Show biz keeps a secret – Lew Grade special a real surprise – to Lew Grade


The last flight of Concorde, from New York to London, triggered a flashback for this writer and maybe one or two other former staffers. It reminded me that that great silver bird was a player in one of Variety’s more bizarre ad-grabbing adventures, the like of which helped sustain the financial environment when hot sales seasons faded into nuclear winter.

This particular ad play, from inception to the point of delivery, was almost surreal and involved not only Concorde but also English nobility, some captains of the entertainment industry and even the proprietor of the New York Times. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing of all was that, in order to work, the whole covert exercise required an international conspiracy of silence.

Intrigued? Let’s start at the beginning . . .

Variety advertising through the year periodically ran up some peaks and then dived into troughs, a tedious phenomenon that made for uneven cash flow – a pain for those trying to keep local bureaux on an even financial keel and, perhaps worse, the seesaw income caused wild variations in commission-based take-home pay.

The ad guys in Europe, each personally in charge of their own sales destiny and responsible for paying bureau bills out of some of the proceeds, knew they could keep the peaks high – at peak times the paper sold itself and needed only a light touch on the gas – but in those plentiful doldrums months it was a case of pressing the pedal hard to the metal and coming up with ideas that could generate a few dollars more.

Christmas had always been a prime doldrums season. Clients were spending their money on parties and corporate gifts but not on advertising. It was just not the right time to get into a serious conversation about the benefits of running a spread at Christmas – particularly when the Anni was due in a couple of weeks and we didn’t want to shift ad dollars away from that.

In London, we groaned when, in 1986, we learned that Variety was due to be published on Wednesday, December 25! Ouch!! The bookies would have given you any odds you liked against anyone wanting to strut their stuff on the very day show business managements were shut along with practically everything else.

I cannot recall exactly what it was that triggered the thought but as London ad rep John Willis and I wracked our brains for a Christmas Day sales angle, we had a Eureka! moment. Lew Grade was born on Christmas Day in 1906 – which meant he would be 80 years old on December 25.

Lew Grade, by now a Knight of the realm for services to the entertainment industry, meaning he was entitled to be addressed as Sir Lew, was the UK’s leading showman, known globally and active in films, television, music and legit theatre. Not just known but much loved on both sides of the Pond and the nearest thing the Brits had to a living legend.

Lew at 80! Still feisty. Still relevant. Still into a whole slew of transatlantic ventures to feed his US distribbery ITC with motion pictures and filmed television series.

It seemed to us in London that winter that from an editorial point of view we could easily justify a birthday special on Lew but given that it was Christmas, and his birthday, the ad guys wanted the special to be special. We wanted it to be a surprise for him.

As everyone knows keeping something secret in show biz is an exercise in over-ambitious folly – and in this case we were approaching dozens of people to take out a congratulatory ad, many of whom were in daily touch with Lew – but in the gung-ho spirit of the times we said what the hell and decided to give it a whirl.

First job was to get some key people on side. I had a confidential (“don’t tell Lew”) pub lunch meeting with Marcia Stanton, Lew’s p.a. of many years’ standing, and laid out the plan.

We had lined up Lew’s great pal Jimmy Green, perhaps the leading journalist ploughing the show biz furrows at the time, to write up Lew’s story. I explained to Marcia that we wanted to write “top secret” letters (that began, I recall, “Sshhhh! Not a word to Lew but . . .”) to the home (not office) addresses of all the key players in Lew’s address book.

Variety’s offer would be a specially designed, uniquely-priced space – a one-sixth of a page, like no other space sold at the time by Variety – which would be presented, six-on-a-page, as birthday “cards,” a concept approved by Syd.

The reason, I explained to Marcia, was that since we were soliciting personal greetings, rather than corporate marketing messages, we wanted to create a level playing field. If everyone had the same-price, same-size space, the message became the focus not the size of the ad spend.

Marcia went for it! She not only supplied all the private addresses but got Lew’s wife, Lady (Kathy) Grade, on side as well – a move that was to prove invaluable later.

