Like they said, Sam, opera spells big trouble

Ken Johnstone September 3 1966

Like they said, Sam, opera spells big trouble

Ken Johnstone September 3 1966

Like they said, Sam, opera spells big trouble

All Sam Olan wanted to do was put on a good show

Ken Johnstone

SAM OLAN IS REALLY a very nice guy. He’s such a nice guy that, just to please his wife Marie, he squandered $150,000, roused 130 temperamental Italians to a lynch mood, seriously jeopardized Montreal Mayor Drapeau’s long-cherished dream for a permanent opera company, spurred the Quebec government into appointing a mediator to avoid what threatened to become an international incident, and then landed himself in the hoosegow. He also managed to disappoint a large body of Toronto opera-lovers who were looking forward to sharing the thrills enjoyed by their Montreal compatriots, who, in the course of all this, packed out eight performances of some very superior Italian opera, enhanced by such glittering stars as Renata Tebaldi. Mario del Monaco and Tito Gobbi.

It all started out so innocently. Toronto-born Sam Olan makes a good living — good enough that the U. S. government is demanding $5.5 mil-

lion in back excise tax — by trading in securities. It has not been unusual for him to buy $1,000,000 worth of shares in the morning on one market and sell them the same day on another at a fractional increase in value, enough to pay the broker’s commission and make Sam $10,000 or $15,000 profit. He figures that’s a pretty good day’s work and advises his friends, “Never fall in love with a stock.” His trouble was that he fell in love with Italian opera.

It happened in Montreal, where Olan moved from Florida last fall after his troubles developed with the U. S. tax authorities. He took a very elegant apartment in The Cartier, an expensive new apartment block at the corner of Peel and Sherbrooke streets. He furnished his new home in a style that suggested his resources to be limitless: pale-pink Italian marble floors in the living room and entrance hall, a huge Aubusson rug, hand-carved antique Italian furniture, an outsized bed on a plateau of white marble surrounded by ankle-deep sheepskin carpeting, and walls tapestried in silk when they were not hand-decorated.

Sam smiled happily when his Italian opera guests later referred to him as a modern Medici.

But that’s getting ahead of the story. It really began shortly after Sam and Marie, a traffic-stopping blonde who used to make a living trading on the New York market, moved into The Cartier last winter. The Cartier’s rental agent suggested that Sam might like to dabble in a little operatic venture that a friend of his was trying to promote.

This friend had persuaded the celebrated La Scala Opera Company of Milan to visit Canada. The tour was to be heavily subsidized: $150,000 from the Italian government, $50,000 from the City of Montreal, another $50,000 from the Quebec government', $70,000 in sponsors and $80,000 from the CBC for the TV rights to La Traviata. All that was needed was a mere $15,000 each from Sam and nine other people, who stood to make a handsome profit on the enterprise.

It sounded great to Sam Olan. Marie, of Italian parentage, loved opera, and here was Sam’s chance to be an art patron for a mere $15,000. Besides, if the man’s figures were right, he might

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High hopes — then bills, bills, bills

impression when he arrived at the Olan apartment for a luncheon appointment, with two dozen long-stemmed red roses for Marie. (Sam said that a month later he got the bill for them.) By then, Baranes was on the payroll at $200 a week and was vice-president of Sam’s new company, La Compagnie des Grandes Premières.

Sam plunged into the enterprise enthusiastically, and his enthusiasm was only slightly dimmed a couple of days later when he had to produce $250 to get Baranes out of Bordeaux jail, where he had been incarcerated for failing to settle traffic fines. He gave Baranes $1,500 and dispatched him first-class by plane to Italy to sign up La Scala. Next day he got a long-distance call from Baranes; he’d missed La Scala by a single day. Never mind, though—he could get the Teatro Regio of Parma, which was a better company anyway, even if La Scala was world-famous. Baranes knew opera, he told Sam.

Meanwhile, Sam had told people that he was bringing over La Scala. Expo got pretty hot. So did the Italian government. So did La Scala. Sam changed his story: he wasn’t actually bringing over La Scala, just the stars of La Scala, people who had become world-famous and were now too highpriced for La Scala.

