The rise and fall of Garth Drabinsky

Garth Drabinsky in his heyday

He was the mogul who crashed to earth after flying too close to the sun.

That’s how Barry Avrich deftly describes his subject in his biopic, Show Stopper: The Theatrical Life of Garth Drabinsky.

Having premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and currently playing in Toronto theatres, Show Stopper is due to be broadcast on the Movie Network on Oct. 4 at 9 p.m.

It’s a fine, informative and modulated film about a flamboyant Canadian film and theatre producer whose reach exceeded his grasp.

Three years ago, he was found guilty of fraud and forgery and given a seven-year prison sentence. Drabinsky filed an appeal, and in 2011, the Ontario Court of Appeal reduced his sentence to five years. Drabinsky’s partner, Myron Gottlieb, was slapped with a six-year sentence.

And so ended, at least for now, a meteoric career that catapulted Drabinsky into the stratosphere of show business in Canada, the United States and Britain.

A brash, abrasive and volatile operator, Drabinsky is at the centre of this 96-minute documentary through old interviews and file footage. Secondary players include colleagues and insiders such as Sid Sheinberg, former president of MCA Universal, and Allen Karp, former chair and chief executive officer of the Cineplex Odeon movie chain, which Drabinsky co-founded.

The film, narrated by Albert Schultz, pays ample recognition to Drabinsky’s achievements.

Apart from having been a feature film producer in the 1970s and 1980s (The Changeling and Tribute, among others) and a co-founder with Nat Taylor of Cineplex Odeon, Drabinsky established Live Entertainment Corporation of Canada, known as Livent, which at one point mounted a quarter of all stage productions in North America.

 But while Avrich explores Drabinsky’s  rise to stardom, a saga that stretched from Toronto and New York to Los Angeles and London, he also documents his fall.

Once in debt to the tune of $300 million, Drabinsky made bad business decisions and supposedly kept two sets of books, shuffling decimals around in a process of “creative accounting.”

Drabinsky, who boasted of being “the impresario of my destiny,” believed his own “bullshit” and was utterly surprised when he was accused of engaging in criminal activities.

Calling him a “showman extraordinaire” and a “powerhouse,” Avrich says he was loved by the performers he employed but reviled by the investors he defrauded.

The son of middle-class Torontonians Phil and Ethel Drabinsky, he was born in 1949. Contracting polio as a child, he suffered greatly, and as a result of his ailment, he was driven to prove his self-worth.

Highly ambitious, he produced his first play at 16, studied law at university, published a movie magazine, wrote a definitive book on entertainment law and made a film, The Silent Partner, all before he was 30.

Anything but shy, he cold called Taylor, a movie exhibitor in Canada, and the pair launched an empire of multiplex movie theatres across Canada.

“He wanted to be a major player,” says Sheinberg.

Drabinsky climbed the greasy ladder of success, but alienated some very important people, including the legendary chair of MCA Universal, Lew Wasserman.

Having been ousted by MCA from his position in Cineplex, Drabinsky founded Livent, which purchased the rights to what would be the phenomenally successful play, Phantom of the Opera.

He transformed Toronto into a theatrical hub, but Livent’s dicey balance sheets aroused suspicion. Drabinsky’s reputation also took a drubbing because he apparently treated employees terribly. But the artists who appeared in his plays extolled his qualities as an entrepreneur who interested himself in every little detail of a production.

Show Stopper is Avrich’s third film about the world of entertainment, having been preceded by The Last Mogul: The Lew Wasserman Story and Unauthorized: The Harvey Weinstein Project. To Avrich’s credit, all three documentaries are first-rate.