Broadway giant James ‘Jimmy’ Nederlander dies at 94

Detroit native joined his family’s business when the Nederlander Organization purchased a lease on the Detroit Opera House in 1912

Mark Kennedy
Associated Press

New York — James M. Nederlander, the Detroit boy who took over the fledgling Nederlander Organization from his father and built it into one of the largest producers of live entertainment and a dominant national theater chain that includes nine Broadway houses, died on Monday.

Nederlander, known as Jimmy, was 94. The cause of death was not disclosed.

“There was only one Jimmy Nederlander,” said Alan Lichtenstein, who heads the Nederlander Organization’s Broadway in Detroit series and knew the man for 35 years.

“He was a great impresario and Broadway producer,” Lichtenstein said, “and just a heck of a guy. Great sense of humor, passion for the business, and insights into theater and people.”

After he moved to New York, the elder Nederlander, produced or co-produced more than 100 shows, including “Annie,” “Copenhagen,” “The Will Rogers Follies,” “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” “La Cage aux Folles,” “Nine,” “Noises Off” and “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.”

Lichtenstein points out that many of Broadway’s all-time biggest hits, including “Hello Dolly” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” had their tryouts at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre before moving to New York.

Nederlander famously rejected anyone who claimed to have a rational way to predict which shows would be hits as opposed to flops.

“Nobody can,” he would say. “I trust my gut.”

He won a dozen Tony Awards as a producer or co-producer — including a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2004 — and has presented operas, ballets, concerts and artists ranging from Rudolf Nureyev to Frank Sinatra to U2.

Condolences were quick to arrive. Theater icon Andrew Lloyd Webber tweeted: “Farewell Jimmy, truly the end of a great theatrical era.” Kate Shindle, the president of the Actors Equity Association union wrote: “RIP to a true titan.”

The Nederlander Organization is one of three big theater chains on Broadway. The Shubert Organization owns 16 theaters outright, and Jujamcyn Theaters owns five. Nederlander’s stable is bigger than its rivals once its theaters nationwide and in London are added to the mix.

One of Nederlander’s most lucrative business collaborations is with the Walt Disney Co., which started in 1994 when Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” opened at the Palace Theatre. Since then, “Aida,” “Tarzan,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Newsies” all found a home at a Nederlander house. Nederlander’s Minskoff Theatre is the home of Disney’s “The Lion King.”

Founded by David T. Nederlander, the Nederlander Organization began in 1912 with the purchase of a 99-year lease on the old Detroit Opera House. In 1939, the then-17-year-old Jimmy left school to join the family business — sweeping the lobby, working as an usher and a stagehand and selling tickets in the box office.

The family owned various houses in Detroit, including the old Cass Theater, as well as the Lafayette, “right across from Lafayette Coney Island,” Lichtenstein said, “where that parking structure is now.”

By 1943, Jimmy Nederlander was in New York City as a serviceman in the Army Air Forces and worked as box-office treasurer for a production of Moss Hart’s “Winged Victory.” In 1964, his father bought the Palace Theatre, a historic vaudeville house that had gone into decline. After a two-year renovation, Nederlander’s reopened the Palace with Bob Fosse’s production of “Sweet Charity,” starring Gwen Verdon. After his father died in 1967, Nederlander took over running the family business.

In addition to the Palace, Nederlander’s eight other Broadway venues in New York are the Brooks Atkinson, Gershwin, Lunt-Fontanne, Marquis, Minskoff, Nederlander, Richard Rodgers and Neil Simon theaters.

Outside New York, its venues include the Auditorium and Bank of America theatres, the Broadway Playhouse, Cadillac Palace and Oriental theatres, all in Chicago; the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles; and the Adelphi, Aldwych and Dominion theatres in London.

Innovative ways to get people into those arenas prompted changes to the industry that continue to be felt. In 1992, Nederlander’s and Ticketmaster were the first to give Broadway theatergoers the ability to select their own seat location.

The concept of the student lottery ticket was reimagined at the David T. Nederlander Theatre when young fans of “Rent” could get seats in the first two rows of the theatre for just $20.

With Nederlander’s son, Jimmy Jr. currently overseeing the organization’s daily operation, the Nederlander Organization has passed the baton to a third generation. His nephew, Robert Nederlander Jr., is president of Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment, which manages theaters and presents Broadway productions in international markets.

Nederlander also is survived by his wife, Charlene S. Nederlander; daughter-in-law Margo M. Nederlander; his grandchildren, James M. Nederlander II and Kathleen M. Nederlander; his stepdaughter, Kristina Gustafson; and her children, Gunnar and Krisanna Gustafson. Funeral services will be Thursday.

One of Jimmy Nederlander’s legacies was his backing of the next generation of Broadway stars, through sponsoring The National High School Musical Theater Awards.

The annual competition culminates each June with a trip to New York, mentoring from veterans and then a night of performances from dozens of hopefuls from across the country. They are called The Jimmy Awards.

Detroit News Michael H. Hodges contributed.