How does one start to pay a tribute to one of my oldest and dearest friends, who was also my mentor, other than by saying that April 26 marked the end of a remarkable era in British theatre with the sad passing of Renee Stepham – a legend in her own lifetime.
Renee was born just before the outbreak of the First World War on August 26, 1914, and after a remarkable life dedicated almost exclusively to the theatre – apart from her devotion to her loving son, Robert Israel, his wife Gaby, and her two adored grandchildren – she passed away peacefully in her sleep, aged 92, on Thursday, April 26.
She began her career in showbusiness as secretary to an emigre refugee, his mother Mrs Winogradsky and his brothers. His name was Bernard Delfont and, like his brothers, had a dance act in variety. He soon became a showbusiness producer and throughout the Second World War, one of Renee’s prime duties was to ensure that he reported each Monday morning to Vine Street Police Station to sign the alien’s register. At the end of the war it was a short step from being a secretary to becoming an agent in her own right, like the other two Winogradsky brothers – better known as Lew and Leslie Grade – who remained her friends throughout their lives.
As well as being an artists’ agent managing the careers of her stable of actors and entertainers, Renee changed the focus of her professional life by becoming the most influential theatre booking agent. Her office in Panton House in the Haymarket became the clearing house for the booking of 90% of all touring productions by both West End and touring producers. In addition, she was appointed the booking agent representing a number of major nationwide theatres. Within a decade she controlled all bookings for Birmingham Alexandra Theatre for the Salberg family, Leeds Grand Theatre for the Beaumont family, Hull New Theatre, Bournemouth Pavilion and Pier Theatres for the then entertainments director for Bournemouth Council, Sam Bell. Bell, with light entertainment producer Arthur Kimbrell and Renee became the founders and directors of Stepham, Kimbrell, Bell Ltd, who went on to present some of the world’s greatest light entertainment stars from Val Doonican to Bruce Forsythe, from Count Basie to Andy Williams. One by one, major theatres including Eastbourne Congress, Scarborough Floral Hall, Bournemouth Pavilion and a host of others, exclusively contracted the now legendary Renee Stepham to present all their seasonal Sunday night star attractions.
From her earliest days as a theatre booking agent, her producer client list was almost endless, including Peter Saunders, of Mousetrap fame, Michael Codron, Brian Rix, a very young Cameron Mackintosh, Paul Elliott and Duncan Weldon, separately and jointly as Triumph Theatre Production, Bill Kenwright, Ray Cooney, the late Jamie Phillips of Trends Management, John Newman of Newpalm, and the late Mark Furness, who was her co-producer on a awesome list of major productions. In 1960, I proudly took my place on her client list as she nurtured my career as the new boy on the block and remained my agent until just after her 80th birthday in 1994.
Early in her career, she married the respected theatre insurance broker, Bobby Israel, whose client list equalled that of his wife. Renee never knew what it was to take time off from work and never missed a first night of any of her client’s productions. Legend had it that when it came time to give birth to her son Robert, now carrying on the Israel tradition of managing the insurance affairs of the majority of producers and theatres, she went with her secretary to the London Clinic, dictating letters up to the very moment that Robert was born. Immediately after his delivery, she dictated the last paragraph of the letter she had started just before it.
Renee was respected and loved by all of her clients and the better part of showbusiness at large. At her 80th birthday party at the Theatre Museum, she was presented with a massive silver salver on which were engraved the signatures of 80 of her producer and theatre clients. A decade later, her 90th birthday was celebrated at the London Palladium with a lunchtime champagne reception. Michael Grade couldn’t make it, and his bouquet to her practically filled the famous Royal Circle Bar. At two o’clock, she looked at her watch and, in her time-honoured way, said, “It’s time to get back to the office”. By then she had been retired for ten years.
The legend has finally gone to rest and the theatre will never be the same again. There will never be another Renee Stepham.