A Bassett To The Manner Born
Johnny F. is one of a new breed of celebrity businessmen — and only incidentally his father’s son
The way to recognize a member of the Jock Mafia is to look at the walls in his office. Almost invariably, you will find framed photographs, many of them fondly inscribed, of other members of the Jock Mafia. John F. Bassett Jr., for instance, operates out of an office tucked away above a hamburger stand on Toronto’s Bloor Street — the location reminds one of the American Mafia don who rules his empire from a funeral home in Buffalo.
And, sure enough, the walls of John F. Bassett Jr.’s office are lined with framed photographs: John Bassett’s young son, wearing skates and a Maple Leaf hockey sweater, being introduced to Our National Game by Harold Ballard; John Bassett and George Eaton, posing for the camera at Mosport with Stirling Moss;
John Bassett with Robert Kennedy, an old and lamented family friend;
John Bassett with his chum and sometime business partner, John Craig Eaton; John Bassett with his father, who controls the Toronto Argonauts football team and much of the CTV network; John Bassett with Elizabeth Ashley, the star of the most recent film he produced;
John Bassett with his beautiful wife Susan, of the brewery Carlings ...
Yes, it is all there, on the wall of the office where John F. Bassett Jr., 35 years old, handsome and slightly blond, all coiled and energetic and somehow languid at the same time, a Canadian inversion of the gilded Princetonians
whom Scott Fitzgerald used to write about, sits on a sofa in front of a coffee table, talking urgently into the telephone about some sports or entertainment deal which, a surprising amount of the time, will involve people he’s gone to school with or played hockey with.
I ask John about this, all these guys he went to school with and played hockey with and sits on boards of directors with, and his face brightens as he catches the line of my questioning. I am not being very subtle, because you don’t have to play games with John. He is direct and honest with people, and has
a very good name in circles where a man in his position could easily acquire the reputation of a ruthless, overprivileged schmuck. And so, when the subject of these interesting friendships emerges, he says: “Aw, I see what you’re getting at — you’re trying to establish a sort of network of these people.” Then he chortles in a sort of self-deprecating way and adds: “Maybe Fred or John Eaton could give you that better than I could.”
John F. Bassett Jr. is becoming a celebrity in spite of himself. Late last year, when he flew down to New York to have lunch with the new president of Columbia Pictures, it amazed him to discover that everyone who processed him onto that flight — the girl who took his ticket, the ticket agent standing next to her, people in the waiting room — they all recognized him, greeted him like a hockey player or a movie star they’d
“I know I’ve got a good name in the entertainment business”
seen on TV, treated him like — well, like a celebrity.
Much of this recognition is due simply to the fact that, as Aristotle Onassis once observed, the easiest way to become famous is to buy businesses that are people’s playthings. And John F. Bassett is rapidly becoming the visible embodiment of that small network of people who run the businesses that are the playthings of Canadian society.
Movies, pro sport, newspapers, pop concerts, TV, stage productions — these are the toys with which an urban culture diverts itself. And since Bassett, like his father before him, is involved in nearly all segments of this small and interdependent world, people tend to know about him. and about the interconnections that make it all work.
The most obvious connection, of course, is John Bassett and his father, John Bassett Sr. (In this article, which touches on four generations of John Bassetts, I’m going to call him John Bassett II.) Bassett II owned the now defunct Toronto Telegram, was once a one-third owner of Maple Leaf Gardens, now owns the Toronto Argonaut football team and Toronto’s CFTO-TV. His son, Bassett III, has expanded that network by becoming (a) probably the most important film producer in English-speaking Canada; (b) the promoter of Toronto’s WHA hockey team, the Toros; (c) the Toronto option-holder for a new football league franchise, and the Canadian entrepreneur behind a proposed pro tennis league.
