Reg Hartt: Obituary of Gino Empry

Celebrated Garden District theatrical agent dead at 83

By Reg Hartt –

Gino Empry, a dear friend, passed away Saturday morning. His funeral takes place Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. at St. Michael’s Cathedral, with a burial to follow at Prospect Cemetery near Rogers Rd. and Caledonia Rd.

Gino Empry was a very sweet man. He was unrivalled in his field which, if you do not know who he was, was being an agent, a promoter, and a friend to everyone high and low he represented.

He was, of course, described by many as an eccentric. I love it when people call me an eccentric as it means they themselves think they are not one.

“Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor and moral courage it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time.”˜John Stuart Mill, ON LIBERTY. (

In May of 2001 TORONTO LIFE featured a profile on Gino that was vicious in its attack on his person ( I wrote a letter which the editor wanted to publish provided I let him “edit” it. I said he could print it whole or not at all. It did not see print.

A few months later Gino called. “I see Sarah took a bite out of you, too,” he said.

The woman who wrote the piece on Gino had gotten a position at THE GLOBE AND MAIL. She called me up and said she wanted to do a piece on my work. Incensed at my letter of support for Gino to TORONTO LIFE she had come at me with all the venom contained in her small and vicious person. She started it off with; “Here,” says Reg Hartt, “ushering me past grimy French doors to a wooden institutional chair in a narrow, black-painted room at the front of his dilapidated Victorian row house on Bathurst Street in Toronto. “Put your feet up,” he says, turning around a chair and patting the seat.

“Just like home,” he continues, smiling his gap-toothed grin. The room, two actually, a former living room adjoined to a former dining room, is cool, the only air-conditioned space in his rented house. There is no one else in attendance.

Books, musty-smelling books, on every subject imaginable, line two of the walls in red plastic milk cartons. They have a presence, a heavy one, and it’s that of their owner’s obsession. A sample: books on American literature, biographies (Anthony Perkins, Garth Drabinsky, among others), a few tomes on the MGM story, scholarly publications on French cinema, a book entitled Anatomy of Dirty Words—”

Gino was notorious for falling asleep at shows. Few journalists stopped to consider that his days began early and ended late (a pace he maintained all through his life) nor that he juggled the affairs of a fabled host of personalities that ran the gamut from the already famous and well established (like the legendary Peggy Lee) to the kids just coming on the block. Naturally he fell asleep when the lights went down. He was exhausted. That and the fact that most of what passes for entertainment and theatre in this country is neither.

I began my screenings out of the back of a used bookstore run by the late Captain George Hendersen. In 1968 I had a small 50 seat room 39 steps above a pool hall on the east side of a Yonge at Yorkville. It was called THE PUBLIC ENEMY after the James Cagney film and because, as Henry Miller wrote in his OPEN LETTER TO SURREALISTS EVERYWHERE, “Whenever an English artist of any value has arisen he has been marked as Public Enemy No. 1.”

One day a family walked up those 39 steps and into my life. The mother, discovering my name, asked if I had heard of a picture called ROXIE HART and asked if I could show it.

Years passed. The movie CHICAGO came out. It is based on ROXIE HART. I called the woman inviting her to see it. She had never heard of it. “It is the new version of ROXIE HART,” I said adding I would drop off some press about it. I did. I told her to call me with the suggestion of a date. When I got home the phone rang. We made a date to go see the picture. Afterwards I brought her to her home where she invited me in for a coffee.

Out of the blue she said, “I hate that paper.” In front of her was a copy of THE TORONTO STAR.

A few weeks later I found a video of the original ROXIE HART. I bought it. Then I contacted 20th Century Fox to get the rights to show it. They gave me their agent in Canada. We made a deal that gave me the rights to show everything in their huge catalogue.

Around 1992 the City of Toronto shut down my screenings at my home. One of the first people to call with offers to help was Gino Empry. He did his best as did many others but nothing worked. I was sitting here drinking beer, watching television and bored when I called Jane and asked if she knew any way to get the curse lifted. The City of Toronto had held a month long conference in her honour: JANE JACOBS: IDEAS THAT MATTER.

