Lew Grade, the famous English entertainment impresario who critics loved to disparage as “Sir Low Grade” but who was knighted and later raised to the peerage, was born Lovat Winogradsky on December 25, 1906 in Tokmak, Ukraine, in the former Russian Empire. (Some sources list his first name as Lev, which would be Leo. in English. Lev is translated from Russian as Lion.) His parents Isaac and Golda, who were Jewish, emigrated to England in 1912 to escape the pogroms of their native land.
Though born in a foreign land, Lew Winogradsky was to become one of the outstanding Englishmen of the 20th Century. He would rise from the London slums to the British peerage.
Early Life and Career
Issac and Golda Winogradsky had been semi-professional singers back in the Ukraine. The village of Tokmak was near Odessa in the Crimea, which was a favored destination of many vacationing Russians, due to its location on the Black Sea. Issac went ahead to England to make preparations for the family, who then were brought over. Immigration officials changed young Lovat’s name to Louis, and his the name of his younger brother Boris to Bernard.
The Winogradsky family settled in the Brick Lane neighborhood of London’s East End, a long-time ghetto filled with poor English and immigrants. Isaac worked at a movie theater and as a clothes presser at a clothing manufacturer. Eventually, he and his wife Golda went back to performing songs for other immigrants from the Russian Empire. They had another child, a son they called Leslie.
Lew and his two brothers, Leslie and Bernard (who later took the name Delfont) attended the Rochelle Street School in Shoreditch. The young Lew was blessed with what he called a “photographic memory,” that allowed him to easily memorize large blocks of prose or a poem and recall it, letter perfect. He also excelled at mathematics.
He was such an outstanding student, he was put up for a scholarship to attend college (in England, an institution of higher learning between secondary schools and university). Despite the fact that he outscored all other applicants, the London City Council denied him a because his parents did not become naturalized British subjects.
Anti-Semitism may have played a part in his not getting the scholarship. However, it would not deter him from achieving success. At the age of 14, he once again was put up for a scholarship to a trade college, and passed the exams with flying colors. This time, the London City Council waived the citizenship requirement. Louis Winogradsky, on the advice of his family, turned the scholarship down. His formal education soon came to an end.
The Winogradsky family and friends felt that, with his brains, young Louis would be better off eschewing formal education for real-life business experience. There is a story that when the 11-year-old Louis was asked, “What’s 2+2 equal?” he replied, “Are you buying or selling?”
Louis became an agent for the women’s clothing firm Tew & Raymond at the age of 15. He was so adept at his trade, when he was 16 years old, he went into business for himself.
Louis Winogradsky opened up his own clothing manufacturing business in a small space that he rented for two pounds weekly. His stamina was legendary, as he worked from six in the morning to midnight. Within six months, his business was thriving. But he had the entertainment business in his blood, inherited from his parents Isaac and Golda.
Louis Winogradsky’s fate was changed when an American dance born in South Carolina in the early 1920s, the Charlestown, made its way across the Atlantic to the UK. The Charlestown craze took the UK by storm, and it changed Louis’ life. They young Louis had been taught Cossack dance steps by his father, dance steps that were highly adaptable to the Charlestown.
In 1926, he entered and won a Charleston competition at the Ilford Hippodrome, which gave him the title Charlestown Champion of London. This led to a higher level of competition, and at the Royal Albert Hall, dancing under the name “Louis Grad,” he won the title Charlestown Champion of the World. His victory led to professional bookings, and in 1928, he was successful enough as an entertainer to make a European Tour. In Paris, his name was misspelled on a bill as Lew Grade, which he quickly adopted as his own.
After a two-year tour of the Continent, he returned to England and spent four years in the musical hall circuit. By 1934, he was fed up with dancing professional, as he had developed water on the knee, which made performing extremely painful. It was time for a career change.
The Entertainment Industry
Lew Grade and his brother Leslie (who also took the surname “Grade”) founded a talent agency in 1933, which grew into one of the largest in the UK. Due to his travels on the Continent, Lew had bird-dogged European acts, which he brought over to the UK. The basis of the success of the agency run by Lew and his brother Leslie were these European acts, plus “specialty acts.”
