In his final Icon’s special DJ Michael Keohan takes a look at the life and times of media mogul Lord Lew Grade, the man who made Associated Television one of ITV’s most successful companies.
If you read the books released, and documentaries about ITV, by young upstarts, you’d be mistaken for thinking that ATV and Lew Grade were the bastions of cheap song and dance broadcasting. The truth however is a very different story. Associated Television at its peak, overseen by Grade, provided a wide mix of television fare from lavish dramas to hard-hitting documentaries.
The life story of Lew Grade could be a big-screen movie itself. A tale of an immigrant family, fallen on hard times, who became not only comfortable thanks to clever business ventures; but ended up playing a key part in British theatre, music, and television history. Lord Lew has been the subject of many honors and television and radio tributes.
1988 saw Channel 4 host a celebration of ATV and Grade while BBC Two in 1995 dedicated an entire evening to the media mogul and, to mark what would have been his 100th birthday, BBC Radio 2 paid tribute to the man who gave ITV some of its best known, top rating, productions with a documentary series.
Isaac Winogradsky and wife Olga arrived in the UK from Russia in 1912, with their two young sons, just one of many 100s of immigrant families looking for a better life in Great Britain. From the early 1900s through to the 1930s over 61 million people shifted around searching for a new place to call home. Many moved to America or Australia but for the Winogradsky’s – and 150,000 other Russian Jews – it was to be England they’d settle.
Isaac was from Odessa, where he was born in 1879, the oldest of four children. The family connection to show business starts right back in the earliest days of silent movies as Isaac’s father was one of the first to operate a Cinema in the town and possibly the country.
Golda Mary ‘Olga’ Eisenstadt was born not far from Odessa in Alexandrovsk in 1888. She was one of six children – three boys and three girls. Her father was a businessman who ran a company that sold timber. The female side of the family first took steps into showbiz with Olga when she joined a local amateur theatre group.
Fate had also seen Isaac take up performing and during a tour, the pair met over the footlights. They married in 1906 and on December 25th of that year Louis (Lew) was born. The eldest would be joined by Boris (Bernard) on September 5th 1909, Laszlo (Leslie) on 3rd June 1916, and finally on 23rd January 1925 Rita.
In Russia Issac operated two picture houses before taking the decision to relocate to the East End of London in 1912, joining two of Olga’s brothers. The couple decided to leave following an increase in violent attacks by local non-Jewish populations on Jews in the Russian Empire. While the Winogradsky’s hadn’t personally suffered any ‘pogroms‘ they wanted out before the situation deteriorated.
An eight-year old Louis at Rochelle Street School
Initially, the family lived with relatives in a flat above a shop in Brick Lane and continuing in the world of films Isaac took over a cinema, The Mile End Palladium, on Mile End Road – a sign of things to come, possibly. However, while the venture was hugely successful the First World War put an end to the business – when the building was severely damaged by a bomb forcing it to shut down. The money made by the sale of the two Russian picture houses had been lost to the rubble. Isaac spent the rest of his working life in the tailoring trade. He died in 1935.
Moving to Henley House, Boundary Estate, Bethnal Green, Louis and his brother Boris joined Rochelle Street School for their education. One fellow student who went onto major success was musician Joe Loss – who would later star on several ATV series. Louis’ school time is noted as being more productive than Boris, while the elder brother excelled, Boris self-admitted he ‘wasn’t interested in learning’. In 1920 the family moved again, to Finsbury. At this time Louis was planning to be an accountant, although his first job was with a clothing company.
It was five years later when Louis took his first dance steps into showbiz, all thanks to a dance craze that had swept America and was now making the ballroom floors shake in the UK – the Charleston.
Dance Halls, such as the East Ham Palais and Tottenham Palace, were running competitions and cash prizes for the best Charleston dancers. Louis and Boris decided to learn the steps and win some prizes. And prizes were won, later the duo became a trio with pal Harry Tasker, a barbers assistant, joining them for competitions.
Louis also ventured into ballroom dancing partnering with a young girl called Fay Zack. Fay recalled in 1981 to journalist Hunter Davis that Louis was hopeless at ballroom dancing, but had been excellent at the Charleston.
While professionally the couple were dance floor dynamite Fay wasn’t keen on Louis out of the spotlights – calling him ‘ruthless’ and ‘bombastic’. During this partnership, Louis wooed a rival dance competitors manager – and gained his first professional dancing gig – two weeks performing at the Canterbury Club. However, it was a solo deal and Fay was dumped. Louis Grad was the first stage name he used with many professional gigs and dance competitions featuring the Charleston star.
Another dancing partnership was formed when Louis teamed up with Al Goldmaker. The pair became known as Grad and Gold. Together they made theatre appearances in a number of variety shows and theatre productions including The Shirley Follies, this saw the boys backed with a string of Tiller-Girl style tappers. Grad and Gold toured the UK and Europe and while in Paris the name which would become legendary in the world of television and showbiz was born.
A typo on a billboard saw for the first time Grade and Gold appearing. Louis liked the name and the family adopted it thereafter. There were also first name changes with Louis becoming Lew and brothers Boris and Laszlo becoming Bernard and Leslie respectively.
After two years Grade and Gold went their separate ways following, as so often in the world of show business, ‘creative differences’. There were a number of co-dancers after Al, and spells of Lew appearing as a solo artist, his agent through the 1930s was Joe Collins – the father of actress Joan and author Jackie. As Lew approached his thirties he realised his dancing days were not going to last much longer. He had also for some time been spotting new talent and helping the novice dancers make contact with agents, until one day he realised he should be the agent.
Al Gold and Lew Grade, a dancing partnership
Speaking in an ATV interview in 1978 Lew noted “I just had a knack for knowing talent when I saw it. …I thought, why am I giving these acts away to agents; when I could be an agent myself?!” Grade as an agent signed up impressionist Maurice Lee as his first act, on the recommendation of former dance partner Al Gold. It was a short-lived agent-client situation when Lee’s parents stepped in and decided against their son becoming a performer.
Lew, never beaten, teamed up with his former agent Joe Collins to form Collins and Grade Associates. It was 1935. This union was to set the whole future of Lew as a media mogul into motion. Via his agent role he began making arrangements with the London Palladium and a friendship with its Managing Director Val Parnell was founded, a friendship that would in later years prove unstoppable in the world of television variety – but that’s another story.
Information from: ‘Still Dancing’, 1988, Lew Grade, ‘The Grades’, 1981, Hunter Davis, ‘IBA: ITV in Britain: Volume 1’, 1982, Bernard Sendall and ‘The Persuader: Lew Grade’, 1995, BBC Two Television. Pictures by: Lew Grade/ATV Archive.
Michael Keohan is a radio presenter and has worked for stations including Lite FM and Capital Radio.
He also from 2008-2009 wrote a monthly personal showbiz column for ATV Today.
ATV Icons celebrate the names past and present who have given a great deal to British Culture.