Blowing millions at the movies

Gordon Legge February 15 1982

Blowing millions at the movies

Gordon Legge February 15 1982

Blowing millions at the movies


Gordon Legge

In Palm Springs, Calif., where Jack Singer jets in regularly to a luxury condominium, a local society editor calls him “the original laid-back individual.” In downtown Calgary, where he oversees a $500-million real estate empire from a modest third-storey office above the Outlaw Saloon, Singer carries those California vibrations with him. With his long grey hair, open-neck shirts, gold chains and dreamy, softspoken manner, he acts more like a blissed-out Buddha than a tycoon.

But nothing quickens his pulse like doing a deal. “Hey, look at this. This is history,” he exclaims as, with a flourish of his pen, he authorizes expenditures of $42.8 million for United Management Ltd.’s biggest office project ever, the First Alberta Place in downtown Calgary.

Lately, the man Variety magazine dubbed “the Canadian Howard Hughes” has been making a lot of history, shedding some of the obscurity that has long enshrouded him, even in his beloved Calgary. Two weeks ago, the Singer family announced the gift of $1.5 million to the new Calgary Centre for the Performing Arts.

differently reviewed by critics, but Singer loves the film and may yet invest more money in it: “It’s a beautiful movie, and I think it will do big business,” says Singer. “Coppola, he’s great you know. He just doesn’t know the value of money.”

The same could not be said of Jack Singer. Says Linda Rosenberg, a business associate in Hollywood: “Jack’s a terror in negotiations. His laid-back attitude catches people off guard. They don’t think he’s paying attention, but, in fact, he’s in total control.” It might appear, however, that he lost control the day he met Coppola. A friend invited him to visit Coppola’s Zoetrope studios in Los Angeles, and an opportunity arose to meet the director. Says Singer: “Coppola was my hero. I thought maybe I’d get an autograph.”

The 2,000-seat concert hall will be named the Jack Singer Music Centre. Last year, Singer rescued celebrated film director Francis Ford Coppola from financial difficulties over his latest picture, One From the Heart. The $23-million musical extravaganza, scheduled to open this week, was in-

Instead, Coppola got Singer’s on a cheque. Without even reading the script, Singer loaned him $3 million. As he recalls: “We sort of clicked. I understood what he was going through. I’ve had problems where I wish people had come to me and said, ‘Here’s some help.’ ” Sincere and sentimental as he is, Singer is not naïve. His loan is secured by a mortgage on Zoetrope, and he will get his money plus interest.

His investment also bought him a first-class entrée into Hollywood. He

lived for several months at Coppola’s house and spent many hours with him on the set. Toward the end, when Singer avoided the shoot (“Why bother the guy? His guts are being torn out because he’s—he’s the whole thing.”), Coppola sent for him and confided: “Jack, I love this movie. Maybe it’s a bad sign. I hated Apocalypse Now. I hated Godfather I and II.” Singer’s bailout of Coppola has won him much goodwill in Hollywood. Says Rosenberg: “Francis has a lot of friends in this town. They didn’t help him; Jack did.” Singer shrugs: “In Hollywood, everyone is afraid of somebody. I have no fears. I can always go back to business.”

Some say the kindly Singer is much like his mother, Bella. Now over 100 years old and under 24-hour care in a nursing home, Bella emigrated to Can-

ada from Poland in 1907 with her husband, Abraham, to escape the pogroms. Once in Canada, Bella started saving to bring over her family. As soon as a relative arrived, she would extract a promise from him to do likewise. Bella is credited with bringing over somewhere between 800 and 1,000 Jews, including the Belzberg family. Singer, who is devoted to his mother, keeps a suede looseleaf binder, with the word BELLA in gold lettering on the cover, filled with clippings about her. Pointing to a Time article entitled THE WOMAN WHO CARED,

he says, “The really big story is my mother’s. They came to a strange country with no friends or relatives. They couldn’t speak the language. Then how could they think of sending for anyone?” he wonders. “If you save one life in your lifetime, what’s greater than that? Generations are going to live forever because of what this woman did.” As a youth in Calgary, Singer collected the rent in the family’s east-end rooming houses. Of the tenants he recalls: “In those days they used to drink rubbing alcohol. They’d be lying all over the floor. I’d walk in and say, ‘Gimme the rent.’ ” On one occasion a man “as tall as this building” threw the 11-yearold on the floor, sending his tiny briefcase flying. He was about to stomp on Jack, who rolled over just in time to grab his leg and topple him. Up before

dawn to deliver the morning Albertan, he would deliver the evening Herald after school, attend Hebrew School, play some sports and head for the YMCA, where he trained as a boxer. At 17, Singer won the Canadian lightweight championship. “Thousands” went to Calgary’s Victoria Pavillion to “watch the Jew get killed,” he recalls. Instead, Singer landed a “lucky punch” and won. A riot ensued, and he had to be spirited out the back door. A year later he retired from boxing after being told he would permanently impair his hearing if he continued.