Responses to the ad pitch letters were immediate and voluminous. We filled a dozen pages as Lew’s industry pals entered into the spirit of the thing and happily provided personal messages to be typeset by Variety. In the main, those Yuletide ad takers signed their greeting with first names only guaranteeing virtual anonymity among all but a very few Lew Grade insiders.

Among the producers, impresarios, television execs, artists and the like who sportingly provided us with a massive array of warm birthday greetings for show biz’s newest octogenarian was one civilian – Ochs Sulzberger.

We also learned that Sulzberger’s paper, the New York Times, now alerted to the impeding birthday, was going to run a feature article on Sir Lew – who by this time Variety was calling Sir Loot – which would run on Christmas Day. There goes our cover, I thought, the Times was bound to mention the upcoming Variety special.

The Variety production guys in New York did a bang up job making up the ads. Each one was distinctive and unique in appearance. Bernard Delfont, Lew’s showman brother and later Lord Delfont, and Lew’s nephew Michael Grade, himself a powerhouse in British showbiz, broke the rules and took a page ad each but we figured that was okay since they were family. Nobody would get too upset about being upstaged.

Getting in the ads was fine. Keeping the project under wraps was going okay (we hoped). The tricky bit was about to come. How could New York get a copy of the issue to London for delivery to Lew on Christmas Day?

With Syd’s okay, Mort Bryer, Abe Torres and Paul Rosowsky worked a minor miracle. As the press ground out the 72-pager, they rushed an early copy to JFK to see if they could get an obliging traveller to handcarry the paper on the next flight to London, effectively the reverse of the Hank Werba style Europe-to-NY copy run.

Happen the next flight to Blighty was Concorde. Happen also that the pilot of Concorde was fascinated when he heard why Variety was looking to get single copy to the UK in time for Lew’s birthday. He agreed to personally ferry the issue across the Pond and deliver it to the driver the London office had laid on at Heathrow.

The captain said he knew who Lew Grade was – the bantam Brit used Concorde from time to time – and he knew Variety, “the paper with the funny headlines.” He was happy to help and the paper went with him into the cramped cockpit of the supersonic jet.

Our driver at Heathrow held up a big Variety logo pasted onto a board as the Concorde crew cleared Customs and took delivery of Lew’s birthday special. He lit out for Harrods where I had agreed to meet him to grab the paper and deliver it to Lew at around 11 am Christmas morning.

Lew lived in a Knightsbridge penthouse apartment just around the corner from Harrods. It was one of those places where the elevator went up five floors but Sir Lew and Lady Grade lived on the sixth floor. If they wanted to see you, they would call up the elevator to their floor – it couldn’t be accessed from within the elevator – which is why it was crucial that Kathy Grade was in on the mission.

She was expecting my call from the porter’s desk and told me to get into the elevator, which duly zipped to the magnificently appointed penthouse. Kathy was smiling hugely when she said: “He doesn’t know a thing about it.”

Lew was in his bedroom on the phone with BBC, which was interviewing him for a radio programme. When he hung up, his wife said: “Lew, Roger’s here’s with something for you.”

Lew emerged with a quizzical look on his face. “What’s up? What can I do for you? It’s Christmas Day. It’s my birthday. I’ve just been on the radio. What is Variety doing here?”

“Happy birthday, Lew, from Variety,” I said. “We put together a little surprise for you in the paper which is published today, your birthday. Here, take a look.”

He was stunned as he opened the issue and saw page after page, ad after ad full of fond greetings and insider jokes. Tears rolled down his cheek as he read each ad and accurately identified every one of the advertisers in the special section.

Lady Grade hovered with her camera and recorded the occasion for the family album (See pics) as I answered Lew’s questions about how it was done.

“And you never knew?” I queried. “Didn’t the New York Times tip you off when they interviewed you for their piece?”

“Not a word,” laughed Lew. “It just goes to show that I don’t know everything that’s going on around here.”