||Taking Off Again
by Laura Paquet
WHAT MOTIVATES A mogul? What makes entrepreneurs risk everything -- reputation, career and, of course, money -- in the pursuit of dreams that often only they can see?
Garth Drabinsky, the founder of Cineplex Odeon and now at the helm of Live Entertainment of Canada, Inc., reveals the forces that drive him in his engaging autobiography, Closer to the Sun. The title itself is revealing; it refers to the legend of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun on wings of wax. The wax melted in the heat and Icarus fell into the sea, where he drowned.
"It's supposed to be a lesson in the sin of hubris," Drabinsky writes. "I think the bastard just gave up too soon. He should have gotten himself another set of wings and taken off again!
Drabinsky and his co-writer, the well-known author and editor Marq de Villiers, tell his story with all the flair for drama of an Andrew Lloyd Webber. The book opens with a terse description of the board meeting that ended Drabinsky's reign over Cineplex Odeon -- a wonderful dramatic device that overshadows all that follows -- then moves back in time to his Toronto childhood.
A picture quickly emerges of a kid who fought back from polio and became hungry for all life had to offer. As a teenager, Drabinsky tasted his first theatrical success when he produced a musical revue at his high school that generated a $25,000 profit. He spent the money on a collection of Canadian art for the school -- the beginning of a lifelong passion for art.
His artistic sensibilities give rise to one peculiar habit-his penchant for describing people in terms of their office decor. Michael Zahorchak, owner of Canadian Odeon, had "garish taste, particularly in the area of ornamental art and antiques," Drabinsky comments. Later, he says that Odeon had "bizarre offices which resembled a turn-of-the-century home in the Balkans."
Several years later, Drabinsky bought out Canadian Odeon. Clearly, in Drabinsky's mind, the tasteful will inherit the earth. But not the meek. Drabinsky has no qualms about lambasting the people he feels have hindered him in his quest to build bigger, more exciting forms of entertainment. The flamboyant entrepreneur has little use for timid conservatives, cynical journalists, or cultural nationalists. "Why don't Canadians like people to succeed, to be first, to do something unusual or original?" he asks plaintively.
Something about the man the New York media dubbed "Darth Grabinsky" just seems so, well, un-Canadian. Canadians aren't supposed to boast, they aren't supposed to enjoy glamour, and they certainly aren't supposed to bring plays to Broadway. Drabinsky has done all of the above, and is completely unapologetic. Indeed, he is a man with a healthy ego. Mentioning that many of his critics found him brassy, he confides, "they also missed -- and if it seems boastful I can't help it -- that my artistic taste was, in general, fully formed."
Drabinsky cheerfully admits that he can hold a grudge. George Destounis, the former president of Famous Players, refused to back Drabinsky's first project, a movie magazine called Impact. Drabinsky's response? "How some people keep turning up, like bad pennies, like bad apples, fat and wheezing ghosts, lumbering onto the path of progress and blocking it!" Ten years later, Destounis tried to prevent Cineplex from getting access to good firstrun movies, but Drabinsky won that battle. "I took pleasure in his loss," Drabinsky says frankly. "I have a long memory."
That desire for revenge has sometimes been costly. In 1986, he forced the closure of Famous Players' Imperial Six cinema in downtown Toronto by buying half the land on which it stood. He triumphed, but in the process he angered MCA, the giant US conglomerate that was a major Cineplex Odeon shareholder. Eventually, in a bitter battle, MCA forced Drabinsky out of the company he founded.
But Drabinsky moved on briskly, putting on another set of wings, to become a live-theatre impresario with his new company, Livent. Soon, despite criticism from many quarters, he had several wildly popular musicals running concurrently in Toronto and other locations: The Phantom of the Opera, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Show Boat.
At the end of this vastly entertaining book, we see Drabinsky Victorious. He has once again triumphed over all those who would hold him back. He has won a Tony and packed houses around the world for his theatre productions. He is, once again, flying close to the sun. Revenge, no matter how dearly bought, is sweet.