Around that time,

Singer heard that a downtown Calgary office building was for sale at $60,000 with $25,000 down. For the downpayment, the ambitious teenager approached his mother’s cousin, Abraham Belzberg Sr., who ran a furniture store and did small real estate deals on the side. “I told him he’d get his money back first, then we’d be partners.

We shook hands and were partners for 35 years.” (Eventually,

Abraham’s sons sold his 50-per-cent interest in United Management, which was later acquired by Singer.)

The excitable Belzberg was well-paired with easy-going Singer, who developed a reputation for being “as good as his handshake.” Not that he didn’t have enemies.

“Before I came to work here I was told he was one of the most obnoxious, miserable sons of bitches around,” says United Management General Manager Bob Gibson. The problem, says Gibson, is that Singer “believes everybody is honest and hardworking. When somebody turns out not to have these attributes and he happens to get in a deal with him, he gets pretty upset.”

His business career has had its ups and downs. Twenty years ago, a mortgage was called unexpectedly on some property, and Jack, who had guaranteed it, couldn’t come up with the cash. It touched off a collapse in his business affairs. He went so far as to sign the papers to sell his 50-per-cent interest in United Management to the Belzbergs,

but the deal fell through at the last minute. Singer became ill and retired to his bedroom, withdrawing from the world for several years. His wife of 36 years, Shirley, 55, says there were two extremes in the household, a butler at the front door and paper drapes on the windows. Says Singer: “When they stopped calling for donations, I knew I was finished.” Eventually, however, he went back to work and rebuilt his fortunes.

Today, his sons Alan, 35, and Ste-

phen, 30, together with Gibson, run the Singer empire. (Separate from the Calgary Singers, Jack’s older brother, Hymie, is a multimillionaire in his own right. Hymie is known for his outrageous schemes: a 1957 plan to build a subway from New York to Los Angeles; a $500,000 investment in a comedy version of Dante’s Inferno, made in Calgary.) Both of Jack’s sons made it on their own—Alan in the retail clothing business and Stephen in restaurants— before joining their father, a fact Singer is particularly proud of. With more than 20 companies under the umbrella of United Management, one of the largest private developers in

Western Canada, the Singers control prime chunks of property in Calgary and the U.S. Sunbelt. They have enough land in inventory to handle $200 million annually in building starts over the next five years. Through another company they have invested $75 million in oil exploration.

Both are protective toward their father, happy to see him indulging his whims. “For a long time he didn’t really think of himself,” explains Alan. At 65, Singer still dabbles in the business, keeping track of his investments and important phone numbers on a piece of 8-by-ll-inch paper that he keeps folded in his pocket and only discards when it becomes torn and indecipherable.

Always gentle and ^considerate, Singer Ô seems to have time |for anyone who wanSders into his office. £ Still a passionate £ sportsman, he keeps up his interest in boxing as a charter member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame board of directors. But too much time on his hands makes him restless. “Even when we go away he has to be doing something to occupy his mind,” says his wife. One such diversion is looking for a movie to produce. After he met Coppola, he founded Jack ¡2 Singer Productions, line. When word got “out about his investment in One From the %Heart, the scripts *3 started pouring in. Singer has a thick stack of them on the ledge behind his desk. Typical of these is a new one that lands on his desk, fresh from the morning mail: “Shango—a jungle/romance/adventure in the mood of Raiders of the Lost Ark by the producer of Welcome Back, Kotter,” he laughs. Singer has found a script— “about a blind kid and what he had to go through”—that he wants to produce once he’s straightened out his involvement with Zoetrope. He would like to do it in Canada, possibly in Calgary. But unlike his hero, Coppola, he’s not looking for bail outs. “I don’t need any money to blow. I can blow my own.”

With wife Shirley in Palm Springs (clockwise from the top); with mother Bella at her 90th birthday party; sons Alan (left) and Stephen: blowing his own money