It doesn’t happen often, but on September 12 both worlds that James L. Nederlander inhabits came comfortably together in the same banquet hall at Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
The President of Broadway’s Nederlander Organization and co-owner of the New York Yankees was named Outstanding Philanthropist of the year at the 31st Annual Great Sports Legend Dinner, a gala that benefits The Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis and raises funds to support the ground-breaking spinal cord injury research that is being done by researchers at The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.
Hosted by NFL Hall of Famer Nick Buoniconti and his son, Marc, who sustained a spinal cord injury during a college football game, the annual Waldorf dinner singles out and salutes star athletes in all sports—and, in recent years, it has thrown its net wider than that to include deserving, iconic leaders in other fields of endeavor.
Nederlander represented the world of theatre in a parade that embraced nightclubs (Wayne Newton, a.k.a. “Mr. Las Vegas”), television (Christian Slater, a Golden Globe winner for Mr. Robot) and even outer space (legendary astronaut Buzz Aldrin).
“I’m really honored,” Nederlander admitted. “To be accepting an award alongside the likes of Venus Williams, Mariano Rivera, Diana Nyad—my God! I’m in great company. I’m very lucky to be standing up there with legends like that.”
Also in that number were New York Jets running back Curtis Martin, four-time IndyCar Series Champion Dario Franchitti, Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski, two-time NCAA basketball champion Cheryl Miller and Willis Reed of the NY Knicks.
Quite fittingly, Nederlander received his award from Emilio and Gloria Estefan. Her recovery from a fractured spine that she suffered when a speeding truck slammed into her tour bus in a snowstorm prompted the Broadway musical now playing at a Nederlander house—On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan at the Marquis. The cast from that show provided the evening’s entertainment.
“We were thrilled when they asked us to do it,” the seven-time Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter said. “We’ve been very involved in this center for many years. You know, I was paralyzed 26 years ago, so I’ve been working with The Miami Project for a couple of decades now. They do amazing work. We’re very close to a cure. We’ve been able to bridge neurons 80 percent mobility in primates, and now we’re in humankind so we look very much forward to the end of paralysis in our lifetime.”
It was a particular kick to be able to present this award to the man who put her life story on the Broadway stage. “Jimmy is a great philanthropist, and we need to get him into this cause. We introduced him to this wonderful organization, and he has given generously to it. Plus, he has donated a lot of tickets for our people to auction off. He told me tonight he’s going to give much more, too. That’s what we want.”
Nederlander said he appreciated the Estefans channeling his money in the right direction. “They asked me just as a friend and as someone who does a lot for the community to get involved,” he said. “I’m impressed with the work this organization does for people who are paralyzed. Whether it’s from a horrible accident or from a stroke, it all ties together. Can you imagine falling down and not being able to move?
“The Buoniconti people were trying to get me for a long time, and I never knew it till this year. I’m for this organization because, one, I’d do anything for the Estefans and, two, it’s a great cause. I don’t know how many institutions raise money for fighting paralysis—I know the Christopher Reeve [Foundation] does, and I was involved in that for a while—but there just aren’t that many groups out there dedicated to this.”
Growing up in the business, Nederlander figures he had his hand in “around ten” Tony-winning shows. He officially took the reins of the family’s theatrical powerhouse in July when his father, impresario James M. Nederlander, died.
One of James L.’s main innovations on the theatre scene is introducing specialty shows on nights where houses are dark, and the latest example of that arrived September 12 at the Marquis. “Lewis Black started performing Monday night and every Monday night from now to the election. He’s the comic’s comic—but also a very politically savvy comedian so we thought, ‘What perfect timing with the election: Lewis Black on Broadway.’”
As for the pending fate of Broadway’s Palace Theatre—jacking it up four floors and putting a merchandise mart under that, “I’m working on it.” He added, “If it does happen, it will probably take a couple of years, which is not a long time. That’s just two seasons that the Palace won’t be open for business.”