She told me to call the Chief Planner of the City of Toronto and to tell him she had told me to call. I did. “Damn those people! I can‚t bother her. Just start up,” he told me. In one of the many pieces published about her Mrs. Jacobs said, “I had wonderful teachers in the first and second grades who taught me everything I know. After that, I’m afraid, the teachers were nice, but they were dopes—I have a lack of ideology, and not because I have an animus against any particular ideology; it’s just that they don’t make sense to me—they get in the way of thinking. I don’t see what use they are—University and uniformity, as ideals, have subtly influenced how people thought about education, politics, economics, government, everything—We are misled by universities and other intellectual institutions to believe that there are separate fields of knowledge. But it’s clear there are no separate fields of knowledge. It is a seamless web.”

That day, after the movie, we sat together and talked first about ROXIE HART (she knew the details of the true story the play and movies were based on) and then out of the blue she said, “The best part of what you offer is what you have to say.”

I told her that those words from her were better than receiving an Academy Award. “I would not say so,” she said. I replied, “I do. Those things are voted on by fools.”

In a world filled with maggots feasting on any juicy piece of scandal for their columns Gino Empry was a rare bird. He was a self taught street kid. He was not good looking on the outside. Far from it.

It is unfortunately not unusual for the university educated sons of working class men to be ashamed of their father‚s friends. David Mirvish fired Gino as the promoter for The Royal Alexandra. That was the first of the many mistakes the man has made. It must be hard for his father, now nearing death, to watch his son waste his wealth. Beyond that there looms the grandson who has not an ounce of the old man’s blood in his veins. The Mirvishes are a spent force.

But Gino, well Gino was like many of us. He came out of nowhere. He learned while doing. He was all his life a man who could be trusted. He was one of the very special people.

The world is full of mediocrities. In his book CONFESSIONS OF AN ADVERTISING MAN David Ogilvy (who, arriving in New York with a few dollars in his pocket built up the mammoth agency OGILVY AND MATHER) says, “(Sir Arthur) Conan Doyle wrote that Œmediocrity recognizes nothing higher than itself. My observation has been that mediocre men recognize genius, resent it, and feel compelled to destroy it. There are very few men of genius. We need all we can find. Almost without exception they are disagreeable. Don’t destroy them. They lay golden eggs.” David Mirvish killed the goose that had laid the golden eggs for his father.

From the TORONTO LIFE article: “Then things turned sour at the Royal Alex. David Mirvish, Ed’s only child, was taking over the family’s theatre business. His decision to mount Les Misérables signalled a new era. “Rather than bringing in touring shows, David wanted to start producing here,” explains John Karastamatis, the director of communications for Mirvish Productions. “He convinced Cameron Mackintosh to produce and cast in Toronto, which broke the mould.” Richard J. Alexander, a flamboyant man who worked with Mackintosh, didn’t like the way Gino ran the publicity. “He turned on me” is the way Gino puts it. “He sent someone mainly to watch me. No matter what I did, I couldn’t please Alexander. One time in the lobby, I got so annoyed I told him to fuck off. Some bystanders heard. I was told that if it happened again I’d be thrown out. Eventually, David phoned and said, “You’ve become a problem to us.”

The woman who savaged Gino in TORONTO LIFE, Sarah Hampson, in her GLOBE AND MAIL piece wrote, “Hartt has been called the godfather of underground film in Canada. He never went to university or had any formal education in film. For 30 years, he has screened films in a variety of locations: bars and public libraries and churches, at the University of Toronto‚s Innis College and, since 1992—because he wants to be “free of harassment” and “to do things as I like”—in his house. Well, he’s a godfather of something, sitting alone in his kitchen, or on his front stoop, beer belly, sandal-clad feet and all, waiting for people to wander into his brothel of cinematic ideas, which he calls Cineforum.”

I can speak for Gino because like Gino I am the stone the builders reject. And of that stone it is written, “The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

Those of us who had Gino for a friend know just how marvelous a man he was. There is no one on the scene who is his peer.