And of course there is that venerable connection between the Bassetts and the department store Eatons. It was the late John David Eaton’s signature that allowed John Bassett II to borrow the money to buy the Toronto Telegram for $4,250,000 in 1952. To avoid death duties, the Telegram and other Bassett interests, which then included a piece of the Argonauts, CFTO-TV and Maple Leaf Gardens, were put into a trust owned by John David’s four sons (John, Fred, George and Thor), and Bassett U’s three sons (John III, Doug and David). John David Eaton died in 1973, and the store is now run by John Craig Eaton as chairman, and Fred as president. It was John Craig Eaton who, with John Bassett III, led the Toronto group that bought the Ottawa Nationals, for a reported $1.8 million, from a Buffalo aerospace millionaire named Nick Trbovich, and renamed the team the Toronto Toros. All these interests are owned by The Telegram Corp., the holding company that, in trust for the Bassett and Eaton boys, and through a chain of subsidiaries, controls the Argos, the Toros, CFTO-TV, Glen Warren Productions Ltd., Agincourt Productions, and Inland Publishing Limited.
The other Toronto group that wanted the Ottawa Nats was fronted by 26-year-old Bill Ballard, vicepresident of the Toronto Maple Leafs and son of John Bassett Sr.’s old partner, Harold Ballard. Harold Ballard was in jail at the time for defrauding the Gardens. This allowed sportswriters to speculate on the rivalry between the two families. Bassett III says the rivalry doesn’t exist, at least in his mind. But the structure he’s building, with the Toronto Toros as the centrepiece, could some day become a business as rich and elaborate as Maple Leaf Gardens itself — and be in direct competition with it.
One begins to sense from all this that there is some kind of affinity in this country between politics, pro sports, the media, and /
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BASSETT from page 22
the manufacture of alcoholic beverages. When a team owner sits down to make a deal in any Canadian city, there’s often a distiller or a publisher somewhere nearby. Sometimes, as in the case of Bassett II, they’re the same people.
These people don’t all know each other. It’s not as though there were some sinister, trans-Canada broederbond pulling it all together. But they all know about each other, which sometimes amounts to the same thing. “Give me 48 hours,” Bassett II once said, “and I could find 10 men who’d put up a million each for a National Football League franchise in this country. These guys are itching to get into football.” That was an absolutely trustworthy statement.
There used to be a journalistic word to describe the sort of people whom John Bassett II could ring up and collect million-dollar commitments from. The word is “sportsman” and, like “café society” and “philanthropist,” it has fallen into disuse. Philanthropists have been replaced by foundations. Café society has been supplanted by jet sets. But sportsmen are still with us, although nobody calls them that any more. Sportsmen are jocks with money, and there are still sportsmen, or would-be sportsmen, in every large Canadian city. Not many, but always a few.
Maybe the significant thing is that control seems to be passing to a new generation of sportsmen: rich jocks very much like their fathers, making the same kind of deals their fathers made. John Bassett III, having grown up in a hockey-show biz environment, knows this new network. His connection with his father’s vanished newspaper was a big help: “That’s what I used to love about the newspaper business. You were in the main core of everything that goes on — in the sports field, the society field, the advertising field, the political field. And you see where all the strings go. What that does is give you a tremendous instinctual feel about a new situation, or a new idea, or where to go if you need help or support.”
He says he feels “at home” in almost every large Canadian city. That means he knows who runs what, and where the strings go, and whom to call, in all those places. “Automatically, because of the Argonauts, you have a connection with people in all these cities that are involved in football. Then there’s hockey. Then there’s the film community — that’s only Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto. Then, of course, being involved in broadcasting — that means I know most of the fellows who run the stations in the 14 CTV cities.”
Bassett finds it uncanny the way the same small group of people keep popping up, over and over again, in different situations. The Montrealer who in-
vests in a Bassett movie may turn out to have a lawyer who worked on a Bassett football deal five years ago. The Vancouver television executive’s best friend may turn out to be a member of the group that Bassett put together years ago to bid for a Western Hockey League franchise for Victoria.
Everything in his life, it seems, has come through people he knows, or who know his father. Even Susan: they were introduced as teen-agers at Stratford one summer by Fiorenza Drew, wife of the former Conservative leader. Susan has been a model, and a successful one, and comes from Old Money (the original Carling Breweries) in London, Ontario. “I married into beer,” says Bassett III, “only I kid Susan that she didn’t tell me until after we married that they’d sold the brewery in 1922.” Susan once threw a plate of scrambled eggs at him.
