In “Secret Word,” a recent Saturday Night Live sketch parodying a 1960s game show, one of the contestants, a Broadway star, guessed that the word might be “Nederlander.” For the last two weeks, on an episode of Smash, the NBC television drama series about the making of a Broadway musical, Anjelica Huston, who plays a producer, has dropped the name “Nederlander” when boasting about a big industry name who was attracted to her musical project. Who or what is Nederlander? Well, if you’ve attended a show or a concert in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose, not to mention Durham and North Charleston, SC, or even London, there’s a good chance you might have visited a venue owned or operated by The Nederlander Organization. To the entertainment industry, the name “Nederlander” represents a uniquely personal and century-old commitment to the best in live entertainment.
The “Family” Business
“We are a family-owned business and we’re here to stay,” declares James L. Nederlander, the president of the New York-based organization. Jimmy Jr., as his colleagues and friends know him, is the third generation in the family to carry on the show-business traditions begun one hundred years ago by his grandfather, David T. Nederlander, in Detroit, Michigan.
It all started in 1912 when the founder, David, then a 26 year-old retailer, took on the management of the old Detroit Opera House. In 1939, his seventeen-year-old son, James M. (“Jimmy” as he is universally known), left school to join the by now well-established family theater business. He learned the trade from the bottom up – sweeping the lobby, working as an usher and a stagehand and selling tickets in the box office. By 1943, the family had expanded their theater holdings in Michigan, and Jimmy, now a serviceman in the Air Force, was working as box-office treasurer for a production of Moss Hart’s Winged Victory. Jimmy started to make his own theater connections in New York. “My father knew that to grow the business he had to leave Michigan,” says Jimmy Jr.
In 1964, Jimmy Sr. headed to New York and made the bold move to purchase the Palace Theatre, a historic vaudeville house that had gone into decline. In 1966, after a two-year renovation, the Nederlanders reopened the Palace with Bob Fosse’s production of Sweet Charity, starring Gwen Verdon. Since then, the theatre has been home to a string of hits including Applause, Woman of the Year, La Cage aux Follies, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Legally Blonde: The Musical, West Side Story and its current hit, Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Today, the Palace is one of the prized jewels in the Nederlander collection of historic and architectural landmark theatres. In the decades since Jimmy purchased the theatre on 47th Street & 7th Avenue, his company has grown into one of the largest privately held theatre owner/operators and live entertainment producers/presenters in the world.
Just as his father had done before him, Jimmy Jr. moved into the business, in lieu of a college education. “I took business courses for a couple of years, but then I thought there is no one who can teach me more about theater than my father,” he reports, adding, “I always said to Dad that I wanted to work with him and be a part of this company.” He had, in fact, been part of it from a very early age, helping out with subscriptions and box-office duties. “I was hooked as a very little boy, listening to my father talk with my grandfather,” he says, recalling that one of the first shows he saw as a little boy was a production of Pinocchio in Detroit. Although Jimmy Jr. oversees the daily operation of the business now, his father, who celebrates his 90th birthday this month, is still his collaborator on all of the company’s ventures. “I value my dad’s opinion and the wisdom he gained from working with his father through the years,” he says. “I used to wonder how he knew all these answers, and he’d say ‘Because, son, I’ve been down this road.’”
Over the years, the Nederlanders have nurtured personal and long-standing professional relationships with the industry’s most distinguished artists and business leaders, as a result of Jimmy Nederlander Sr.s’ far-ranging business activities. Jimmy Jr. says his father has “a handshake deal” for all the rights to Jerry Herman’s shows. Given the Tony® Award-winning composer-lyricist’s roster of hits including Hello Dolly!, Mame, and La Cage aux Folles, that’s certainly a deal to be treasured. It’s loyalty, not deal-making, that has generated a legion of fans like England’s Royal Shakespeare Company, whose relationship began when Nederlander presented Sherlock Holmes on Broadway in 1974 and made global headlines years later with their triumphant Broadway engagement of The Life and Times of Nicholas Nickleby, the eight-hour two-part marathon that became a major cultural event in New York and Los Angeles.
The decades-long relationship with Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber started when his productions including Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Starlight Express, and Sunset Boulevard played a Nederlander theatre on Broadway. As a result of their mutual respect and successful business collaboration, the Nederlanders and Webber’s company The Really Useful Group are now partners in the ownership of Adelphi Theatre in London. And this season, two of his shows, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita are back on Broadway at a Nederlander theatre.
One of Nederlanders’ most prolific business collaborations is with the Walt Disney Company that dates back to 1994 when Disney’s Beauty and the Beast opened at the Palace Theatre. Since then, Aida, Disney’s Tarzan, The Little Mermaid and, this season’s much anticipated new show, Newsies, all found a home at a Nederlander address. Fittingly, in 2006, Nederlander turned their grand Minskoff Theatre into a stately new home for Disney’s The Lion King where it now reigns over Broadway.
