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I SPENT SEVERAL ANXIOUS BUT HAPPY YEARS working as a freelance photographer, with a lifestyle that I eventually came to see as nearly perfect if you were a bachelor with shaky but serviceable credit and a willingness to find yourself in curious, even bizarre situations with perfect strangers, often in the privacy of your own home.

The long, ugly end of a relationship had somehow left me in possession of a studio loft apartment in a dodgy neighbourhood on one of the city's main streets, where I was able to keep a shooting space and a darkroom, and persuade photo editors and publicists to send subject for portrait sessions. It was during one such session that I found Garth Drabinsky in front of my camera.

If you're not Canadian, or uninterested in the business end of theatre of film, you might never have heard of Drabinsky, but he was a very big deal up here for many years, and last week he was found guilty, along with his business partner, Myron Gottlieb, of two counts of fraud and one of forgery at the end of an investigation that took a decade to produce a verdict. He's been a movie producer, pioneered the multiplex cinema, won 19 Tony awards as a Broadway producer, and was awarded the Order of Canada, but for the last ten years, he's mostly been the subject of an agonizingly slow criminal investigation, and faces the prospect of a decade in jail.

For many Canadians - many of them journalists - the last ten years seem to be immaterial, and Drabinsky's name - and his trademark bouffaint-like quiff of hair - evoke a time when Canada was a player in the entertainment world, partly on the back of historically generous public funding of the arts, which doesn't seem to have been nearly enough to bankroll Drabinsky's ambitions, as he currently awaits sentencing for defrauding nearly half a billion dollars from investors in Livent, his onetime production company.

On his blog, The Legion of Decency, Jim Henshaw reacted with disbelief that someone like Drabinsky has any supporters left, but before the verdict was even announced, the drama critic for the city's biggest paper had posted a video defending Drabinsky, begging viewers not to dwell too much on his malfeasance but to remember the good times. “Garth gave us excitement," Henshaw quotes Richard Ouzounian telling Star readers. "He gave us professionalism. He gave us show business.”

I love reading Henshaw, who has a depth of experience in Canadian film, TV and theatre that I'll never have - and based on what I know, don't ever want to have. While some people have lived their lives in this world and remain emotional hostages to the black hole of unfulfilled promise that defines this country's cultural realm, Henshaw is an articulate but passionate skeptic, willing to sit through hours of CRTC hearings on CPAC and winnowing out the gist of how, particularly, we're screwing ourselves yet again.

His reaction to Ouzounian's defense of Drabinsky is priceless. The man might have thrown good parties and made Canada - well, Toronto, really - seem like it was orbiting more tightly near the centre of the cultural universe, but he made people "lose their homes (as happened to personal friends of mine). He cost them the enjoyment of the fruits of their labors in their retirement years and he made the almost impossible job of convincing people to invest in Canadian theatre, film and television even harder than it already was."

Henshaw points out that Ouzounian was once on Drabinsky's payroll during his halcyon years, which begs the obvious question: "Now that Richard Ouzounian knows that the money he was paid during his time at Livent was stolen, I wonder if he’s going to give it back."

I never went to one of Drabinsky's parties, but my brush with the man did happen at the peak of his success, when the New York Times asked me to shoot a portrait of him for a big weekend feature they were running on the future of Broadway. Drabinsky's photo would be part of a big grid of portraits, which were being shot all over the world, and needed to match each other, so I was instructed to shoot against a white seamless background, with dramatic side lighting. I was put in touch with his press relations man, and we hashed out the time and date over the phone.

I knew his PR guy by name - he'd only recently been an entertainment writer, back before I'd switched from writing to shooting, and he remembered my bylines as well. He arrived at my studio first, made sure there were beverages on hand (bottled water and diet soda - nothing too fancy), and talked to me again about what I needed for the photo. I knew from experience that having the New York Times behind me, even for a single tiny shot in a mosaic layout, gave me leverage and dignity that I wouldn't have had if I were just working for a Canadian client; such is the insecurity that characterizes my country's cultural industry.

Drabinsky finally arrived, and it was a shock to realize how much he looked like the photos that seemed to run weekly in the entertainment, business and social pages of the papers, right down to the double-breasted suits and the quiff. What I didn't expect was the limp - a legacy of a childhood bout with polio.

He'd already had to run the gauntlet downstairs - the neighbourhood was (and still is) home to a population of mental patients deinstitutionalized by our very enlightened public health regime, and there was a drop-in centre for them on the main floor of the building. I was somehow sure that Drabinsky didn't spend much time in this part of town. He gave my shabby but neat studio a once over that didn't suggest he was impressed, but I was the guy from the New York Times, after all, so he proceeded to mostly ignore me and did most of his communicating through is PR flack.

The flack made sure that Drabinsky was comfortable, then ushered him into the studio, and the stool I'd set up in front of the white seamless paper. I took a few Polaroids to check the lighting (how long ago that seems, now) and told them that I was switching to film.

At this point, the flack went into full gear, and began what sounded like a well-rehearsed pep spiel to his boss. "OK, Garth, you're outside one of your theatres. The show's just about to get out. It's New York City, and the sun is just going down, you're looking down Broadway..." Drabinsky began tilting his head, lifting his chin, putting a faraway look in his eyes as he squinted faintly against the setting sun just behind my main strobe light, striking what I'm sure he considered a heroic pose. This went on for three or four rolls of film, and I shot as quickly as I could, mostly because I was trying my absolute best to suppress a wicked fit of the giggles.

