The last impresario

The new documentary by Barry Avrich about Garth Drabinsky purports to explain what drove the impresario to the point of committing fraud and going to jail. Show Stopper opens today at the Toronto International Film Festival, so I haven’t yet seen it, but I already know his motivation to succeed. Garth contracted polio as a child and was left with a severe limp. The best line I ever heard about Garth was, “He caught polio as a boy and it was your fault.”

I spent a lot of time with Garth over the years, particularly when I did a 5,000-word profile on him for Toronto Life. In addition to hours of interviews in his office for that piece I also travelled with him on his corporate jet for a two-day visit to Montreal. He was always open, honest, engaging, and hospitable. Everything was on the record except for a two-hour period when he said I could accompany him to an appointment if I agreed to keep it off the record. I agreed but I think enough years have passed that I can reveal he met with Guido Molinari, the renowned abstract painter, whose colourful canvases were so large they had to be hauled up from the floor below by a crane for proper viewing by a practiced eye looking to buy.

I admired Garth. He started with nothing, practiced entertainment law, and wrote a well-received textbook on film and the law when he was only twenty-seven. He was the first to use a prospectus to sell units of a film to investors so he could work with stars like Christopher Plummer and George C. Scott. With Nat Taylor he pioneered the cineplex, now found around the world. Then he moved on to Broadway musicals; his Kiss of the Spiderwoman won Tonys.

It always seemed to me that Garth needed bigger and bigger spectacles to distract everyone’s eyes away from his disability. He could sit among the audience, and revel in his creative glory, just don’t ask him to walk across the stage. More important, don’t let ’em look behind the scenery. His company, Livent, was a complicated structure where revenue and costs were shuffled about like cards in a street game meant to fool the mark.

Garth was sentenced to seven years, later reduced on appeal in 2011 to five years. Whenever he’s paroled, I can tell you this, he’ll find someone to finance his next big idea and be back in business. And I for one will happily go see whatever extravaganza is combusting in his head right now.

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