Tuesday, August 18, 2009

L'Affair Drabinsky

There was a fantastic piece written in the Sun over the weekend outlining the extent of Garth Drabinsky's avoidance tactics in his recent fraud trial.

This is very personal for me. I worked for Cineplex Odeon in the late 80s when Garth was still running things. I started off working box office at the Pantages when it was a single-screen movie theatre, encompassing the original balcony. People forget how Garth got control of the Pantages. At the time, it had been Famous Players' most successful theatre, the Imperial Six, which was the original theatre divided into 6 screens. The theatre was built the way all the original vaudeville houses were built, with an entrance off Yonge St (which was more expensive) and the body of the theatre on Victoria St.

The property was under two separate ownership. One encompassed the Yonge St passageway and the floor of the original theatre, the other the Victoria St frontage and the balcony. For years, Famous Players held both leases. But in a play to strike a blow to their major competitor, Garth negotiated a deal with the owners of the Victoria St side and took over that lease, effectively rendering Famous Player's lease for the other half useless. He then renovated just enough to open the theatre that I worked at.

Shrewd business move? Perhaps. Always struck me as underhanded. In any case, Famous had no choice but to give up the other half of the lease. They added in the proviso that it could only be used as a live theatre, thus giving birth to Garth's theatre aspirations.

There was a lot of stuff written about how wonderful Garth is. That wasn't the Garth I saw. The man I saw was a bully. He blamed front-line staff when sales didn't meet his expectations. I saw him reem out two of my bosses on separate occasions when they weren't there at his beck and call. They had been helping staff clean theatres so that we could get the next show in.

I remember once I became assistant manager (and sexism was alive and well then, as there were few women in management positions and we were paid less than our male counterparts) one weekend when Garth called in for numbers two minutes before that film was due to start and ranted because we didn't have figures at his beck and call. The info was in the office and at that point I was running a box office register, the other assistant was helping out behind the candy bar, and the manager was dealing with a patron issue in the lobby. Garth didn't care. He was furious. For the rest of that weekend, one of us had to go to the office every five minutes to get numbers in case he called again. Of course, he didn't.

My boss at the Pantages stayed on to be merchandise manager when the theatre reopened. He got so many contradictory messages from management and put up with so much disrespect that he quit in frustration shortly before opening. I also saw a cavalier disregard for financial protocol on the part of upper management during my time there. This was not a healthy corporate culture and those setting that culture were the ones that were convicted of fraud. I wasn't surprised at all.

So yes, I'm one of those disgruntled ex-employees that were so dismissed by the mainstream media. I know of so many people who were yelled at by Garth because they weren't performing to his expectations, which usually boiled down to not dropping everything you were doing and grovelling at his feet when he walked in a room. The talent never saw that side of him because he was shrewd enough to realize the people he needed wouldn't put up with that treatment. But if you were support staff, he considered you his serf.

And if he did so much for Toronto theatre, how come I can't remember one Canadian director, designer, playwright, or original lead he hired? Brent Carver doesn't count because he was slated to be understudy for Kiss of the Spider Woman and only got the lead when none of the New York actors approached wanted to play an openly gay man. According to Garth, Canadians were only good enough to be assistants and understudies, allowed to take over only once the press stopped paying attention.

So to me, this is karmic justice.

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