“My dad believes in supporting talent—both onstage and behind-the-scenes, especially when they’re just starting out because that’s when they need support,” says Jimmy Jr. Audiences may not know their names, but for talented producers like David Stone, Kevin McCollum and Jeffrey Seller, and Hal Luftig, Jimmy Nederlander Sr. played an important role in nurturing their early careers. These now prolific professionals have produced landmark shows such as Wicked, Rent and Legally Blonde respectively—all of which enjoyed great success in Nederlander theatres. One name that will forever be linked to Nederlander is Annie, the little red-head known around the globe, who made her Broadway debut in 1977. Leapin’ Lizards! Annie will be back on Broadway next season, playing at a Nederlander theatre.
Hits and Headliners
Nederlander is also a familiar name to concert lovers for over five decades. From Broadway to Yankee Stadium and the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, to the world’s most prestigious concert halls, the company has been one of the most astute presenters of headline talent from Billy Joel, U2, Paul McCartney, Adele, and Florence and the Machine to Judy Garland, Tony Bennett and Barry Manilow, to mention a few.
“Today’s audiences are interested in many entertainment genres,” says Jimmy Jr. “Therefore, it’s important to us to present the best entertainment we can find—no matter where it comes from.” Nederlander has been a pioneer in helping world-class artists cross over into other artforms. Modern dance director/choreographer Twyla Tharp’s breakthrough theatrical productions of Movin’ Out featuring the music of Billy Joel is a great example of a ground-breaking show Nederlander produced on Broadway to appeal to a broad multi-generational audience. “We are very lucky to work with artists who continue to push their creative boundaries and are committed to supporting them as they envision their work for Broadway,” says Nederlander.
Two current hits similarly transformed for the stage are Priscilla Queen of the Desert, which Nederlander is co-producing with Bette Midler, and Spiderman: Turn off the Dark, which is still flying high after defying all predictions of an early demise. “The process from seed to standing room can take anywhere from six months to six years – getting the rights for a show alone could take a year,” Jimmy Jr. explains. “But one of the greatest highs in the world is when you stand at the back of the theater and see people laugh or cry at a show that you have produced.”
Combining their passion for the theater with an entrepreneurial spirit, the Nederlanders have always been innovators looking for viable ways to improve their business. Jimmy Jr. embraces his father’s axiom, “Every day you have to be moving forward,” when it comes to new ideas. Having moved into the concert business in the 1960s, Jimmy Sr. is credited with pioneering the concept of the outdoor amphitheater as a performance venue for headlining artists. In 1992, the Nederlanders and Ticketmaster were the first to give Broadway theatergoers the ability to select their own seat-location—a service that many feared would negatively impact the industry. 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 $20—which resulted in a line at the theatre for the next 15 years.
In addition to producing and presenting popular shows, Jimmy Jr. is also committed to making sure Nederlander audiences have a great experience. “One of my dreams,” he says, “is for our customers to get easy access to information on what’s playing at other Nederlander venues around the country and even in London. Our customers are important to us and we believe that good service helps contribute to wonderful memories of their visit to our venues.”
Consider it done. Nederlander venues and presentations are now integrated online and the company recently launched an entertainment e-zine called Broadway Direct that is distributed twice a month to 2.5 million Nederlander customers. Putting the industry first, Nederlander spearheaded the creation of a coalition of theatre owners on Broadway and around the country to launch Audience Rewards, a customer benefit program, that is now “the official loyalty program of Broadway,” serving 1.2 million theatergoers nationwide.
Passing on the Traditions of the Business of Show
The theater business, of course, can be notoriously unpredictable and the Nederlanders have had their share of misses—remember the ill-fated Peter Allen vehicle Legs Diamond. “My father would say, no one can pick a hit from a flop,” recalls Jimmy Jr. “You just have to go on to the next one,” says Jimmy Jr. “That’s one of the other things I learned from my father — take off your emotional hat, put on your financial one and just close it. My father always says, ‘I’m in the moving business — move them in and move them out!’”
Jimmy Jr. is now a dad himself, although it may be a little early to start talking about the fourth generation—his twins are just three-months old. But he has another lesson he learned from his dad as he looks toward the future of the organization. “What I value most in this business is the personal touch,” he says. “We try to make everybody feel like it’s their home when they come into our theater. That’s the key: whether you are a producer, a general manager or the theatergoer. As they say, our home is your home. The word “Nederlander” may not sell tickets, but if you come into one of our theatres, we want you to have such a great experience that you’ll look forward to coming back again.”