An ice rink on Sunday morning, when the stands are empty, reverberates like an echo chamber. Nobody is there to
cheer, so you can hear something rather beautiful: the actual sound of hockey — the hiss of blades, the crack of wood against wood, the whump of somebody’s padded body hitting the boards. John Bassett Jr. is resting on the bench after 10 minutes on the ice, breathing hard, his head down somewhere near his knees, his padded shoulders heaving, the sounds of hockey in this empty arena bouncing all around him. His Sunday-morning team is called the Sahara Desert Canoe Club, but of course he is wearing a Toronto Toros jersey. The Sahara Desert Canoe Club — the origin of the title was a schoolboy joke that no one can now remember — “is just a bunch of old jocks who like to stretch their legs once in a while.” Although the club’s personnel keeps changing, the old-timers, like Bassett and John Craig Eaton and Peter Eby, have been playing together, either at Upper Canada College, or in arenas two of the fathers owned or help to run, for nearly 20 years. It wasn’t until late last year that Bassett and Eby quit the team because of health problems.
Imagine the bonds, the shared signals, the unspoken trust that must exist between men who, from early childhood, played hockey together on the same sheet of family-owned ice! Maple Leaf Gardens, then owned by Harold Ballard, Stafford Smythe and John Bassett II, was young Bassett’s personal playground. So many of the Sunday mornings of his youth were spent on the ice of that empty arena, as vast and awesome as a cathedral. Even after he was married to Susan, and even after his father had sold his one-third interest in the Gardens, Bassett still used the rink, and sometimes went on road trips with the Leafs. A few years ago, when Bassett Ill’s son John IV, then seven, needed a place to learn the rudiments of the game, Harold Ballard said: “Let him play at the Gardens.” Ballard freed up an hour of ice from seven to eight on Sunday mornings and even provided a man to clean the ice. Later, when Bassett was producing Face-Off, the First Canadian hockey romance, Ballard kept the ice in the Gardens for an extra week so the film crew could shoot the game sequences, arid he-didn’t charge Bassett a penny. In fact, he even took a small'deferred financial position in the movie. Later, during his fraud trial, Ballard asked the younger man to write a personal character reference letter, and of course Bassett’s testimonial was a handsome one.
Bassett III can remember very distinctly the first time he walked into the Gardens after his father had sold his interest. The same faces in the same ancestral photographs were looking down at him from the entrance walls, Conacher and Pratt and Syl Apps and Conn Smythe and his father and all the rest. But it felt strange and sad, because the Gardens wasn’t his place any more. “I guess if you lived in a house for 20 years and your parents decided to sell it, you’d have the same feeling. It’s a real nostalgia thing — kind of a nice feeling. I got the same feeling when the Telegram folded.” (If John III had had his way, the newspaper might still be publishing. His was the sole dissenting vote when the board decided to cease publication.)
Of course that isn’t the first recorded Bassett II-Bassett III clash. Father and son seem to reinforce each other’s competitive energies. Each has an obsessive need to excel at the same things. For years, their father-and-son tennis matches have been legendary: screams, curses, hurled tennis racquets and even, on one memorable occasion, a fistfight. “I’ve always been a competitive guy,” says John III, “and he’s a very competitive guy. But I don’t think there’s any conscious desire on my part to beat him. I mean, there may be, but it’s not conscious.”
Is it mere coincidence, then, that
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BASSETT continued prompted John III to acquire the option on the Toronto franchise for the World Football League, which U.S. promoter Gary Davidson is trying to assemble in a dozen major North American cities? If the WFA gets rolling, won’t this put John III in direct competition with John U’s Argonauts?
“Sure,” says John III, “but if there’s going to be competition between leagues, we’d rather be in competition with ourselves than somebody else. So I grabbed the franchise. And I did it with my father’s full blessing and cooperation. It’s going to be peaceful coexistence, I hope. We’re not going to get into a bidding contest for existing Argo pjayers. But my Dad and I might be competing if, say, there’s a college kid we both want. I can imagine that happening. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” It is a beguiling notion: maybe they’ll install a padded, soundproofed room upstairs at the York Club, so that father and son can settle such questions by single combat.
