Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Sir Lew Grade - Some History

Sir Lew Grade

Without Sir Lew Grade, The Julie Andrews Hour would never have come to be. According to numerous magazine articles in 1972, Sir Lew pursed Julie Andrews for three years until he got her to agree to do a television show.

Sir Lew Grade’s admiration for Julie Andrews began long before her roles in Mary Poppins or The Sound of Music. It had begun even before she originated the musical Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Lew Grade’s admiration began in 1940s when Julie Andrews was a little girl appearing on the London stage; she was an amazing child, with a four octave vocal range and singing abilities far beyond her years.

Lew Grade’s life story is equally amazing to that of the young star he admired. It is a story that began far from England and show business. He was born Lev Winogradsky on December 25th, 1906 in the Ukraine, then a satellite of Imperial Russia. The Winogradsky family was Jewish, and in those days there was a great wave of anti-Semitism in Russia. When Lev was six years old, he and his parents escaped Russia and settled in the East End of London, where his father found a job as a trouser presser.

From the beginning, Lew Grade was an enterprising young man. At the age of fifteen, he became an agent for a women’s clothing company. Within one year, he started his own business.

His life took a new direction when, in 1926, at the age of 20, he took part in a Charleston contest. The Charleston was a dance created in the United States. When it reached England, just as it was in the U.S., it became all the rage. Lev won the Charleston contest and was given the title “Charleston Champion of London.” Competing in even more contests, he soon won the tile of “Charleston Champion of the World.” Lev now became a professional dancer, performing throughout Europe under the name Lou Grade.

By 1934, however, Lou Grade decided to make another change in his life; he joined with his brother, Leslie and opened a talent agency. In time, he left his brother and joined a talent agency owned by Joe Collins, the father of Jackie and Joan Collins. Grade became quite successful during these years. World War II, he arranged entertainment for the soldiers.

Eventually, Lew Grade left the Collins agency and joined with his brother Leslie in forming a new agency. Lew and Leslie Grade, Ltd. was became an international organization. When Lew Grade traveled to the United States for the first time, he made some important connections in the American entertainment field. Two performers he met and booked for jobs in Great Britain for the first time were Bob Hope and Judy Garland. Other American acts he booked were: Abbott & Costello, Jack Benny, Danny Kaye and Mario Lanza—all to appear at the London Palladium. At this time Lew and Leslie Grade opened two more offices, one in Los Angeles and another in New York.

Sir Lew Grade holding the Emmy for The Julie Andrews Hour
while Julie Andrews and husband, Blake Edwards look
on happily. (from the Ruth and Vannie Shaufelburger Collection)

By 1954, Lew Grade was looking to the future, and decided to enter the field of television. Eventually, he formed what became Associated Television, otherwise known as ATV. This company and the shows it produced became international hits. They included: “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “The Saint” and “Secret Agent Man.”  Over the years, this television company could continue to change, joining with other companies and then being divided. It was this company which would eventually produce The Julie Andrews Hour and which now owns the rights to it.
Lew Grade also produced films, and helped to finance Jim Henson’s The Muppets Show. Henson had been dismissed by American television stations and needed help getting his characters and ideas on the air. Grade was knighted in 1969 for his work to promote international trade.

Although Julie Andrews seems to have been hesitant about Sir Lew Grade’s offers to produce a television for her, he did not give up and eventually won out. The deal he arranged was one that benefited both Julie and her husband Blake Edwards.

From 1964 onward British born Julie Andrews had been America’s sweetheart. She was loved by children who saw her as Mary Poppins and by children and adults alike in her portrayal of Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music. Prior to this time, she was already known by many in America. She had created the musical role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady and after appearing as Queen Guinevere in Camelot, she was often heard on the radio along with her co-stars in that show, Richard Burton and Robert Goulet. Lerner and Lowe’s songs were extremely popular and it was said that President John F. Kennedy listened to this album every night before going to sleep.

Of course, having played these iconic roles, it was difficult for Julie Andrews to surpass her precious work. Although the films that followed (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Torn Curtain, Star and Darling Lili) did not garner the rave reviews of previous shows, they still were popular among many. Nevertheless, after many years of work, Julie met and married her second husband, director Blake Edwards, and for the next three years took a break. She had her own daughter, Emma Kate, to attend to as well as two of Blake’s children, Jenny and Goeffrey.

It seem that Blake Edwards had plans for some other films, but nothing panned out. More on this later. Despite all of these events, Julie was considered (along with Barbra Streisand) the leading lady of Hollywood, and when the networks were approached with the idea of a television series, it was not doubt a huge  Eventually, Grade’s company ITC produced and distributed Blake Edwards film “The Return of the Pink Panther.”

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Forty years ago this week, The Julie Andrews Hour was in the midst of taping the new series. Most television shows begin taping in August, in order to reach new season deadlines. The eight male dancers that had been chosen to back Julie up during the series, and a host of ordinary characters to appear in the first show, danced in the early morning hours out ABC’s parking lot and on the green of the Beverly Hills Country Club.

For at least a month, Julie Andrews had been hard at work on the show. There were songs to choose, and dances to learn or review (in the case of recreating some of the dances from her old shows and films). Choreographer Tony Charmoli, as shown in Blake Edwards’ documentary “Julie” put her through her paces. Someone later commented that they didn’t think she was prepared for the grueling work of television.
In theater there is one routine to be performed over and over and in film there is a schedule for shooting, with some leeway. However, for this television show, almost every week there were new songs and dances and it would have to be completed on schedule; the timeline for this was not changeable.

In coming weeks, more details will be revealed. Stories about the show are still coming in!

Remembering Old Friends

In the last two weeks we lost two wonderful talents: comedienne Phyllis Diller and puppeteer of the Muppets, Jerry Nelson. Both were guest stars on The Julie Andrews Hour and although There will be more to say of them later, I would be remiss not to pay tribute to them now. Although I never me Phyllis or Jerry, I think of them both with fond memories. Their talent has added so much to the lives of many.

Phyllis Diller was a woman who broke old stereotypes and rules for women in entertainment. When she began her career, it was considered improper for a woman to appear in public wearing hair rollers, yet Phyllis Diller did. She talked about her marriage and her husband, Fang, and she made us laugh. And she changed forever the way we might view a woman like the woman she played.. On The Julie Andrews Hour Phyllis was part of a crazy flying stunt in the first part of the show. She also got to be glamorous, playing a band singer with Julie and Diahann Carroll. She was truly a treasure.

Jerry Nelson’s work with Jim Henson’s Muppets touched countless young lives. He was a wonder in creating the voices and personalities of so many characters. On Julie’s show, his big appearance was as Thog, a shy seven-foot blue creature who wanted to dance with her. “Oh, Babe” was one of my fondest memories of being at the show. There was just something about the way he could show emotions in the characters he played.

While working on this project, one of my fondest wishes was that I might get to speak with Jerry Nelson, but until a friend found a connection for me, I had no idea how to contact him. My connection said he had sent my email to Jerry, but sadly, it was too late. Jerry Nelson’s work will not be forgotten.

Please check in next week for a segment on the producers of the show,
Nick Vanoff and Bill Harbach.

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