Joseph Nederlander
Joseph Nederlander

Joseph Nederlander, who continued to frequent Fisher Theatre productions after his retirement years ago, was described as a “theater innovator” and “really nice guy” by his brother Robert during the May 4 private graveside service

Joseph Z. Nederlander, raised in a family of theater entrepreneurs and a key force in the Detroit theater scene, died May 1, 2021, after a battle with Parkinson’s disease.

It was exactly one month before he could celebrate his 94th birthday and one month after the family-owned Fisher Theatre was sold to International Entertainment Holdings Limited, parent company of Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), a live theater and ticketing organization based in the United Kingdom.

Nederlander, who continued to frequent Fisher Theatre productions after his retirement years ago, was described as a “theater innovator” and “really nice guy” by his brother Robert during the May 4 private graveside service.

“He provided this country with opportunities for entertainment,” Robert said.

While outlining the family history that preceded the entry of their father, David Tobias Nederlander, into stage interests and production spaces, Robert Nederlander credited Joseph as being responsible for establishing the Pine Knob Music Theatre, now DTE Energy Theatre, as the first private amphitheater in the United States and accelerating the growth of outdoor entertainment.

Joseph, also responsible for innovating the ultimately widespread use of subscription ticketing, remained in Michigan after brothers Robert and James moved to New York in 1964 to extend family operations through theater spaces around the country and into England.

“Deep love for the theater has been [the driving force] for the family’s success,” Joseph Nederlander told the Detroit Jewish News in 2017, when he described Fiddler on the Roof as holding the top spot in his list of favorite shows.

Metro Detroiters were introduced to many hit productions through the work of Joseph Nederlander. Fiddler and Hello, Dolly! were among the productions he championed through pre-Broadway tryouts at the Fisher, now in its 60th anniversary.

Joseph remembered spending lots of time with lyricist Sheldon Harnick as Fiddler was being revised and recalled establishing a friendship with Jerry Herman, Hello, Dolly! composer-lyricist, who invited Joseph to home parties.

When the Detroit Jewish News was celebrating its 75th year, Joseph Nederlander commented on his family’s business developments and its use of the newspaper as part of family members’ interest in their Jewish heritage.

“Actors coming to Detroit for the first time have been told to read Danny Raskin’s [column],” Nederlander had said. “Danny would help them decide where to eat. He was a big help to us. His column was important as we sent newspapers ahead of bookings. A lot of people wanted to know where to get a good corned beef sandwich.”

A Big Heart

Nephew Steven Nederlander eulogized his uncle as a “second dad” with “a heart the size of Texas.” He commented about his uncle’s ability to establish close relationships with everyone from stars to stagehands and his skills in helping the family with union negotiations.

“He was a loving man, and a loved man,” said Steven, who referenced the range of email senders expressing condolences.

Alan Lichtenstein, 40-year executive director for Nederlander programming in Detroit and sometimes San Francisco, has recalled that Joseph had been a voter for the Tony Awards and offered the use of his New York apartment when Lichtenstein went to scout shows to bring to Detroit.

Rabbi Daniel Syme of Temple Beth El, who officiated at Joseph’s marriage to Carol Jacoby 21 years ago, outlined Joseph’s history in graduating from Pontiac High School, very briefly attending Wayne State University and serving in the Navy before joining the family enterprise.

The rabbi told how Joseph invited personal friends backstage to meet favorite entertainers and once cast a doctor friend in a bit part to fulfill the man’s dreams of being an actor. The doctor, also acting out Joseph’s humor, became a stiff in Arsenic and Old Lace.

“Joey was a people person,” Rabbi Syme said, describing him as a “giant of the theater” and “a beloved friend.”

Joseph Z. Nederlander is survived by his wife Carol Jacoby Nederlander; children, John J. “J.J.” Nederlander and Penelope Nederlander (Lisa Gauger). He was Papa Joe of Andrea Jacoby (Roger) Sherr and their children, Mitchel Sherr, Valaire Sherr, and Spencer Sherr; Corey (Suzanne) Jacoby and their children, Katlin Jacoby, Emily Jacoby, Michael Jacoby; Jenny Jacoby (Dennis) Finos and their children, Kyle Finos and Eddie Finos; T.J. Nederlander, David Nederlander, the late Joey Nederlander, Alexis Nederlander and Jaclynne Nederlander.

He was the brother of Robert (the late Gladys) Nederlander, the late Harry (the late Margie) Nederlander, the late James (the late Charlene) Nederlander, the late Frederick (the late Betty) Nederlander, and the late Frances (the late Stanley) Kohn.

Interment was at Clover Hill Memorial Park. Contributions may be made to the Michigan Parkinson Foundation, 30400 Telegraph Road, Suite 150, Bingham Farms, MI 48025. (248) 433-1011, Arrangements were by Ira Kaufman Chapel.