Ancestral photographs: they follow one everywhere. A few months ago. John Bassett III dropped into the Parliamentary Press Gallery in Ottawa. And there on the wall, in a framed photograph taken on some long-ago afternoon, was his grandfather, standing next to a fellow-irishman named Grattan O’Leary, later the distinguished publisher of the Ottawa Journal.
John Bassett I, the grandfather, became a publisher too. He owned the Montreal Gazette and the Sherbrooke Daily Record. He had a home in Montreal, and the big country house near Sherbrooke where John III, with his father away at the war, spent much of his childhood. “It was a very, very warm place, with a big fireplace,” recalls the grandson. “And my grandfather was a great man — the publisher of the Gazette, a great public speaker. He couldn’t do the physical things. He was crippled. He had a very big comfy chair, and a footstool. And after dinner I and my brothers would be_sitting around him. We’d have our pyjamas and kimonos on, hair neatly combed. Maybe we’d been given a glass of ginger ale as the big treat of the day. And then Pappy would read to us — poetry, novels, newspapers. Sometimes he’d tell us about the people he knew. He knew everybody. He used to dine with the Duke of Windsor at the Ritz. Royalty ... and English history! He knew it like the back of his hand, King Alfred, everything. I spent all my time there during the war. I knew him better than I knew my own father.” The old man was governor of Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Quebec; and so young John’s first school was Bishop’s College School, beneath his grandfather’s portrait.
He was only eight when, at Bishop’s College School, he launched his first venture in publishing and sports promotion: he invented a dice baseball game, set up a league — you had to pay a dime for a franchise — typed out a one-page newspaper of league news, and charged a penny for carbon copies.
In 1948. Basset II was publisher of his father’s newspaper in Sherbrooke. George McCullagh, the man who’d merged the Globe and Mail and Empire, invited him to Toronto to become advertising manager of the Telegram, which he’d just bought. Four years later, Bassett, with John David Eaton’s support, bought the paper from his boss. John III attended Upper Canada College, then University of New Brunswick and University of Western Ontario. His first job was as a reporter on the Victoria Times, where one of his father’s friends, Stuart Keate, was publisher. His new bride Susan wanted to stay in Victoria, but John was bored stiff with cop-shop journalism. It only took a few hours of his day. So, in his spare time, he tried to
get a Western Hockey League franchise in Victoria. At this point, Bassett was 21 years old. He put together a consortium of local businessmen, including Stu Keate. Through his father’s colleagues back east, he arranged for the transfer of a Leafs farm team. Then he and Punch Imlach went to a WHL meeting in San Francisco to make their pitch. They were turned down. Bassett wasn’t discouraged. “It seemed like a good idea, but it didn’t work out. It was an opportunity, that’s all. I like to be active.”
Wasn’t it sort of remarkable for a 21year-old to be putting together a WHL team? Wasn’t he intimidated by the process? No, he wasn’t, because he’d grown up in this environment. And he acknowledges what this environment gave him: “If John Bassett hadn’t been my father, I certainly wouldn’t have known the people, I wouldn’t have had the contacts, or the background you get from watching the Ballards and the Smythes and my Dad. I wouldn’t have had the seat-of-the-pants.”
We are at a wan little gathering at a
German pub in Toronto, celebrating the premiere of Bassett’s latest film, Paperback Hero. It’s a good movie; in fact, one of the three or four best films ever made in English-speaking Canada. And this seems apparent to most of the people who are milling around comparing notes. It should be a triumphal gathering. But the atmosphere of penury is so thick in this room you could cut it with a splicer. Bassett had laid on two searchlights outside the theatre, but now, at the reception afterward, the canapés consist of stoned wheat thins and cheese, and the guests have already discovered, to their considerable horror, that they have to buy their own drinks. Paperback Hero has outgrossed The Godfather in Saskatchewan, where it was filmed. But Toronto is another matter, and Bassett stands around looking uneasy. Somebody tells him he thinks it’s a great flick. Bassett smiles. “Yeah, it’s great.” Then his eyes narrow: “But how do you think it’ll doT
Peter Pearson, the director, is telling a friend: “I have to say it. He’s the best producer I’ve ever worked for. No hassles. I wanted Keir Dullea for the lead, at a time when nobody else would touch him — too introspective, they said. But John okayed him . . .”