Eventually, he left his brother to join the talent agency of Joe Collins (who was the father of actress Joan Collins and writer Jackie Collins), which was more powerful and successful than his own due to Collins’ contacts with the top booking agents. With Lew as a full partner, the Collins & Grade Agency flourished, and eventually represented some of the biggest and most prestigious stars in British show business, including Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier.
The War Years
One of the last European Acts Lew Grade managed to book before the war broke out and eliminated the Continental European pool of talent was Django Reinhardt, the great gypsy guitarist. The outbreak of World War II denied the Collins and Grade Agency one of the bedrocks of their business, booking quality Continental acts. Eventually, the two parted company professionally.
Grade did not suffer professionally as he was called on by the British government to organize entertainment for the British troops undergoing training. He was also retained by the British government to stage benefits, such as an Aid to Russia show that was staged at the London Coliseum, which he put on at the request of Clementine Churchill, wife of the British Prime Minister.
Lew Grade married the singer Kathleen Moody in 1942. One year later, his brother Leslie was called up for active service, and he turned over his talent agency to Lew. Leslie was discharged from the military early in 1945 due to sickness, and upon his return to London, he and his brother formed the Lew & Leslie Grade Agency.
The Lew & Leslie Grade Agency built itself into an international powerhouse through the acquisition of quality talent agencies and the recruiting of successful talent agents. Instead of looking to the Continent for acts, Lew Grade looked westward, to the United States. Building contacts with American talent agencies, he managed to book top American acts such as Abbot & Costello, Jack Benny, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Danny Kaye and Mario Lanza for appearances at the London Palladium.
In addition to its London headquarters, by the early 1950s, Lew & Leslie Grade had talent agencies in Los Angeles and New York. He was now a major player on both sides of The Pond as the Grade Organization. He had established a reputation as an agent who could get the top deals for his clients, whom he was able to coddle, offering them the best service. In essence, he had become the British equivalent of Lew Wasserman, the legendary American talent agent who had built Music Corp. of America into an American entertainment industry colossus.
Like Wasserman, Lew Grade would enjoy more success and gain more power during the 1950s and for the same reason: The emergence of television as the dominant entertainment medium. Like Wasserman and MCA, Grade would become involved in the production of music, television programming, and sound recordings.
Entering Commercial TV Production
The B.B.C. had dominated television broadcasting in the UK since the inception of TV in the 1930s. The B.B.C. was a public corporation, supported by a license fee levied on TV set owners. In 1954, the UK gave the go-ahead for commercial TV broadcasting, on a regional basis.
The license fee set by the government for the commercial TV franchise per region was three million pounds (perhaps $25 million, in 2009 dollars, when factored for inflation). Putting up one million pounds of his own capital, Lew Grade was able to create a syndicate that raised the additional two million pounds and made a bid on the license. The Independent Television Corp. was born.
However, the Independent Broadcasting Authority was worried that ITC could prove to be a monopoly, due to the financial muscle of Lew Grade and his syndicate backers. It was decided that licenses would be awarded to other companies, and that the ITC would instead provide programming to licensees. In essence, Lew Grade was doing what he did best: Providing quality “acts” for bookers.
ITC’s first program was The Adventures of Robin Hood., which proved to be a great success, and was syndicated in the United States. Other top programs developed by ITC were The Saint, Danger Man (Secret Agent Man in the United States), and The Prisoner.
According to his New York Times obituary, Lew Grade positioned his TV production unit (first ITC, later Associated Television (ATV, which evolved into Associated Communications Corp.) as a lighter alternative to standard B.B.C. fare. “[L]ater, when commercial [British] television expanded into serious undertakings, Lord Grade’s end of the business was thought of cozily by Britons as the ”song and dance’ side” of British TV.” (Ironically, his nephew would later become head of the B.B.C.)
Wags began to call him “Low Grade” due to his pitching of his entertainment offerings to the lowest common denominator. In the 1970s, he would fight back against that perception by producing higher quality fare.
TV, Movies, Records
Lew Grade‘s other brother, Bernard (later Lord) Delfont, also made his way into show business, later becoming the head of the music industry behemoth EMI. Grade’s own interests included Pye Records, and he would later gain the publishing rights to EMI’s top act, The Beatles.
In 1962, Grade acquired the independent production company AP Films in 1962, which produced the popular children’s marionette adventure series Thunderbirds among others. AP Films also produced three feature films, and the live-action sci-fi series Space: 1999.
