The Nederlanders Celebrate a Century in Show Biz
By Robert Viagas
James M. Nederlander and James L. Nederlander, the father-and-son team at the helm of their namesake theatre company, reflect on the Nederlanders' 100 years in the business of Broadway and beyond.
In 1912 David T. Nederlander, scion of a Detroit commercial real estate family, took a 99-year lease on the Detroit Opera House. From that theatre the Nederlander Organization has grown into one of the largest theatre-owning and producing entities in the U.S. They own nine Broadway theatres plus dozens more across North America and three in London.
Celebrating its centenary this year, the Nederlander Organization has passed from David T. (1886-1967) to his son and grandson, James M. Nederlander and James L. Nederlander, chairman and president, respectively. They're known affectionately around Times Square as Jimmy Senior and Jimmy Junior. Recently, they become the New York Landmark Conservancy's first father-son duo to be named "living landmarks."
Each generation of the family has taken another bold step to grow the brand. Under David T., Detroit became one of the leading markets in America. Under Jimmy Senior the company expanded into the rest of the country and London.
"Management skill and luck," is how Senior describes his formula for success. Throughout the 1960s, '70s and '80s, the Nederlander "N" symbol came to fly over many Broadway theatres including all three of the theatres that front on Times Square: the Palace, the Marquis and the Minskoff. They also own six Broadway theatres named for theatrical titans: the Gershwin, the Lunt-Fontanne, the Neil Simon, the Richard Rodgers, the Brooks Atkinson, and the old National/Billy Rose Theatre, which on Oct. 20, 1980, was renamed the David T. Nederlander Theatre.
During the lean years of the 1970s and '80s, the Nederlanders filled those theatres with as many traditional plays and musicals as they could book. They became co-producers on the original productions of shows like Annie, La Cage aux Folles and Nine.
They also drew on their experience with big concert venues, which dominate the non-New York side of their business. This is where Jimmy Junior began to make his mark, bringing in the likes of Harry Connick Jr., Billy Joel, U2, and Bette Midler for concert shows, and encouraging outside talents to try their hands at Broadway. The trend continued this season with Lewis Black: Running on Empty and Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth.
The Nederlander family is no stranger to outside alliances. The family is part owner of the Yankees and maintains a close relationship with Disney, whose shows Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Tarzan and Newsies opened at Nederlander theatres.
The Nederlanders have been systematically refurbishing their theatres with better seats, sharper decor, updated technology and other innovations in customer services like Audience Rewards, Broadway's official audience loyalty program.
While there are no current plans to build new theatres, James L. says the company hopes to buy any Broadway house that may come on the market.
"I know never is a long time," James L. says, "but live theatre is never going to die. We're always looking to do new things and to grow."
(This profile appears in the December 2012 issue of Playbill magazine.)
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