$6,500 for silence

He was right there, all right. Baranes signed the stars at prices they had never received before. Renata Tebaldi was to receive $8,500 for a single performance, Tito Gobbi $6,500, Mario del Monaco $6,500. They were all to appear in Verdi’s Otello together, making that probably one of the highest-priced performances in operatic history. And just to make sure, Baranes signed several highpriced stars as understudies. Marcella Pobbi, for instance, was signed to sing the same role as Tebaldi. She had a guarantee of $6,500, and ended up by collecting it without singing a single note, and threatening to sue Olan into the bargain.

By this time, early in June. Sam realized that he was the only one of the 10 hypothetical backers to materialize. He knew by now that he didn’t have La Scala, nor any of those subsidies totaling some $400,000 that Baranes had talked about a few months earlier. When it was suggested to him that he might drop a lot of money, he said, “So what? The market went down. I took the money out of the market. If I’d left it in. I would have lost it anyway. It’s only money.”

Advance sale at the box office at Place des Arts had been excellent. Though he was charging $18.50 per ticket for the best seats on opening night, the high price didn’t seem to discourage the opera buffs. It looked as though all 10 scheduled Montreal performances might even sell out. Sam got carried away. He visualized a sellout in Toronto’s O'Keefe Centre as well, though these performances were scheduled to take place between July 4 and July 10, definitely offseason. The company was to stay on

in Canada until July 20. and Sam planned a series of concerts through Quebec and Ontario which, he hoped, would net him a handsome profit.

By now Sam had been to Italy, met the head of the Teatro Regio of Parma, Dr. Giuseppe Negri, and paid him an advance of $8,500 for rehearsals, which, he now claims, never took place. But Olan and Baranes were still optimistic, even though the local opera critics were skeptical. The management of the Place des Arts was skeptical, too—so much so that they demanded full payment for the rental three months in advance.

In fact, everybody who did business with Olan insisted on payment in advance. As opening night approached, Sam kept taking money out of the market, more and more of it, and the demands for cash increased. The advance sale had reached $200.000, but Sam couldn’t touch a penny of it: it was in the hands of the Montreal Trust Company, which had issued the guarantees to the performers.

By now, Olan was thoroughly disenchanted with his vice-president. At one point, he accused Baranes of cashing in his airline ticket and financing his trip to Italy by selling Alitalia an ad in the opera program. At another, he had to threaten Baranes with police action before he could get him to produce the contracts he’d signed with the Italian opera stars. But Olan decided to avoid an open split until the company arrived in Montreal. By then, he felt, “my troubles will be over.” In fact, they were just beginning.

The bulk of the company arrived some 10 days before the season was scheduled to begin. Olan arranged to billet them in the hotel of a “friend who needed the business,” the owner of the Royal Embassy Hotel, just across the street from Olan's apartment. When it was pointed out that Olan could get a cheaper rate in a theatrical hotel. The Queens, which usually handles visiting troupes, Sam waved the advice aside, as he did most professional counsel. Besides. “Baranes had signed the contract.” One of the first demands he had to meet upon the troupe’s arrival was for an advance of $3,000 from the hotel against the forthcoming hotel bill, and Sam’s friend at the Royal Embassy continued his helpful role in Sam's subsequent troubles, at one point threatening to stop the show unless he got his bill settled.

The troupe, of course, was delighted to find their impresario so handy. They moved in on him in force, like locusts, helped themselves liberally to his food and booze, and complained about the poor service. At any hour of the day or night the Olans were fair game for sudden demands—$50 to see a doctor perhaps, or $10 for a taxi bill.

And then the real bills began to pour in: $4,000 for estimated overtime for stagehands—in advance; $4.500 in air-freight charges for scenery that had been delayed; $38.000 for the charter flight; $1.200 each for firstclass air fares for the stars and orchestra leader Alberto Erede; $2,100

Out of the past, still more trouble

to clean the costumes which had gone through a rainstorm on the way to the theatre; $4,000 in advance for lumber for the scenery, and even $40 in advance for nails to erect the scenery. Nearly every day Dr. Negri was around for another $2,000 for the troupe. Sam paid, and paid, and paid—and now it really began to hurt, though he never stopped smiling.

