Business

THE Comeback KING

KIMBERLEY NOBLE June 4 2001
Business

THE Comeback KING

KIMBERLEY NOBLE June 4 2001

THE Comeback KING

Business

KIMBERLEY NOBLE

Its opening night at the theatre, and the air outside Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre sparkles with bright chat and fluttery kisses. The play, a two-man production from South Africa called The Island, has drawn an eclectic crowd. Most of Canada's noteworthy South African expatriates are here, some looking regal in traditional garb. But so is an unusually large number of local cultural heavyweights, not least Ciller Prize benefactor Jack Rabinovitch, AI Waxman’s widow, Sara, Citytv supremo Moses Znaimer and Roots cofounder Michael Budman.

T he Africans have come simply to see the play, an artistic tour de force that helped publicize the plight of political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela when it was first produced in Cape Town in 1973. But others in the audience, including a big contingent from the theatre business, seem only mildly interested in the performance. What they really want to watch is the revival of The Islands producer, Toronto impresario Garth Drabinsky. Either way, they are guaranteed great human drama. The Island's tale of humour and hope in the face of horrendous oppression is interwoven with that of Sophocles’ Antigone. Drabinskys saga, in which he charms and bullies his way to the top only to come crashing down each time,

is also unavoidably Greek. It has the added advantage of suspense, in that nobody knows how far Drabinsky will climb this time, or how the current episode is going to end.

One thing appears certain: Drabinsky is definitely back. “Garth is creating a lot of buzz,” says a respected theatre figure who came to see both the play and the producer. Over the past 18 months, Drabinsky has been gradually emerging from the self-imposed exile that followed the collapse of Livent Inc., his Toronto-based live theatre empire, signing on as a creative and marketing consultant to old friends such as publishing tycoon Conrad Black and southern Ontario’s wealthy Reisman family, who are expanding a vintage resort on Lake Muskoka. And now, for the first time since Livent imploded amid allegations of fraud, Drabinsky is putting on another play. “What is this, his third, fourth, fifth, seventh coming?” asks Urjo Kareda, artistic director of Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre. “What interests me is that after all that’s happened to him he still has a compulsion to be out there.”

The fact that Drabinsky is back in showbiz does not mean his Livent battles are over. Far from it. Drabinsky, 51, and business partner Myron Gottlieb, 57, continue to mount and defend a deluge of legal actions triggered by the meltdown of the company they co-founded in 1989 —including $330 million worth of no-holds-barred lawsuits and countersuits with Hollywood super-agent Michael Ovitz and Livent, an ongoing RCMP investigation and a slew of outstanding U.S. criminal and civil charges. This monumental conflict erupted in 1998 after Ovitz and a group of U.S. investors bought control of Drabinsky’s company and discovered what they allege were fraudulent transactions designed to make awardwinning musicals such as Kiss of the Spider Woman and Ragtime look more profitable.

Since then, only three relatively minor actions have been fully resolved. One U.S. official says an attempt to extradite Drabinsky and Gottlieb to face the U.S. charges is with the justice department in Ottawa, where—given Canada’s historic reluctance to turn over alleged white-collar offenders to foreign governments—it could sit forever (Ottawa refused to comment). RCMP commercial crime investigators, who carted off boxes of Livent documents in 1998, won’t say whether they think there’s a case. The whole matter is expected to take years, perhaps even decades, to get resolved.

But casualties from the Drabinsky-Ovitz battle continue to pile up. In Toronto, theatrical supply companies caught by Livent’s 1998 bankruptcy are still licking their wounds. In Vancouver, the $35-million Livent-owned theatre once known as the Ford Centre for the Performing Arts is up for sale for roughly a third of its former value. And SFX Enter-

tainment Inc., the New York company that purchased the rights to most of Drabinsky’s blockbuster musicals—all the big Tony Award winners such as Spider Woman, Show Boat, Ragtime and Fosse, plus Seussical—announced in late May that it’s pulling the plug on Seussical after a six-month run that resulted in one of the largest losses in Broadway history.

How badly Drabinsky himself will be hurt by this latest business fiasco is anyone’s guess. He won’t talk about it, even obliquely. “A very significant array of wonderful and loyal and caring people that I have known as friends and business colleagues over the years have been very supportive of me in the past three years and they continue to be supportive,” Drabinsky told Macleans. “That’s as much as I’ll say.”

Some legal insiders, however, are willing to venture a starding suggestion. Deeply off the record, not for attribution, you didn’t hear it from them—but Drabinsky might just be winning. Last summer, he succeeded in getting a damning report Ovitz commissioned from accounting giant KPMG excluded from the case, arguing that KPMG’s past relationship with Drabinsky put it in conflict of interest. Informed observers speculate that Drabinsky received a tidy financial set-

dement in that case—and it won’t be the last. Several court rulings have also run in Drabinsky and Gottlieb’s favour. “Garth may be a fugitive from justice,” says a lawyer for a third party caught up in the actions. “He may not be able to work in the U.S. But in court, so far, he’s won everything. As far as I’m concerned, he’ll come out of this ahead.” A remarkable number of influential people hope that’s true. This seems to be the story of Drabinsky’s life. Part I E T. Barnum, part Faith Bopcorn, he is—by his own past admission—complex and difficult, cranky and litigious, breathtakingly ambitious, single-minded and self-centred. But he makes up for it somehow with his boundless enthusiasms and unquenchable love of life. The son of an air-conditioning dealer, Drabinsky contracted polio at age 3 and was left with a limp in one leg—something he readily identifies as a key force in shaping his unashamedly ruthless quest for success. By the time he turned 30, he’d financed a condominium development, produced three feature films and had his first Broadway flop, among other things.

