Lee Gordon 1923-1963
The Australian Dictionary of Biography says he was born Lee Lazer Gordon in Detroit, Michigan, on 8 March 1923, yet people who knew him well say his real name was Gevorshner, and that he was born in Coral Gables, Florida in 1917.
At the suggestion of his friend Arthur Schurgin, a Detroit promoter, Gordon decided to explore the possibility of presenting big-name acts in Australia. He arrived in September 1953.
The Big Showman
‘Lee Gordon was the pioneer,’ said entrepreneur Harry M. Miller in the ABC TV series
Love is in the Air. ‘He created and invented for Australia large-scale entertainment in big arenas. He’d put four or five major names on the one bill. Today you get one person. He was very generous and entrepreneurial. Nobody else started it. He did. He was very imaginative, way before his time. He was talking about drive-in hamburger bars before McDonalds was even heard of. He was short, pug nosed, and always had a cigarette in his mouth. Without doubt he was a very hip guy.’
Who was Lee Gordon? The Australian Dictionary of Biography says he was born Lee Lazer Gordon in Detroit, Michigan, on 8 March 1923, yet people who knew him well say his real name was Gevorshner, and that he was born in Coral Gables, Florida in 1917. That’s just one of the many murky areas in the extraordinary Lee Gordon saga.
Gordon graduated from the University of Miami in 1944 with a Bachelor of Business Administration, but he had already dabbled in show business, presenting a jazz concert in an ice rink in Muskegon, Michigan. With publicist Benn Reyes he dabbled in a Shakespeare in the Round project and worked for a while with Royal American Shows, a large Tampa-based travelling carnival. In Lima, Peru, he was involved in a direct mail business, and in Havana, Cuba, he exported cigars and roses to the United States and booked American acts into the lush Tropicana, Havana’s famous open-air nightclub. Back in the United States he developed a chain of 60 House of Grams and House of TV stores, but his gimmicky sales pitches drew the wrath of the powerful US Electrical Retailers’ Association. He was forced out of business and lost heavily. At the suggestion of his friend Arthur Schurgin, a Detroit promoter, Gordon decided to explore the possibility of presenting big-name acts in Australia. He arrived in September 1953.
Gordon’s cheeky marketing drew thousands of customers to his Royal Art Furnishing in Castlereagh Street, Sydney. He decided to invest his considerable profits in an invasion of the largely conservative world of Australian show business. With television still several years away, Australians’ popular entertainment was controlled by a handful of well-established entrepreneurs like J.C. Williamson’s and the Tivoli Circuit, whose presentations were tailored to the limitations of the theatres they owned. Lee Gordon changed all that. He was the first of a new breed of showmen, geared to mass marketed entertainment, air travel, and the emerging generation of affluent teenagers.
Watch this space
Toby Creswell: Love is in the Air, ABC Books, 2003
Alan Heffernan: Big Shows: The Lee Gordon Years, Alan Heffernan, 2003
Max Moore: Some Days are Diamonds, New Holland, 2003
Michael Sturma: ‘Lee Gordon’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 14