Sept. 17 (Bloomberg) -- I made my screen debut last week at the Toronto International Film Festival, thanks to a flamboyant show-business mogul now doing time in a federal prison.
There’s perfect symmetry in the fact that “Show Stopper: The Theatrical Life of Garth Drabinsky” had its premiere in the city where Drabinsky made and lost two fortunes.
Beginning in 1979, Drabinsky’s sleekly designed theaters of Cineplex (later Cineplex-Odeon) defined the multiplex experience (popcorn with real butter!), controlling 1,825 screens in North America and accruing half a billion dollars in debt before his ouster in 1989.
His golden handshake included the rights to Cineplex’s live-theater producing arm, which he reinvented as Livent, Inc. It opened with the Toronto production of “The Phantom of the Opera” at the Pantages Theatre, which he’d lavishly restored. Livent’s arc was remarkably similar to that of Cineplex: A few rollicking years of expansion rendered unsustainable by mounting debt.
By the time Livent collapsed in 1998, Drabinsky had made adversaries of a formidable list of ex-partners including MCA’s Lew Wasserman and Sidney Sheinberg in Hollywood, the Bronfman family in Canada and Beverly Hills dealmaker Michael Ovitz.
Crippled by polio as a child and left with a lifelong limp, Drabinsky lived large and became a local hero as Toronto became the third biggest live-theater city in the world after London and New York. He shuttled talent between Manhattan and Toronto in private jets and limousines and generally embraced every cliche of old-school impresarios like Florenz Ziegfeld, whom he idolized.
But a few were dubious. I was one of them, and that’s how I came to play a part, small to be sure, in both Drabinsky’s life and in “Show Stopper,” producer-director-writer Barry Avrich’s richly detailed survey of Drabinsky’s plummet from a high-flying career.
After “Phantom” made him a player again, Drabinsky hired that show’s director, Hal Prince, to stage a definitive production of “Show Boat.” It was huge, expensive and fabulous, eventually moving to Broadway. But when Drabinsky announced that it had paid back its $10 million capitalization, I declined to join the chorus of bravos.
I was the chief critic at Variety back then, and when the industry bible ignored “news” like that, it was taken as a sign that something smelled bad. This elicited from him a blaze of invective and attacks on my escutcheon impressive in both range and color.
A few years later, when some reports congratulated him for getting Ovitz to invest $20 million in Livent, I wrote in New York magazine that in fact, Drabinsky was selling off his company in a desperate effort to stay afloat, just as he’d done at Cineplex. That column was headlined “Flop Sweat.”
Ovitz managed to install his own people on the Livent board, but it was already too late. The house of cards that Drabinsky had built on debt and phony numbers was collapsing.
In 2010, Drabinsky was convicted of defrauding investors of $501 million through cooked books and kickbacks. A year later he lost an appeal and the Canadian Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
He’s serving a five-year sentence at Beaver Creek Institution, a minimum security prison in Gravenhurst, about two hours north of Toronto and, happily, near his country home.
Avrich knows Drabinsky from the inside, having once worked for him. “Show Stopper” has an insider’s abundance of detail, perhaps somewhat to its detriment given such a larger-than-life subject.
While there are encomiums from stars like Elaine Stritch and Chita Rivera, more telling is the figures who weren’t interviewed for “Show Stopper” -- notably Prince and the creative team behind “Ragtime,” who benefitted greatly from his largesse.
Their absence suggests more than the testimony from those of us who understood Drabinsky’s obsession with buying -- or stealing -- legitimacy at any cost. Garth always made great copy. He was, as I wrote back then, a con man whose con was art.
“Show Stopper” begins a limited engagement in Toronto on Sept. 21 before being shown on The Movie Network, a Canadian cable network, beginning Oct. 4. He is also planning a New York screening in the fall.
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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