Obituary: Lord Delfont
Friday 29 July 1994
BERNARD DELFONT, aged three when he came to England in 1913 from Russia, was the second of a trio of brothers, the Winogradskys, who became moguls of British show business. Bernard was born Boris and took the name Delfont; Louis, his elder brother by nearly three years, became Lew Grade and was later created a life peer in the same year as his brother; and Leslie, Bernard's younger brother by two years and the only one born in England, followed Lew in name and profession into the family agency and was the father of Michael Grade, the present chief executive of Channel 4 Television.
Delfont spent 14 years in music- hall before embarking on a career as an agent and impresario which took him from theatrical management in wartime London to founding the Talk of the Town in the 1950s, presenting the annual Royal Variety Performance for two decades and heading an enormous leisure business. In 1965 he sold the Bernard Delfont Agency to his brothers' company, the Grade Organisation, for pounds 250,000. In 1967 he organised the sale of the Grade Organisation to EMI for pounds 6m. In 1980, as chief executive of EMI, he organised the sale of its entertainment interests to Trusthouse Forte for pounds 16m. And in 1982, as chairman and chief executive of Trusthouse Forte Leisure, he organised a management buyout for pounds 37.5m. Its properties then included Blackpool Tower, three London theatres, the Leicester Square Empire ballroom and cinema, seven seaside piers, 18 squash clubs, five ten-pin bowling clubs and nine discotheques. Delfont was chairman of the new business, First Leisure Corporation, until two years ago and its president at his death.
Boris Winogradsky was brought up in Stepney, in the East End of London, and educated at Rochelle Street elementary school and Stepney Jewish School. His father was a tailor's presser and did embroidery for women's dresses; his mother shared with her husband a love for amateur singing. Boris left school at 12 and followed his brother Louis, who had made a name for himself in Charleston dancing competitions, into the halls. Louis danced in an act 'Grade and Gold', with Al Gold; Boris followed suit with Al Sutan (later the comic Hal Monty) as 'Grade and Sutton'. It was to avoid confusion that Grade and Sutton, at the suggestion of Sidney Burns, an agent, were renamed 'the Delfont Boys'. (Winogradsky was 'too cumbersome to pronounce', said Burns. He suggested another variety act on his books, the Dufa Boys: 'So why not Delfont?') With Sutan, or on his own, or with a Japanese beauty (as 'Delfont and Toko', in an act entitled 'Syncopated Steps Appeal'), Delfont danced his way through the Twenties and Thirties, until, in 1937, he forsook the boards for his own agency in the West End of London.
With their talent for deals, their resourcefulness and their acumen for figures, combined with their experience of backstage and agency life, the three brothers became powers in the land, particularly with the burgeoning of the new commercial television industry in the Fifties. Lew joined such other variety characters as Val Parnell in buying into ATV. As Senior Drama Director at ARD (the first television contract holder) - with offices first in Stratton Street, Mayfair, and then Television House, Kingsway - I was in a position to observe closely the rise and continued rise of Lew, who in time became first Sir Lew, and later Lord Grade. Both ARD and ATV occupied the same Kingsway building. By this time Leslie was keeping the office warm. Bernard, soon to combine in business, was nicknamed 'Gentleman' Bernie, because of his change of name and his general style of not being in so much of a hurry as the rest of his family - - his mother Olga, his sole sister Rita, and Lew were the theatrical extroverts.
Delfont and the Grades had become more than serious rivals to the HM Tennant company long before the latter, worn out with its confident monopoly of the English theatre, lost its golden boy 'Binkie' Beaumont. Lew wore his Churchillian uniform of a huge cigar wherever he was from early morning to late at night, most of the time in his office, first in Charing Cross Road and later when head of ATV in Kingsway. 'If it's good enough for Churchill, it's good enough for me,' he said.
Whether it was variety performances or managing musical shows, and later straight dramas on tour and in the West End, Delfont had success. His honours - a knighthood and the peerage - came later, long after he had made his managerial debut with a tour of a modest cast in a play called Room for Two. Later he produced in the West End at the St Martin's Jam Today and a number of good, bad and indifferent productions including Other People's Houses (Ambassador's, 1942), Sleeping Out, Old Chelsea, with Richard Tauber, The Fur Coat and revivals of such evergreen pieces as The Admiral Crichton, The Student Prince, Where the Rainbow Ends, Something for the Boys, Rookery Nook and Rose Marie. In the years ahead he was to have such other favourites under his banner as The Duchess of Dantzic and The Count of Luxembourg.
His lists of productions were large and varied and whether he was behind the Folies Bergere Revue at the London Hippodrome, revues at the Prince of Wales, or revivals of Awake and Sing and the strange ghetto dramas of Israel Zangwill, he was jubilant at working - in evidence or behind the scenes - on so many productions, some of them concurrently, others simultaneously. On the one hand he presented such cherished stars as Yves Montand, Sophie Tucker, Harry Richmond, Mistinguett, Lena Horne and Victor Borge in special recitals; on the other, he presented at the other end of the market such old-fashioned pantomimes as those at Liverpool, Birmingham, Coventry, Nottingham, Sheffield and the London Palladium.
As well as presenting the Royal Variety Performance for 21 years, he was life president of the actors' charity the Entertainment Artists Association, and was involved with many other show-business charities.
'I'm an impresario of pleasure,' he said once. Bernard Delfont was one of the most welcoming impresarios of them all.
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