The first time that Maria Kempinska put on a show was at her all-girls convent school during Lent to raise money for charity. It was an unlikely debut into show business but it clearly stood her in good stead. When she sold her chain of Jongleurs comedy clubs a few years ago she received a cheese for £8.5 million.
Brought up by Polish refugee parents on a council estate outside Watford, Kaminski did a lot of voluntary work at the local mental hospital while at school. By the time she left she had set her heart on pursuing a career in psychiatry. But her father refused to allow it, believing that she was too young to deal with such a difficult subject, so she decided to train as a teacher instead. She soon realized she did not want to be part of the school system, however, and started teaching drama in play centers and youth clubs instead.
She returned to London full of enthusiasm and started looking around for a possible venue for her club where comedians, poets and musicians could perform. Then she remembered an enormous room above a pub in Battersea, south London, where she used to go roller-skating. After persuading the owners to let her use it on a Friday night she talked her bank into giving her a £300 overdraft. Then she started looking for unknown, but talented, performers to appear on stage each week.
She decided to call her club Jongleurs, a medieval term for a wandering minstrel. ‘I chose a difficult name because my own name is difficult and once people know it, they don’t forget it’, says Kempinska. ‘So I thought that people wouldn’t forget the name Jongleurs that easily.’ It worked. She says: ‘The first two Fridays were absolutely packed, and by the fourth week I was getting calls from people asking if they could perform at the club.’ There were, however, a few early adjustments to be made.
Kempinska’s original plan was to have performers of all kinds on stage, but she quickly decided to focus on stand-up comedians after realising there were not enough other types of performers to choose from. She started running shows on Saturday nights as well and after six months felt confident enough to give up her day job as an assistant to an actors’ agent. A business partner, John Davy, joined the company in 1986 and the two of them ran the shows in Battersea for eight years.
It provided a platform for dozens of comedians who have since become household names, such as Arthur Smith, Paul Merton and Mike Myers. But Kempinska was wary of relying on talent alone. She says: ‘I didn’t ever want to rely on a performer to spread the word.
The venue itself had to be good enough so people would have a good evening’s entertainment – and if they saw somebody who eventually became famous it would be a bonus.’ In 1990 she and Davy formed a partnership with Regent Inns, the company that owned the Battersea venue, splitting all the profits made from the venue equally between them, while Kempinska retained the Jongleurs name.
Now 55, she thinks the reason for her success has been her attention to detail: ‘The secret is to know what you are there for – and then to do what you do extremely well. It is no good having a venue where the sound is bad and saying you will deal with it next week. You have to deal with it there and then. It is about being the best you can. Do what you want to do, but do it absolutely brilliantly – and do it now.