What really hurt was the fact that the opera expenses were ruining a nice stock deal that Olan had been nursing for the past three months. He’d bought about 100,000 shares of a stock that was to figure in a takeover deal. He’d paid $2.50 per share, and the take-over offer for the company was four dollars. The deal was to go through early in July. Now it was late in June, and to meet the never-ending demands for money Sam was having to dump his shares on the market at $2.50, being reasonably certain that they would hit four dollars within two weeks.

“Oh, well,” said Sam to a friend, “never mind. I’ll have my money from the box office next week and I’ll buy the shares back, even if I have to pay three dollars. There’s still a good profit to be made there.”

Olan never did get his hands on that box-office money. For, by now, the debacle had set in. Despite all preceding crises, opening night had been a great artistic success and the house had been sold out. Judy LaMarsh, Guy Favreau, the Russian ambassador had all been there; also Pierre Sévigny. But when Sam’s accountant, Mortimer Davis, CA, a belated addition to his enterprise, worked out the costs against the healthy gross of $45,000 he discovered that Sam had dropped $12,000 on his biggest night of the season. Furthermore, the receipts were frozen by guarantees, some of which could not be paid until all the performances had been given. Subsequent performances promised similar deficits.

The principals received their fees without any trouble, but the chorus and orchestra had received nothing, according to Dr. Negri. Sam wondered aloud where all the money had gone that he had already turned over to Dr. Negri.

By now the Union des Artistes had gotten into the act, and supported the company in a threat to cancel a performance of La Traviata that had already been sold out, unless salaries were promptly paid. The performance of Falstaff that had been originally scheduled for June 23 was postponed a week and then abandoned altogether, though it too was sold out.

It was not until this point that Sam finally admitted the hopelessness of his enterprise. When Mayor Drapeau intervened to arrange some settlement that would avert a total disaster, Olan readily agreed to sign over his rights to the box-office proceeds to the chorus and orchestra and take his licking for the $150,000 he’d already spent. He canceled the Toronto program, forfeiting the $15,000 advance rental. And he just hoped that the company would leave town quietly and that he would never hear of grand opera for the rest of his life.

Meanwhile, though the box-office proceeds had been signed over to Dr. Negri, he decided to cancel the performance of La Traviata anyway, thus cutting off $25,000 from his own company’s funds and offering a fitting comment on the general sanity of Italian opera.

If Sam Olan thought his troubles were over, he couldn’t have been more wrong. A story of his plunge into culture that appeared in the Toronto Star prompted a former business associate to file a charge against him of having “uttered” a certified cheque of $25,000, by changing its face value from $25 to that figure. The charge was made in Owen Sound, Ont., and Sam was picked up in Montreal in consequence of the warrant issued for his arrest. The charge was said to date back to 1964.

Sam was incarcerated in Owen Sound jail, while Marie frantically tried to raise bail. Sam’s erstwhile friends disappeared as though by magic.

At the same time an old friend with whom Olan had been sharing his Montreal office, former stockbroker Ernie Savard, secured a judgment against Olan for $36,000 in what was surely one of the most mysterious actions on record, since Olan has been in daily contact with Savard for the past seven months and had absolutely no inkling of the proceedings, by which he was supposed to have been informed through advertisements in Toronto newspapers.

Finally, fighting mad

In Montreal, the company concluded its performances and, with the assistance of the Quebec government, packed off for home. Dr. Negri announced on his departure that his company would be glad to come back some day—after all it had been very well received. Laurent Baranes was again arrested for failing to pay traffic tickets and spent another night in Bordeaux jail, and Giancarlo del Monaco, son of the opera star, was arrested for fighting in a night club and was released on $200 bail.

After a week in Owen Sound, Sam was released on $10,000 cash bail, which Marie raised after she had some trouble persuading a stockbroker to issue a cheque for stock that he had sold the previous week on her account. Olan returned to Montreal, finally fighting mad. He took action to have the Savard judgment set aside, and this was promptly done. He filed counter suits against Savard. He demanded a substantiation of the final statement submitted to him by Place des Arts, claiming that they had not credited him with considerable amounts that he had paid and for which he had the canceled cheques, and at last report he was planning action against those whom he considered responsible for his heavy deficit.

Sam now contends that if everybody had co-operated, he might have lost only $25,000.

But, then, Sam had been warned about Italian opera. ★