Monday, August 1, 2016

Closing the curtain

Curtain call for the Sunday matinee production of The National Ballet of Canada's "A Winter's Tale." Photo: JH.
Monday, August 1, 2016.  We’ve had quite frequent rain for the past three days here in New York. It has been hot, but dark clouds cover the Sun and keep out some of the heat, and the wet cools the bricks and mortar somewhat, giving us a useful relief.

Yesterday afternoon I went over to the Upper West Side to run some errands. The Upper East Side was very quiet. Little traffic so that you could look down or up and see mainly empty roadway. The UWS was another story. I’m talking 70s and 80s. A lot of people out, crowded pavement in some cases, and full-up street parking. There were crowds over by the American Museum of Natural History too. New Yorkers like to get out. It was a nice enough day and the ongoing threat of some rain was a pleasure to behold.
And on the Upper East Side, this was the line at the Guggenheim Museum ...
... which extended all the way around the corner to Madison Avenue!
James M Nederlander, the Broadway theater-owner/ producer, died last Monday. Known to the world as Jimmy, Mr. Nederlander celebrated his 94th birthday last March 31st. He leaves his wife Charlene, his son James L. Nederlander, also known as Jimmy; his daughter-in-law Margo McNabb Nederlander and two adored grandchildren.

I knew Mr. Nederlander to say hello to, although I don’t recall a conversation we shared. I know his wife Charlene and his son Jimmy and daughter-in-law Margo with whom I share several mutual friends. I often saw him out at benefits and galas with his wife at times. Although he wasn’t ambulatory in his later years, he obviously liked to get out and be among friends and acquaintances. He was a man who always had a warm smile and a natural modesty in bearing when introduced.  And he never quit.
James Nederlander (center).
I knew of course who he was because the Nederlanders are a major American theater family who could only be compared to the Shuberts. The Nederlanders hailed from Detroit, Shuberts from Syracuse. Before the age of radio and movies (as well as electricity), theatre in America was the entertainment outside of the printed word. By the end of the 19th century there were literally hundreds of stock companies touring the continent where its communities were often remote and hundreds of miles from the major cities. Nearly everybody who had the opportunity went to see plays and concerts with the same interest that we turn on the television and (alas) the cell phone. The theater business of those years was important, and the bedrock of the history of American celebrity.

I learned a great deal more about Jimmy Nederlander only recently in reading Michael Riedel’s compellingly engaging history of Broadway “Razzle Dazzle” which I wrote about on these pages a few weeks ago. In it he relates a story about Jimmy Nederlander’s father, David Tobias Nederlander (“D.T.”), who founded the family business  when he bought the Fisher Theater in Detroit which the family still owns more than a century later.
James Nederlander in 1983.
Manny Azenberg, a producer working for David Merrick in those days was traveling with a Merrick show, “I Can Get It For You Wholesale” (where Barbra Streisand got her first big notices with a song “Miss Marmelstein” the secretary-character she was playing).

Arriving in Detroit, Azenburg paid a call on D.T. Nederlander in his offices in the Fisher Theater. This was 1963. Azenburg walked into a scene where D.T., “a little man, shriveled up in a chair was ‘ripping the kishkas’ out of a tall man in front of him.” The tall guy was crying and the little man (D.T.) “in a high pitched nasal whine” was yelling “and you’re gonna lose your job you son of a bitch!”  Also in the room was a younger man pleading with his father: “Dad, please don’t do this. He didn’t know!”  The father replied with a scream, “Get him out of here!”

That younger man was D.T.’s son Jimmy. And so the guy left the office, where out in the hallway was another son of D.T. who told him not to worry, he was “re-hired.” Later Manny Azenburg found the reason for the man’s misstep in the first place. He had been hired as the house electrician at the Fisher and had read the theater’s meter and given the correct number of kilowatts for the month to the electric company. D.T.’s meter readers had long before followed the procedure: shave the number to save on expenses.
Margo McNabb Nederlander, Jimmy, son James, and wife Charlene.
D.T. Nederlander had started out as a jeweler and pawnbroker. In 1912, he came upon the opportunity to buy a 99-year lease on the Detroit Opera House and took it, even though he knew nothing about operating a theater.  It was taking a chance, as he put it to his son years later. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. In this transaction D.T. partnered with the two Shubert brothers, Lee and JJ Shubert because they were in New York and could supply bookings for the house.

Jimmy and his four brothers and one sister (he was the third child) grew up in theatre world in Detroit which in those days drew all the great stars of the stage and concert halls. All the famous stars of the day traveled the country to play these theatre circuits as well as the famous musical revues, including the Ziegfeld Follies, the Earl Carroll’s Vanities and George White’s Scandals. Jimmy started working in the theatre at age 7 in 1929, sweeping floors. By the late 1920s, DT Nederlander was a successful man living with his family in a big house in Detroit with his children in private schools.
The Detroit Opera House.
Then came the Depression. It hit the theater business hard. No money, no audience. D.T. avoided bankruptcy but downsizing in every way was priority. Everyone went to work, even the children. And whatever they made, they brought home to the parents. When the War came in 1942, Jimmy joined up to become an aviator. He didn’t have the eyesight for it, however. He ended up working on Moss Hart’s Winged Victory, a US Army commissioned play, a fundraiser that played on Broadway for a year and toured the country in 1943. I’m guessing but that must have been where the 20-year-old Jimmy got a taste of Broadway and the Big Town and it stayed with him forever after.
After the war he returned to Detroit and got himself started in the theater business in leasing a theater in Toledo. It didn’t work out. Then Minneapolis and St. Paul. Again, not the spark. He returned to New York working for D.T. In the late 1950s, the US Government made JJ Shubert (Lee had died) divest himself of many properties in New York and across the country. The theater in Detroit in which DT partnered with the Shuberts was up for sale. DT bought it and put his son in charge of booking. That meant frequent trips to New York looking for shows.

