love from his family, friends and colleagues.

Paul Libin, Executive Vice President, Jujamcyn Theaters:
Ted Mann and I were producing a tour of A Moon for the Misbegotten in the 1960s, and we needed $25,000 to complete the funding. I went to Jimmy and asked for the $25,000. Jimmy called out to an assistant, “Make a check to Paul Libin for $25,000.” No questions, no papers, just “yes.” I then told him I wanted to book the Vest Pocket in Detroit and the Studebaker in Chicago, which Jimmy operated. Jim said, “You have the $25,000 whether you play my theatres or not.” Broadway is the longest street in America, and James M. Nederlander has produced more productions and operated more theatres on that street than anyone in the modern era.

Emanuel Azenberg, Producer:
There is no question that in this industry he was a great man without having an obvious category to be great in. He just was a first-rate human being. Not without flaws, not without foibles, not without mistakes, but if the bullets were flying in the fox hole, nine out of ten people would run, and Jimmy would just stay there. He wouldn’t leave. Being a friend of Jimmy’s meant you had a friend for life and a friend who would take the punch with you.

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Charlotte St. Martin
Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Philip S. Birsh, President & CEO, Playbill Inc.:
I remember one day I met with Jimmy and lamented about a building I was trying to buy but, frankly, didn’t have the money to purchase it. He said let him have it and I did. One month later without any notice he sent me a check for finding him the deal. He just sent it and said it was a thank you for the favor. I know no other man who would have ever been so generous when, in fact, it was simply not necessary.

Charlotte St. Martin, President of the Broadway League:
My first day on the job at the League, I had been in my office about 30 minutes when a call came in from Jimmy Senior commanding me to “go visit with him right away.” … He opened his remarks by stating that he wanted to start me on the right path. We spoke for over an hour when he gave me my “marching orders” for the future, which were all so relevant.

Jimmy Nederlander’s name has been synonymous with quality theatrical productions … His name has also come to symbolize excellence and achievement when the Jimmy Award is presented annually at the National High School Musical Theatre Awards. A tribute to his passion for arts education, his legacy will help to inspire the next generation of performers.

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Tommy Tune Monica Simoes

Tommy Tune, Ten-time Tony Award Winner:
One of the last phone calls Jimmy made was to Carol Channing to see how she was doing. He asked her caretaker, “Is she comfortable? Does she have the money she needs to be comfortable?” I thought that was so loving, that one of his last phone calls was to Carol to see if she needed anything. He was very, very generous. And loyal.

Broadway theatres dimmed their lights in his memory at curtain time on August 3. Without James M. Nederlander, there would have been a lot fewer of those lights.

See photos from the 2016 Jimmy Awards, named for James M. Nederlander:

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