The Nation’s Business

Drabinsky as a young man on the make

Peter C. Newman February 1 1999
The Nation’s Business

Drabinsky as a young man on the make

Peter C. Newman February 1 1999

Drabinsky as a young man on the make

The Nation’s Business

Peter C. Newman

That’s not the Garth I know, I thought to myself as I read last week’s reports that if Drabinsky doesn’t personally attend a court hearing to answer the 16 charges of conspiracy and fraud filed against him in a New York City court, he will be officially designated a fugitive from justice and hunted down.

I knew the troubled impresario best when he was on the make, carving out his remarkable career in entertainment law just before he turned Cineplex Odeon Corp. into one of the continent’s leading movie-house chains. We had the occasional drink at Bemelman’s, then a fashionable bar on Toronto’s Bloor Street, which featured a sound system that played his favourite music, the cool saxophone musings of Gato Barbiéri. This was in 1977, when he was 27 and still

lacked the self-confidence to -

admit that his middle name was Howard.

Drabinsky was—and is— a novelist’s dream, a Duddy Kravitz turned theatrical entrepreneur, brought down by hubris, personal extravagance and an unquenchable ego. His manner of speech was a mixture of Damon Runyon and Billy Graham. He would sing his own praises with quasi-religious fervour, then interrupt himself with asides that made him sound like an off-Broadway low-life huckster.

His personality was evenly balanced: a chip on each shoulder— the first about his childhood polio, the second about being Jewish. Impressively successful for his age, he was obsessed with antiSemitism, even when it didn’t exist. To him, being Jewish was more of a cause than a religion. He boasted about how he insisted, at the age of 12, on reading the Torah at Beth Sholom Synagogue, the youngest-ever participant in the Saturday services. (“It gave me tremendous confidence to talk, sing, chant, whatever, in front of a crowd.”) He then went on to North Toronto Collegiate where he was elected the first Jewish president of the student council—“and with the greatest plurality ever,” he never failed to mention.

At the time we met, he worked for Thomson, Rogers, a predominantly WASP legal factory. “I walked in the front door and said, Well, here I am. I’m Jewish and this is what I want to do,’ ” Garth boasted. “One time, I was in the office of the managing partner and I heard afterwards he was on the point of kicking me out because I had the nerve to make a statement about my position in life. I believe in taking the bold approach to something you believe in and turning it to your own advantage. I’m considered a freak by most people. They look at me and think, ‘Impossible, how can a guy that young have done all this?’ But that’s where it’s at for me, gut-wise.”

By then Drabinsky had already written a book on entertainment law, published two magazines (Canadian Film Digest, a trade journal, and Impact, a monthly promotional vehicle distributed in movie

He was a novelist’s dream, a Duddy Kravitz brought down by hubris, extravagance and an unquenchable ego

theatres) and produced one bad movie, The Disappearance, with David Hemmings. I remember him handing me, unasked, his CV that catalogued every detail of his young life, including his club memberships which had only one entry: the Cambridge Club. (This was supposed to sound vaguely British and decidedly academic, but the Cambridge is actually a downtown Toronto fitness club that any male who can pay the annual fees of up to $1,795 and loves to sweat can join.)

I wasn’t at all surprised at recent revelations that Drabinsky’s expense account topped more than an incredible $200,000 per month, including a chauffeur-driven Mercedes. (Even back then, he drove a “Seville Caddy” which he described as “my Jew Canoe.”) Talking to him, I realized that Drabinsky’s thirst for legitimacy could never be satisfied, but it was his ambition to say “I did it” that seemed to drive him. That’s why I find the criminal accusations against him so surprising. The conduct they allege is hardly the way to earn the respect Drabinsky has been plugging away since puberty to achieve. An acquaintance of Drabinsky’s once claimed he was in such a hurry to succeed that “Garth could go through the 24-hour flu in eight hours.” Broadcaster Moses Znaimer, who shares some of Drabinsky’s drive, once observed: “He’s the only guy who makes me feel avuncular.” The most telling Freudian slip was made by Peter Gzowski, at the end of one of his Morningside interviews: “And that was Darth Grabinsky,” he blurted out, before correcting himself.

The title of Drabinsky’s 1995 multi-ghostwritten autobiography, Closer to the Sun, which, it is estimated, cost him close to $200,000, said it all. The mythological tale of Icarus, the son of Daedalus, who was determined to fly and soared to the heavens but plunged into the sea when the sun melted his wax wings is the perfect metaphor for Garth’s troubles. Typically, Drabinsky told an interviewer at the time: “The bastard just gave up too soon. He should have gotten himself another set of wings and taken off again.”

When I best knew Drabinsky, there was a story making the rounds about the woman at a party who had sidled up to him, kissed him on the cheek, and coyly asked: “How is the biggest entertainment name in the city?”

‘You mean the country,” Drabinsky pointedly corrected her.

Neither imagined that his name would some day be up in Broadway lights as the co-founder and chief animator of Livent Inc., North America’s largest live theatre production company. Nor that his quest for success at any price would eventually lead him to his current prospect, if convicted, of being sentenced to up to 140 years in jail.

But that’s where it’s at, gut-wise, for Garth-baby at the moment.