The 1980s have been dubbed “the Drabinsky decade” in commemoration of the rise of Cineplex Odeon Corp., which Gottlieb and Drabinsky lost control of in a colossal 1989 batde with MCA and the Montreal Bronfmans. The pair managed to negotiate the $88-million purchase ofToronto’s Pantages Theatre and the Canadian rights to The Phantom of the Opera, the hit musical that would become the financial foundation for a string of critically acclaimed productions and a

sizable fortune. But like the rest of Drabinskys successes, that didn’t last forever. The Livent debacle left the co-founders with substantial personal debts.

To survive, they mortgaged assets; at one point in 1999, Gotdieb had $6.75 million in loans secured against his classic grey stone mansion in Toronto’s tony Forest Hill, while Drabinsky owed somewhere between $9 million and $12 million secured against his art collection and other property. Gotdieb sold his house in 1999 for $2.7 million, and now lives in a rented Victorian townhouse close to the midtown design-district building where he and Drabinsky rent office space. Drabinsky has been separated from his wife since 1996; she filed for divorce last October and so far, their home—

once mortgaged for $3 million—remains in Pearl Drabinskys name, free and clear. According to the divorce documents, Drabinsky is living nearby in a newly built Georgian-styie house that his younger brother Cyril purchased in 1999 for $1.3 million. Intriguingly, $900,000 of the $1.7 million borrowed against the property has been personally guaranteed by older brother Garth.

Drabinsky appears to have raised money through other means, including the sale of Alex Colville’s painting French Cross for $160,000. But mosdy, as Drabinsky said, he has survived through the kindness of friends. In the early days post-Livent, he and Gotdieb passed the hat among pals and business associates. Others offered him well-paid work. The first was auto-parts magnate Frank Stronach, who retained Drabinsky as a creative consultant for his American entertainment business. Next came Conrad Black’s National Post, which asked Drabinsky to advise the paper on a new advertising campaign. In March, 2000, he was appointed as the Post’s external media creative consultant. “Garth’s role in all this is really like the conductor of the orchestra,” says

Gordon Fisher, the Post’s associate publisher. “He’s a creative genius.” Finally, last year, Norman and Elly Reisman of the Great Gulf Group of Cos., which owns the Muskoka Sands resort near Gravenhurst, Ont., asked Drabinsky to help revitalize the resort, including organizing something that would draw visitors off-season. He came up with what the hotel calls its “Pamela Wallin Cultural Weekends,” two-day packages that give customers the chance to hobnob with artists such as ballerina Karen Kain and Ragtime author E. L. Doctorow. Drabinskys responsibilities have expanded to include promotion of a $500million cottage development.

Can Drabinsky do for cottage country what he did for Broadway and Toronto’s theatre district? Does he want to? “That,” Drabinsky says, “is what life looks like it’s going to be, going forward.” He still loves the theatre, hence The Island. But he does not have any new mega-musicals in the works—at least, not that he’ll talk about—and no plans for another large company. “I want to continue to create important works or present important works,” he says. “But the theatre won’t completely dominate my life.”

This will disappoint some of the people in his opening night crowd. Regardless of whether they lost money or were thrown out of work when Livent went down, Canada’s theatre community still looks to Drabinsky as a modernday Daddy Warbucks. But at this stage in his life, Drabinsky the visionary is probably just being practical. “He’s irrepressible,” says a fellow entertainment executive. “But when it comes to raising money, borrowing money, I think he’s cooked.” On the other hand, Drabinsky has come back from oblivion before.

“Look at what Garth is doing right now,” says his lawyer fan.

“He has another play going, he has all these projects and he’s surviving. Who else in this coun try would have the gall?”

1949: Born on Oct. 27 in Toronto.

1977: Produces first full-length feature film, The Disappearance.

1978: Opens A Broadway Musical on Broadway. It flops.

1979: Gains part ownership of Cineplex, which opens what is then the world’s largest multi-screen theatre in Toronto’s Eaton Centre.

1984: Canadian Odeon merges with Cineplex to form Cineplex Odeon, at its height the secondlargest theatre chain in North America.

1989: Major shareholders force Drabinsky out of Cineplex Odeon. He buys Toronto's Pantages Theatre and Canadian rights to The Phantom of the Opera. A week later, he sets up Livent with partner Myron Gottlieb to produce stage shows.

1993: Boosted by super-successful Phantom, Livent goes public.

1998: Hollywood mogul Michael Ovitz gains control of Livent. Trading in shares is halted four months later pending details of accounting “irregularities.” Livent files for bankruptcy protection in Canada and United States. The board fires Drabinsky and Gottlieb, sues them for $225 million, alleging fraud. Drabinsky and Gottlieb countersue.

1999: Tycoon Frank Stronach hires Drabinsky as a consultant for his amusement park near Los Angeles.

2000: Drabinsky is named a media creative consultant for the National Post.

2001: Drabinsky promotes a $500-million expansion of Ontario’s Muskoka Sands resort, and opens the play The Island in Toronto.