Frontlines

Shootout on feisty Beverley Street

Laurie Deans August 6 1979
Frontlines

Shootout on feisty Beverley Street

Laurie Deans August 6 1979

Shootout on feisty Beverley Street

Frontlines

The producers mistakenly thought Toronto’s Beverley Street would be perfect. It had a back alley wide enough for a lumbering garbage truck, houses cramped, yet large enough to accommodate cast, crew and lights, and just the right degree of dilapidation to suggest a modern-day Philadelphia slum, the setting of the $2-million American feature film Happy Birthday, Gemini.

“We came to Canada because we heard it was a film-making mecca,” explains Happy Birthday, Gemini Producer Rupert Hitzig, referring to the variety of locations, the relatively calm urban summer and, not incidentally, the shrunken dollar. But, adds Hitzig, “we picked the wrong neighborhood.” Unwittingly, the film crew had landed smack in the middle of one of Toronto’s most politically sophisticated residents’ associations, known as the Canada Trust Tenants’ Union, which, for a decade, has been battling developers and governments to preserve its low-rise neighborhood from high-rise redevelopment. And like the developers, the moviemakers caused problems that brought out the neighborhood’s fighting spirit.

“They were asking us to give up a whole lot,” says a nine-year Beverley Street resident Ceta Ramkhalawansingh—the block’s very articulate ringleader—who notes that only two households were warned about the film and were duly relocated. “Everyone else lost their parking spaces, had to stay inside their houses [during filming], couldn’t mow their lawns. There was constant noise and klieg lights shining into windows until 4 a.m.”

“They told me I could only rehearse on their lunch hour,” says Bruce Scott, a concert pianist who, like Ramkhalawansingh, found himself sharing a party wall with the film company. “I was told I was interfering with art. I told them they could film on my lunch hour because they were interfering with my career.”

The film crew was nonplussed. Certainly it wasn’t the first time a Canadian site has been asked to double for an American location. In recent years, Vancouver has been shot for Maine {Prophecy), Alberta for the wild West {Buffalo Bill and the Indians), the Prairies for the Midwest {Superman), Montreal for the eastern U.S. {Quintet) and Toronto, aptly dubbed the “Hollywood of the North,” for, among others, Washington {Nothing Personal), Boston {The Paper Chase) and Chicago {Silver Streak).

But the battle of Beverley Street had been joined in earnest. Instead of the expected crowd of local movie stardom hopefuls and star watchers crowding the set for a glimpse of Madeline Kahn or Rita Moreno, Birthday Productions Inc. found its directors’ chairs almost pulled out from under them. The CTTU, whose membership includes many professionals, were not bluffing when they threatened to obtain a court injunction against the shooting. When meetings with the film company resulted in a stalemate, the CTTU forced city hall to lay charges—since the shoot, which began June 18, violated the residential zoning bylaw.

But the cameras kept rolling anyway, so saboteurs declared a mild open-season: one resident erected a huge cabana in his backyard, then cloaked a number of houses in yards of army camouflage cloth. Ramkhalawansingh obtrusively took before and after photos of the site. The filmers countered with their veteran ploy of offering a bit of “glamor” for neighbors and their children—free dinners and maybe a free dress here and there. But Beverley Street wouldn’t budge.

“I’ve shot in almost every city in the world and I’ve never encountered anything like this,” said Hitzig. The filmmakers, who had already invested $24,000 on the site, panicked. In desperation, Hitzig’s partner, American comedian Alan King, persuaded New York Mayor Ed Koch’s office to plead with Toronto’s Mayor John Sewell for cooperation. (Sewell mistakenly called back Canadian film director Allan King, who was understandably confused. “We don’t do things like that in Canada,” he reassured Sewell.)

Into the fray rushed a new production manager, John Quill, hired by the film’s worried guarantor “because there was more soap opera off the set than on,” and negotiations were re-opened. In return for compensation to the residents most disrupted by the filming ($2,500 to two households, $750 to a third), a donation to the tenants’ association, the hiring of two residents to act as liaison with the crew and an agreement to pay for damages, replace trees that had been cut down and give adequate notice of shooting schedules, the residents agreed to co-operate and lay no more charges. And provided the site reverted to its original state in early August, the city would not take the film-makers to court for the zoning violations.

The battle of Beverley Street was an embarrassment that Brian Villeneuve, consultant in the film industry development office of the Ontario ministry of industry and tourism, doesn’t want to see repeated. His office will spend $125,000 on publicity over the next 12 months to attract film-makers to Ontario (B.C. and Alberta have similar programs), and he wants the province to live up to its promotion material’s claims.

Eighteen productions will be filmed in September and October, the bulk in Toronto. “A lot of news in the [film] industry travels by word of mouth,” notes Villeneuve. “It’s a simple matter for them to go elsewhere.” To ensure they don’t, Villeneuve, backed by the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC) and the Canadian Associa-

tion of Motion Picture Producers (CAMPP), has convinced Toronto’s city council to establish a film industry liaison office along the lines of those in New York and Montreal, which, with one phone call will steer film-makers through the kind of municipal red tape Birthday Productions Inc. got tangled in. “We don’t want the city hall bureaucracy to inhibit a good thing,” explains acting film liaison officer Marilyn Spink, Sewell’s assistant, “but at

the same time, we want to see that location shooting doesn’t intrude on people’s lives.”

City hall may soon have a firsthand opportunity to see what it’s like to have a film crew camped in one’s yard. Sefel Pictures International Limited plans to film part of The Kidnapping of the President in Toronto this fall. Where do they want to park their vans, lights, and crew for one week? On the city hall square. Laurie Deans