History Of The Nederlander Theatre On Broadway

History Of The Nederlander Theatre On Broadway

Feature Photo: Hendrickson Photography / Shutterstock.com

The Nederlander Theatre is named for David Tobias Nederlander, the man who founded the Nederlander Organization in 1912. It isn’t the most impressive-looking Broadway Theater from the outside. Still, one can make a decent case that this gives it a distinctive character, thus enabling it to stand out from its counterparts. Location-wise, the Nederlander Theatre stands out because its address at 208 West 41st Street makes it the southernmost Broadway Theater. This wasn’t the original intention. It became the southernmost Broadway Theater by default because it survived what other venues in the vicinity did not.

A Theater That Wasn’t Intended to Be a Theater

Some people might wonder why the Nederlander Theatre doesn’t look like a theater. Some Broadway Theaters were built while sparing no expense. In contrast, other Broadway Theaters were built on much leaner budgets. Despite this, people tended to put serious effort into making these venues look either attractive or otherwise interesting, which makes sense because their exteriors have an enormous effect on their ability to bring in theater-goers.

In comparison, the Nederlander Theatre is a more practical-looking sort of building. Its exterior is made out of brick, which is a very sensible choice of building material that can be wonderfully ornamented. The curious thing is that not much effort was put into this, which is why the venue blends into its surroundings. If it wasn’t for the marquee, it would look more or less the same as countless other brick buildings in countless other cities. There is even what seems to be a fully-functional iron fire escape bolted onto the second and third floors.

Everything makes more sense when one learns that the Nederlander Theatre was meant to house a carpenter’s shop and other facilities in 1920. That didn’t last long because a man named Walter Jordan bought it before renovating it into a theater at an estimated cost of $175,000 in 1921. The then-named National Theatre acquired a fine reputation for its comfortable lounges and dressing rooms, even though it is known that it saw the use of cost-saving measures in certain places. In particular, its walnut paneling was plaster painted to look like walnut paneling.

Under Various Parties

Jordan ran into serious financial problems just a few years later. Eventually, the Shubert Brothers bought the then-named National Theatre in February 1927. That might not have been the best timing because that was just a short time before the Great Depression started in September 1929. The National Theatre was not exempt from the hammering that most Broadway Theaters experienced in this period. As a result, it came very close to being demolished because it wasn’t generating enough value when compared with how real estate prices were going up in the general area in the mid-1930s. Luckily, the venue survived this period, as shown by how it is still standing today.

Antitrust Issues

The Shubert Organization’s control of the National Theatre ended in the 1950s. That was the decade in which the U.S. federal government sued because it owned close to half of the legitimate theaters operating in New York City. In 1956, the Shubert Organization settled the lawsuit by agreeing to sell the National Theatre within a year and three other theaters within two years. Harry Fromkes became the first buyer of the National Theatre in September 1956. He didn’t own the venue for long because he died from fall-related complications in February 1958. Subsequently, Billy Rose became the second buyer in June 1958.

Under Billy Rose

Billy Rose is notable because he renovated the venue before renaming it for himself. His changes ranged from a new color scheme to a new set of purely-ornamental stage boxes. With that said, his enthusiasm doesn’t seem to have been shared by other parties to the same extent because the venue often stood empty from the late 1950s to the late 1970s. The situation worsened when ownership passed from Billy Rose to the Billy Rose Foundation upon his death because the latter didn’t consider the venue one of its top priorities.

Under the Nederlander Organization

Fortunately, the Billy Rose Theatre came under the Nederlander Organization and its partners’ control in 1978. The venue received an initial rename as the Trafalgar Theatre, which was meant to conjure up British connotations. After all, London is home to Trafalgar Square, which is named for the battle that confirmed the British Navy’s superiority in the Napoleonic Wars when the former defeated its French and Spanish counterparts off of Cape Trafalgar. The venue hosted just two productions before it received a second rename to the Nederlander Theatre. As mentioned earlier, that was meant to honor David Tobias Nederlander, who was the father of James M. Nederlander and the grandfather of James L. Nederlander.

In the 1980s, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission started looking into ways to preserve Broadway Theaters. Its solution was to hand out official landmark status to these venues, which would limit what their owners could and couldn’t do to them. Its designations didn’t always go through. There are Broadway Theaters that failed to receive official landmark status for either their exterior or their interior. The Nederlander Organization was notable because it is one of a very small number of Broadway Theaters that didn’t get official landmark status for either their exterior or their interior.

Rent

The most notable thing to happen to the Nederlander Theatre in recent decades might be its hosting of Rent from 1996 to 2008. That didn’t happen because of particularly flattering reasons. As the story goes, the people behind Rent wanted a venue with run-down surroundings because that reflected the setting of the musical. The Nederlander Theatre was a good fit for that description in those days. Ironically enough, the subsequent success of Rent is said to have contributed much to the rejuvenation of the area.

Following Rent, the Nederlander Organization went through a renovation to restore some of its original decorations while making other changes of more practical benefit. It has been hosting shows ever since. Some of these shows have been successes, while others have been failures. Regardless, the Nederlander Theatre seems to be in a much better condition than in the past, though it remains to be seen whether this will continue to hold in the future.

References:

Bloom, Ken. Broadway: Its History, People, and Places: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2004.

https://broadwaydirect.com/theatre/nederlander-theatre/#section-history

Jackson, Kenneth T. The Encyclopedia of New York City. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

Haskell, David. The Encyclopedia of New York. New York: Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2020.

https://www.nj.com/entertainment/arts/2008/10/curtain_call.html

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