In a piece in last weekend's Financial Post, Peter Foster tried to describe the Livent affair with some acidic humour as "Ponzi: The Musical," digging out choice bits of dialogue from the trial that would make for great stage dialogue, and even expresses wry admiration for Drabinsky. "It is difficult not to be impressed by Mr. Drabinsky’s monumental genius and even bigger chutzpah," Foster writes. "It is also hard to feel much sympathy for those investors who suspended their due diligence in order to hear the roar of the greasepaint. It’s not as if there were no warnings. Messrs. Drabinsky and Gottlieb had already been turfed out of Cineplex after more-than-aggressive accounting. And hadn’t the investors ever seen The Producers?"

It doesn't take much to go from Foster's cockeyed tribute to Drabinsky's "monumental genius" to Ouzounian's lament that "I miss that period, y’know. I miss all the excitement. I miss the fun. I miss the glamour.” Using the same logic, I could find myself getting nostalgic for the emotional and fiscal turmoil of my '20s, which were far more exciting on the surface than anything happening to me now, in my stable, duty-filled middle age. Except for the fact that I was a basket case for most of those years, and believed in an awful lot of what I now know to be utter and indefensible bullshit.

The close relationship Drabinsky had with the press was no secret, and I don't think that Ouzounian and the flack were the only ones to spend time on his payroll. The really great shock at Livent's downfall here was really thanks to years of wildly flattering portraits of Drabinsky, by what I can only describe as a captive press, eager to get a piece of the glamour Ouzounian pines for - I saw it, as a junior member of the press during that time, either tasked with writing the smaller pieces padding tributes written by people like Ouzounian, or shooting the photos that went with the puff pieces. Even a week later, the tributes keep coming, like this one by Martin Knelman of the Star, comparing Drabinsky to Jean Valjean in Les Miserables - except, Knelman adds, with what sounds like a grumble, "
that in the case of Livent, the loot included a lot more than a loaf of bread."

We've reached a point where being a journalist doesn't seem like such a great career choice, as newspapers have started failing at a rate that was once reserved for magazines a few years ago. You have to remember that, until just recently, it was considered a good living, where the perks made up for the sketchy pay, but where you could have both if you'd landed a high profile newspaper gig. A few decades of this status quo made us believe that it was going to last forever and that, even worse, journalists were somehow essential to the turning and grinding of the social and cultural gears, and not just the grease that keeps them turning.

I know that I responded to that fantasy, and while I used to think that my naivete came from being working class, where I'd never met a journalist in my life, I've since discovered that people who should know better, some of them children of writers, reporters and editors, were just as gullible as I was. At some point after His Girl Friday and Ace In The Hole gave way to All The President's Men and the establishment of journalism schools in nearly every community college in the country, people in the magazine and newspaper business began to believe that they had a role as vital as the people they were writing about.

Habitual and unprecedented self-righteousness is something that my friend Kathy is always pointing out in members of my profession ("Journalists: Our moral and intellectual superiors,") and I can't help but sense that this plays no small part in the general public indifference to the increasingly dismal fate of the business these days. Even during what I know now were the final days of the dreg ends of the long epilogue to the Golden Era, I was often amazed at the lives that I'd see other journalists aspiring to - buying homes on the cheaper fringes of the neighbourhoods where their subjects lived, sending their children to the schools where their offspring went, even joining private clubs and affecting the style and tastes of hip bankers and brokers.

What was once a lower middle class profession at best took on the pretensions of the upper middle class, celebrating their prerogatives and functioning as little more than conduits for their PR agents, especially when there was a round of parties or a mailing of goodie bags to help launch some new movie, festival or business venture. With rare exceptions, the better part of the business seemed to fight to take turns playing junket whore, and I think readers noticed.

Which is why some part of me actually celebrates the catastrophe overwhelming the business, even though the bulk of my own livelihood has been decimated by it, and I'm being forced to confront the wisdom (or lack thereof) of choices I made when I was, as Bogart told Major Strasser, misinformed. I have no problem with anyone making a fortune in this business - though I wish I knew how you did it - but it was obvious that too many of my peers were living well beyond their means, fiscally and socially, and I don't think I need to point out that you don't have to be rich to dislike a social climber.

Worst of all, this complicity and starstruck attitude meant that people like Drabinsky were able to run their scams well past the point where common sense and natural skepticism would have been prudent. Jim Henshaw reminds us that "you need look no further than the shared board members, investment bankers and political connections of all these guys to see the protective web that operates for them here. A web few of our so-called journalists seem willing to pull apart." Perhaps my business did a poor job pulling this web apart, but it would seem that some perfect storm of economic bad weather and technological change is doing a pretty decent job of dragging journalism to a point where it'll rediscover its limitations, and maybe rediscover some shreds of a mission. Or not - but then my idealism has always been my greatest failing.

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© 2009 rick mcginnis all rights reserved


i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters. i've worked as a photographer, journalist and, recently, tv columnist. currently a member of the growing workforce awaiting new employment opportunities. church-going catholic.

punk rock was my crucible, lodestone and avalon.

i look nothing like william powell.

rick -at- rickmcginnis.com



no comments - i can't be bothered with the extra work, to be frank - but if you have something to say, I might print it in the margin over here.

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02.05.09: laid off
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