Erlanger was born to a Jewish family in Buffalo, New York. Erlanger and his partner, Kentucky lawyer Marc Klaw, started out as a theatrical booking agency in New York City in 1888. Immensely successful, together they built a large chain of theatres and vaudeville playhouses. In 1896 they joined with theatre operators Al Hayman, Charles Frohman, Samuel F. Nixon, and Fred Zimmerman to form the Theatrical Syndicate. Their organization, known as "Klaw & Erlanger", established systemized booking networks throughout the United States and created a monopoly that controlled every aspect of contracts and bookings until the late 1910s when the Shubert brothers broke their hold on the industry.
The operations of Klaw & Erlanger produced dozens of Broadway shows during the first three decades of the 20th century, including Dracula, Ben-Hur, and The Jazz Singer. They produced the first Ziegfeld Follies in 1907 at the rooftop "Jardin de Paris" in New York City. They also built several of Broadway's most outstanding theaters such as the art nouveau New Amsterdam Theatre in 1903 and in 1927 Erlanger's Theatre (renamed the St. James) plus the new Erlanger Theatre in Philadelphia. Also in 1927, he leased a newly built theatre in Buffalo, New York and applied the Erlanger name to it. In addition to playhouses, he and his partner owned the "Klaw & Erlanger Opera Company" and "Klaw and Erlanger's Costume Company."
Erlanger's cold disdain and ruthless tactics helped bring about his own downfall. He made a bitter enemy of the Shubert brothers after Sam Shubert died in a train wreck in 1905, when he is said to have refused to abide by any legal agreements "with a dead man." The enraged Shubert brothers Lee and Jacob began an all out campaign to wrestle power in the industry away from the Theatrical Syndicate. In 1910, he drew the ire of New York mayor William Jay Gaynor when one of his theaters hosted The Girl with the Whooping Cough, a risque farce that the mayor condemned as indecent. In 1919, after he dismissed out of hand the demands of the Actors' Equity Association, the labor union launched a strike that eventually shut down all the theatres in New York City, Chicago, and Boston. In the end, Erlanger suffered large financial losses and had no choice but to accede to union demands.
The strike spelled the demise of his once powerful organization and the partnership of Klaw & Erlanger produced their last Broadway show in 1919 (The Velvet Lady). Erlanger continued to produce on Broadway. He died on March 7, 1930. He is interred at Beth El Cemetery in Ridgewood, New York.
According to Groucho Marx, when Erlanger approached Gen. Lew Wallace about acquiring the stage rights to his epic novel Ben-Hur, Wallace asked him fiercely, "Do you believe in our lord, Jesus Christ?" Erlanger responded, "Frankly, I don't. My partner Klaw does—but he's up in Boston!"
Theaters controlled by Erlanger include:
- Erlanger Theatre
- Fulton Theatre
- Gaiety Theatre
- Knickerbocker Theatre
- Liberty Theatre
- Henry Miller's Theatre
- New Amsterdam Theatre
- New Amsterdam Roof
- Erlanger Theatre (Atlanta)
- Colonial Theatre (Boston)
- Hollis Street Theatre (Boston)
- Tremont Theatre (Boston)
- Erlanger Theatre (Buffalo)
- Blackstone Theatre (Chicago)
- Erlanger Theatre (Chicago)
- Illinois Theatre (Chicago)
- Grand Opera House (Cincinnati)
- Biltmore Theatre (Los Angeles)
- Mason Theatre (Los Angeles)
- Crescent Theatre (New Orleans)
- Tulane Theatre (New Orleans)
- Erlanger Theatre (Philadelphia)
- Nixon Theatre (Pittsburgh)
- Metropolitan Theatre (Seattle)
- American Theatre (St. Louis)
- Jewish Telegraph Agency: "Funeral Services for A. L. Erlanger, Theatrical Magnate" March 10, 1930
- Tenney, John. "Marc Klaw." In Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 4, edited by Jeffrey Fear. German Historical Institute. Last modified March 19, 2014.
- Jewish Daily Forward: "Finding an Audience: Years of Invisibility" by Stuart Klawans April 9, 2004
- Ingham, John N. (1 January 1983). Biographical Dictionary of American Business Leaders, Volume 2. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 725. Retrieved 11 February 2019.
- "A.L. Erlanger Broadway Listings" Internet Broadway Database, accessed December 2, 2011
- Kenrick, John.Ziegfeld 101" musicals101.com, accessed December 3, 2011
- Kenrick, John."New Amsterdam Theatre History" musicals101.com, accessed December 2, 2011
- Kenrick, John."St. James Theatre History" musicals101.com, accessed December 2, 2011
- LaChiusa, Chuck."Erlanger Theatre, Buffalo, NY" accessed March 21, 2013
- Trager, James."1905"The New York Chronology (2003), Harper Collins Publishers, Inc., ISBN 0-06-052341-7, p.296
- "Mayor Cuts Off an Indecent Play" (PDF). The New York Times. May 11, 1910. Retrieved August 9, 2013.
- "A.L. Erlanger Dies After Long Illness"The New York Times (abstract), March 8, 1930
- "Who Owns the Theatres?". The New York Times. 20 November 1927. Retrieved 2013-08-23.