As a movie producer, Grade helped finance the big screen incarnation of The Muppet Show, for which he was immortalized by Jim Henson, who made a Muppet in his image: Dr Bunsen Honeydew. Henson also used Grade for the character of movie mogul Lew Lord (played by Orson Welles) in The Muppet Movie.
Lew Grade was the force behind the private British TV broadcasting network ATV, which he wanted to rival the BBC. The network featured extravagant ‘quality’ productions such as a live broadcast of Tosca from La Scala starring Maria Callas, which took up an entire evening’s broadcast time. He produced director Franco Zefferelli’s Emmy Award-winning TV mini-series Jesus of Nazareth (1977), which provided a financial windfall when it was resold to the American market. The mini-series garnered a then-record $12 million licensing fee (approximately $50 million in 2009 dollars, when adjusted for inflation).
On the downside, Grade’s high-budget, “all-star” film adaptation of Clive Cussler’s best seller Raise the Titanic (1980) proved to be a monumental flop. (Seventeen years later, James Cameron’s sinking of the Titanic ould prove to be the biggest movie blockbuster ever.) A self-deprecating Grade remarked about laying this big egg, “It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic.” Subsequent flops led Grade to abandon motion picture production.
Lord Grade lost control over ACC in 1982. It was one of his rare setbacks. Subsequently, he became the head of Embassy Communications International, the London branch of Los Angeles-based Embassy Communications. The firm eventually was bought by Coca-Cola, and Grade created the Grade Co., an entertainment business that co-produced Andrew Lloyd Webber’s roller-skating musical ‘Starlight Express. He also served as a vice president of the Loews movie theater chain.
In 1969, two years after the death of The Beatles’ manager and mentor Brian Epstein, Lew Grade’s subsidiary ATV Music publishing managed to buy a majority stake in Northern Songs, the music publishing company that owned the output of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. A fierce proxy battle for control of the company broke out, with ATV winning control of Northern Songs.
ATV Music Publishing thus controlled the songs of Lennon and McCartney, as a team and separately, produced from 1964 and 1971, the period of the team’s greatness. In 1985, ATV sold Northern Songs to Paul McCartney’s friend, Michael Jackson, preventing McCartney and the Lennon estate from reacquiring control over their greatest music.
Ironically, though John Lennon had been outraged when he lost Northern Songs, he made an appearance at an all-star tribute to his former nemesis. The 1975 ATV special Salute to Lew Grade, was a taped tribute to the British entertainment titan, and was attended by a galaxy of stars, including Julie Andrew, Ann-Margret, Lauren Bacall, Kirk Douglas, Goldie Hawn, Tom Jones, Gene Kelly, Shirley MacLaine, Charlotte Rampling, George Segal and Peter Sellers. It was Lennon’s last public appearance.
Grade himself had a history of dealing with neurotic performers. “Judy Garland was trouble,” he had remembered. “She was also probably the greatest female performer the world has ever known, so we just had to weather it. We never knew if she was going to show up for a performance. She always did, eventually, but we often had to hold up the curtain for her.”
During the tribute, the nearly 70-year-old Grade did a soft-shoe number. Roger Moore, who was positioned for his greatest success (as Sean Connery’s successor as James Bond) due to his stint on the ITV-produced TV series The Saint, later said of Lord Grade, “Anyone who is 88 and can still jump up on the table and do The Charlestown…that speaks volumes!”
Up until the end of his life, the hard-driving Grade was known to put in 10-hour days at the office.
Lew Gradewas knighted in 1969 for his services towards promoting international trade, and was made a life peer (a baron) in 1976, both times under a Harold Wilson Labour Government.
Sir Lew (soon to be Lord Grade) entertained the crowd by taking a few dance steps himself before the adoring audience, which included his wife and family. Lord Grade was married to Kathleen Moody for 56 years, until his death, on December 13, 1998, a week shy of his 92nd birthday.
Of his wife Kathleen, Lord Grade said, graciously, “Marriage was the best business deal I ever made. After that, Jesus of Nazareth and The Muppets.”
Lew and Kathleen Grade adopted a son, Paul Dancer. His nephew, Michael Grade, currently is the Chairman of the BBC Board of Governors.