Lionel Blair in the East End

Dancer Lionel Blair inherited his show business flair from his mum and dad, who were dance mad East Enders.
Dad was Myer Ogus, a Russian barber whose great passion in life was ballroom dancing. He met Della Greenbaum, his wife-to-be at an East End dancehall back in the 1920s.
After the wedding, Myer decided they’d have better prospects abroad and he went ahead to Canada to look for a job. Said Lionel: “Mother’s family did not altogether approve of my father and told her: ‘That good-for-nothing’s deserted you after only a few months marriage’.”
Della was relieved to receive steamship ticket in the post but, still upset at being left behind in the first place, proudly swept down the gangway when the ship docked in Canada, ignoring her young husband’s outstretched arms.
Lionel said later: “The story always makes my family laugh. It’s an example of mother’s temperament. She adored my father but wanted to express her fury as dramatically as she could.”

Lionel was born in Montreal six years later and got his first look at London when the family returned to live with his mother’s parents in King Edward Road, Hackney.
There was not much room to spare and Lionel’s younger sister, Joyce, slept in the bottom drawer of their parents’ bedroom wardrobe.
During the war he saw night skies lit up as the docks and East End were blitzed and one day at school, while helping clear up rubble, he managed to get his pals singing. From then on, he was encouraged by teachers to entertain classmates.
Lionel had a happy childhood and recalls going to his local synagogue in new clothes bought by his mother for Passover – “most snapped up at bargain prices in Petticoat Lane.”
In the 1950s Lionel and Joyce amused friends and family by jitterbugging and tap dancing, just as they’d seen it at the cinema.
Their first stage appearance was at a talent show in Stoke Newington, run by music hall’s Kate Carney in which contestants had to sing and dance. She gave them a week’s contract to jitterbug as England’s Youngest Swingsters.
Soon afterwards, Lionel landed a part in the Burt Lancaster film The Crimson Pirate, and a Jane Russell film Gentlemen Marry Brunettes.
Next came stage appearances and an opening in the Jewel and Warriss series on BBC TV. From there, Lionel became a TV choreographer at the princely wage of £36 a show.
In 1967 he married his sweetheart Susan, a London fashion model, with his old school pal, comedian Bernie Winters as best man.
Apart from Bernie, his other great friend was Bruce Forsyth. They first met as young dancers at London’s peekaboo Windmill Theatre. He met another East Ender, Bud Flanagan, when the old-timer was appearing with the Crazy Gang. Chatting after a show, Lionel recalled that his parents had in Canada years earlier hired Bud’s sister as a baby-sitter.
“I know,” Bud told a surprised Lionel. “I remember my sister talking about you and the family.”
For at least 20 years Lionel’s nimble feet and irrepressible smile could be seen on TV week after week, in Royal Command Performances, variety nights, concerts and shows like New Faces and Give Us a Clue.
And if Lionel’s dance-mad dad could have seen him he would have been proud – and maybe a little envious too.
For further reading: Stage-Struck by Lionel Blair

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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