In 1965, Jimmy was in the city, and one day walking with a friend, he learned that the Palace Theater which was then owned by RKO was for sale. The friend suggested to Jimmy that he buy it. $1.4 million with $400,000 down. He went back to Detroit. His father thought he was crazy but nevertheless helped his son raise the money. In August 1965, Jimmy opened the first Nederlander office in the Palace Theater. Very run down at the time, he refurbished it and the first show for the re-opening was Bob Fosse’s “Sweet Charity” with Gwen Verdon. The show ran for a year. Jimmy thought it could have run longer but Fosse and Verdon (who were also married) were fighting a lot “and you never knew when she was gonna show up.”
The Palace Theatre, circa 1920.
Nevertheless, Jimmy started buying theaters. Not the best houses (the Shuberts owned most of those), but legit. He bought the Henry Miller’s Theater from Miller’s son’s widow Kitty Miller for $500,000. He told Michael Riedel years later that “Mrs. Miller went right out an bought a diamond bracelet with the money." He also started acquiring interest in other theaters including across the country.

During a career that spanned 70 years, Jimmy amassed a network of premier legitimate theatres, with nine theatres on Broadway -- the Brooks Atkinson, Gershwin, Lunt-Fontanne, Marquis, Minskoff, Nederlander, Neil Simon, Richard Rodgers, and the Palace; as well as theatres in Chicago including Auditorium and Bank of America Theatres, Broadway Playhouse, Cadillac Palace and Oriental Theatres; theatres in Los Angeles including, the magnificent Pantages Theatre; and in London, the Adelphi, Aldwych, and Dominion Theatres.

In his long career he produced more than one hundred of the most acclaimed Broadway musicals and plays of all time including Annie, Applause, La Cage aux Folles, Me and My Girl, Nine, Noises Off, Peter Pan, Sweet Charity, The Will Rogers Follies, Woman of the Year, and many more. His first really big hit came when he was 55 – Annie  which opened at the Alvin Theater (now the Neil Simon) on April 21, 1977, produced by Mike Nichols.
The original Broadway production of Annie in 1977.
It ran initially for 2377 performances and would become one of Broadways very first family shows. Raising money for it was not easy and Jimmy put in $150,000, giving him 20% ownership. He made more than a million from the Broadway run and more from the three national tours and the film rights. It was also significant for the Nederlanders as a Broadway theater family. It wasn’t just the Shuberts anymore, but also the Nederlanders.

In his career Jimmy Nederlander was involved with some of the world’s most distinguished performing companies, which he produced and presented on Broadway including: the Royal Shakespeare Company’s acclaimed productions of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Cyrano and Sherlock Holmes, Rudolf Nureyev and Friends, The Bolshoi Ballet, and the Virsky’s Ukrainian State Dance Company.
Marquis Theatre.
Richard Rodgers Theatre.
Minskoff Theatre.
Gershwin Theatre.
He also developed the outdoor amphitheatre concept as the developer of premier venues including the New Jersey Garden State Arts Center, Pine Knob Music Theatre, the Merriweather Post Pavilion, the Pacific Amphitheatre, and as the decades-long operator of the Greek Theatre where he presented headline artists including Tony Bennett, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Liza Minnelli, and Frank Sinatra, To name only a few.

He was a man known in his life long personal and business relationships as “generous,” “loyal” and “trusted.” In 1972, Jimmy and friends Earl Blackwell, Gerard Oestricher, and Arnold Weissberger founded the Theatre Hall of Fame, which is still housed in the lobby of the Gershwin Theatre. In 1973, he partnered with George Steinbrenner to purchase the New York Yankees.
Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
Nederlander Theatre.
Neil Simon Theatre.
Palace Theatre.
Beloved by the industry, and feted with awards, Jimmy was the recipient of many distinguished honors including the United Nations Foundation Champion Award (2012), The Broadway League’s Schoenfeld Vision for Arts Education Award (2011), the New York Pop’s Man of the Year (2008), the Tony Award® Special Tony Award for Life Time Achievement (2004), The Actors’ Fund Medal of Honor (2002), United Jewish Appeal-New York Federations’ Bernard B. Jacobs Excellence in the Theatre Award (1997), and the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located outside the Pantages Theatre at 6233 Hollywood Blvd.

In 2009, The National High School Musical Theater Award was established and named The Jimmy® to celebrate his career-long dedication to supporting young talent. Jimmy received an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts at the Forty-third Commencement exercises at The University of Connecticut School of Medicine, School of Dental Medicine and Graduate School on Monday, May 12, 2014.

The boy with the broom at age 7 sweeping the lobby of his father’s first theater in Detroit, swept his way into the world of Broadway legend all the while beloved and admired by his friends and colleagues. It was a great, long life.

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