Bassett and Susan leave early. Six weeks later, Paperback Hero is still showing at the New Yorker cinema, grossing a respectable $7,000 a week — not bad, but if it had done anything less no distributor anywhere would touch it. Will Bassett and his backers make back their investment? Hard to say. This is Bassett’s fourth film, and his second critical success. But neither Gordon Pinsent’s excellent Rowdyman nor Face-Off, which was a blatant attempt to combine the presumed audience appeal of hockey and pop music, were runaway moneymakers. The first film, Inside Out, was so bad he never released it.
Bassett’s connections with Big Money are so extensive that it’s easy to forget that he takes real financial risks, and doesn’t always win.
He has a good name among film people, and much of it is due to his commitment, a genuine one, to Canadian talent. After he left Victoria, he became a sort of vice-president-in-charge-ofyouth at the Telegram and CFTO. He ran the newspaper’s After Four section, and its companion TV program on CFTO. When Michael Butler’s organization was looking for someone to coproduce Hair in Toronto, they came to Bassett. He insisted on an all-Canadian cast, something Butler’s people believed was impossible. The show ran at the Royal Alexandra Theatre for 13 months, was seen by almost half a million people and, Bassett believes, had a lot to do with changing Toronto’s image from stodgy to swinging. Entertainers as di-
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BASSETT continued verse as Gordon Lightfoot (Bassett arranged his first Massey Hall concert and his first major TV appearance) and Gale Garnett (who starred in Hair and, at Bassett’s suggestion, wrote a column for the Telegram) and Carole Taylor (one of the best TV interviewers in Canada) owe at least some of their success to Bassett.
“I know I’ve got a good name in the entertainment business,” he says. “It sounds arrogant to say it, but there’s a very simple reason — and hopefully the same thing will happen in pro sport. I say what I think and I’m honest about it, and I treat people the way I’d like to be treated myself.” If this sounds mawkish, remember that most of the Englishspeaking film community, which contains some of the nation’s most accomplished bitchers and backbiters, would accept that statement at face value.
Paperback Hero wasn’t Bassett’s only opening that week. The previous Sunday, the Toros played their first home game in Toronto’s Varsity Stadium. The team’s advertising slogan is “Good Hockey, Good Fun,” which is a subtle way of suggesting that you should hope
for good hockey, not great hockey. There was a cocktail party for the team’s directors before the game, and it was an interesting assemblage of New and Old Money. John Craig Eaton is on the board, as chairman of course, and so is his brother George, who used to be a racing driver and now runs a pop promotion agency. Doug Creighton, a former Telegram news executive and now publisher of the Toronto Sun, is another backer, along with land developer Rudy Bratty, another of the Sun's angels. Ron Barbaro (Argo booster, insurance) is another director. So is Ken McGowen, the man who founded and later sold Mac’s Milk. So is Peter Eby, managing director of Burns Bros, and Denton Ltd., the investment house, and Bassett’s and Eaton’s old hockey pal. Nearly all the directors are (a) young (b) rich and (c) dedicated jocks. Between them, they’ve gambled close to two million dollars on the proposition that Toronto can support a second major-league hockey team. They expect to lose $500,000 on that proposition this season and, before the team turns the corner financially, they could lose much more. They’re
hoping to build an arena that will be larger than Maple Leaf Gardens. Obviously, this is an insane commitment unless the Toros can deliver hockey of NHL quality. “Sure we’ll be competitive with the Leafs,” says Bassett. “I think we’ll be competitive with anyone. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be interested.”
It’s a long way from a sure thing. But the Canadian appetite for good hockey is very nearly insatiable.
Still, people like John Bassett Jr., the quintessential Canadian Sportsman of his generation, can face the prospect of financial setbacks with a certain lack of desperation. “I’ve never had to convince banks,” says Bassett. “I’ve had to convince a board of directors, always our own. The relationship has always been a good one, with the seven Eaton and Bassett boys, and the three trustees, and of course my father as the key fellow in it. He’s the kind of guy who will look at an idea, and give you a real good shot at it. He’ll support you.
“And if you blow it, sure, you may get a kick in the butt or two. But it’s not with meanness. It’s with, you know, love and respect. And that really helps.” ■