Lew Grade Part 2: the pre-war years 

1 October 2004 tbs.pm/2279

Although he was entering a lot of competitions, Louis still saw his dancing as just a sideline – albeit a fairly lucrative one. Winogradsky and Son was still his prime concern, but this was soon to change.

Towards the end of 1924, there was some debate about who was the best – Louis or a dancer called Al Gold. Louis naturally thought that he was, although the pair had never even met.

One Sunday evening, Sid Starr, Louis and some friends went to a dance near Bow in the East End of London. Upon their arrival they discovered that there was to be a Charleston competition and that Al Gold was amongst the entrants.

Louis didn’t have his regular partner with him and consequently didn’t want to enter. His friends told him that if he didn’t people would assume he had been afraid of losing to Gold, and so he agreed to take part. Picking a girl from the crowd as his partner, Louis managed to shield her from the judge – whenever the judge moved, so did Louis, craftily steering her out of view! The trick worked and Louis won the competition, with Gold in second place.

After this, his career went from strength to strength, and on some occasions he was able to win up to £20 a night from his dancing – a huge some in those days. It was around this time that he decided that Louis Winogradsky was too much of a mouthful, and consequently shorted it to Louis Grad.

In December 1926, the World Charleston Championship was held at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Louis entered the Solo Championship and won, picking up a four-week appearance at the Piccadilly Hotel at the princely sum of £50 per week.

The following year his father Isaac decided to sell their embroidery business. The embroidery boom was over and coupled with his gambling it meant that the company was struggling financially. It was also apparent that neither Louis nor his younger brother Bernie were interested in carrying on in the rag trade.

By now the family had been extended by the addition of a third son, Leslie, and a daughter, Rita, and was effectively being supported by Louis and his brother, Bernie. Faced with this additional responsibility, Louis realised that his act needed something more if he was going to get more bookings. He came up with a spectacular climax – a three and a half feet high table would be brought on and he would leap onto it before going into a frenzied routine to finish off his act.

Despite their earlier rivalry, Louis and Al Gold had become quite good friends and Louis suggested that the pair team up together. Combining their forces as “Grad and Gold”, it took them nearly three months before getting signed up, but after this they managed to pick up a string of engagements.

But this wasn’t to last. Although the pair managed to secure themselves a joint wage of £20 per week, they had to pay for their board and lodgings out of this. In addition, Louis was trying to send money back to the family in London as often as he could.

Louis assumed the role of negotiator and decided that they needed a minimum of £32 per week. However, he found that the negotiations were stalled until a fortnight before their contract was due to expire. It was then that he learned that Al Gold had been signed up as a solo artist with a weekly wage of £20, and that Gold was keeping Louis’ table routine. The table itself, however, stayed with Louis.

In June 1928, the pair had visited Paris for a week and now that their act was over, Louis decided to give it another try. He was soon signed on for £30 a week, and discovered an unexpected bonus – he shared a dressing room with twenty chorus girls! Over the next couple of years Louis experienced wildly contrasting fortunes.

In Paris, he co-headlined at the Moulin Rouge but on his return to London he found himself bottom of the bill at the Stratford Empire.

It was in Paris that he acquired the name that he was best known as when a reviewer in the “Paris Midi” newspaper misspelled his name as Lew Grade.

Louis liked the sound of it and kept it.

In his return to London, Lew suggested to an agent, Joe Collins (father of Joan and Jackie), that many of the acts he’d seen on the continent would be ideal for English audiences. Collins booked them, and they all did well.

Although he didn’t yet know it, the next stage of Lew’s career was already taking shape, which was just as well since his dancing career was no longer the success that had been. The Charleston craze was over and a decade of dancing had taken its toil on Lew – he had water on the knee and often left the stage bloodied and bruised. A succession of new partners helped things a little but it clearly wasn’t a long-term solution. More importantly, Lew felt his range was too narrow, although brother Bernie’s act was still going strong.

Two setbacks then hit the Winogradsky family in quick succession.

Lew’s youngest brother Leslie had gone into business by himself, but had over-reached himself and ended up about £500 in debt – a huge sum in the mid-1930s. Lew promised everyone would get their money and, taking over Leslie’s financial responsibilities got him a job with a booker for a theatre chain. A third Grade brother had entered the entertainment industry.

Then, in 1935, Isaac Winogradsky died at the age of 56. Never a man to put any money aside, he’d left nothing for his widow and so it was up to Lew and Bernie to ensure that their mother and sister were provided for.

Fortunately, the brothers were able to buy a three-bedroom flat in Streatham, by far the best home they’d had since arriving in England.

Lew seemed to have an ability to spot talent and his success at finding acts for Joe Collins persuaded him that the agency and talent business would suit him. However, a short-term arrangement with Eddie May, a former partner of his brother Bernie, didn’t work out and Lew quickly terminated the partnership.

He had been hoping to ease himself into the agency business whilst still continuing with his own act, but eventually his knees meant that he had to give up professional dancing all together. Joe Collins offered him a job, but Lew thought that he deserved a partnership and was forced to go it alone instead.

Over the next few months he started putting on programmes in cinemas and theatres in a number of towns, including Birkenhead, Blackpool, St. Helens and Wigan. However, the big circuits such as the Stoll Moss theatre and the ABC and Granada cinema chains were beyond him at this stage.

Unable to book directly with these circuits he went to Europe to strengthen his line-up of acts, taking in Belgium, France, Germany and Switzerland.

Returning to London he now had plenty of acts to promote and his eye for talent meant that he knew which acts to place in which theatres. Joe Collins booked Lew’s acts for the major circuits and their success meant that Lew was finally offered the partnership he wanted.

Over the next three years, the Collins and Grade Agency grew steadily and as well as booking European acts for British venues, it was able to book British acts into European venues.

Until, that is, September 1939, when Nazi Germany provoked war with Britain and France.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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Liverpool, Friday 1 December 2023