Big CONGRATULATIONS to local author GEORDIE TELFER on his packed-house book launch last night held at Toronto’s Dominion Pub & Kitchen. He entertained his guests with selected readings, music and original songs that told the tale of the disappearance of Toronto theatre mogul & millionaire, Ambrose Small (pictured below), who led a life of dodgy dealings and showbiz shenanigans.“Hogtown Empire” is a tale of money, deception and betrayal with a cast of captains of industry, socialites and would-be con artists. It’s the culmination of several years of research, interviews and scouring official police and news archival records, much of which led Geordie in different directions complete with red herrings and false starts.Here is an exciting true-crime adventure story. Ambrose Small and his wife, Theresa, were wealthy entertainment impresarios who owned a prominent chain of theatres in southern Ontario. On December 2, 1919, the Smalls banked a cheque for $1-million, a down-payment on the sale of their theatrical empire. That night, as dusk fell, Ambrose disappeared into the darkness and was never seen again. What happened? Was he murdered? Did he disappear of his own volition? No body was ever found and, as far as anyone can tell, he took none of his money with him. Ambrose left behind his wife, his mistress, and his frustrated secretary. The case prompted an international man-hunt that spanned the globe and had renowned psychics of the day hearing voices and seeing visions. There were lurid rumours of infidelity and accounts of suspicious activities by Small’s enemies….so many enemies. The subject of films and TV shows, Canada’s longest running cold-case remains unsolved after 100 years. Ambrose Small was famous for his HUGE handlebar mustache so we made sure all the guests had their very own moo-stash on a stick…which worked well for the sing-along during the “Ambrose Small’s Mustache” song. It also provided lots of laughs at the photo wall, too! If you would like more information about this fascinating real-life unsolved mystery and to purchase a copy of Geordie’s book ($24.95), visit the official website: www.HogtownEmpire.com The book is also available from Amazon.com or .ca Geordie also hosts regular Hogtown Empire podcasts, also found on the website. And thanks to the Dominion Pub & Kitchen for the great service, deelish food and frosty drinks. Check them out in person: www.fabrestaurants.ca/restaurant/dominion
Back in the 80’s I was a big part of the Canadian comedy industry, running the Funny Business agency for Yuk Yuk’s Komedy Kabaret in Toronto and helping build Yuks into the biggest chain of comedy clubs across North America, booking revolutionary acts like Sam Kinison, Emo Phillips and Steven Wright. When I struck out on my own in late 1985, I took several “freelance” comedians and prop acts with me, booking them across the country and into the States…and I even landed one of ’em on the couch with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show.
One of my favourite local acts was Glenn Ottaway (pictured below), a comic magician who worked clean (or not) depending on the audience. Glenn always “showed up” – he could perform as an MC or a headliner. He travelled anywhere I asked and was kind enough to work for whatever budget I had been given for shows…we all made money and with Glenn, I knew my reputation would remain in tact with club owners or corporate event bookers. Careers move in different directions and by the end of the 90’s, I was out of the comedy business – it didn’t seem funny any more….too many pee-pee kaa-kaa jokes and the Comedy Network on TV had sanitized or infantilized comedy in Canada. Not so much the yuks, it was more like the blechs!Last week I heard about a benefit to help Glenn…was he sick, was he disabled…WTF? Count me in, let me help. Then I found out that Glenn and business partner David Merry (another previous performer for my comedy agency) had been scammed out of hundreds of thousands of dollars on a theatre purchase deal and Glenn was in trouble. I immediately reached out to offer my blog space as a media outlet so below are Glenn’s comments and responses to my questions, plus a brief comment from the upcoming benefit’s producer and fellow comedy guy, Matt Disero.
When and what prompted you to want to purchase your own theatre (and where is that venue located)?
I have always enjoyed live theatre. From mid-way through high school I would get a great deal of satisfaction from being involved with plays. I did 1 play where I was on stage, one play where I was stage manager and 1 play which I had written. I found it very creative on al kinds of levels. When I decided to be a performer, I knew there were many struggling and starving actors so I went the way of a variety performer. I learned early on that I could work for pre-schoolers right through to stags (different shows of course). I figured, if nothing else I would be able to survive on birthday parties. I worked just about anywhere one could imagine.
After 30 years on the road and in front of audiences I felt it was time to move on. During my career I was lucky enough to perform in a show called “A Little Night Magic” on Lombard Street in downtown Toronto. When it was obvious that show was closing, I started to do stand up (with a touch of magic) for Yuk Yuk’s Komedy Kabaret (back then a true force in the Canadian comedy scene – GF). But I was tiring of the road and wanted to do something else. I met a man in my (then) hometown of Whitby. He owned Class Act Dinner Theatre (104 Consumers Drive) and after working a couple of freelance shows there I was hired as the Production Manager which meant I was responsible for selecting plays, directing (or finding a director) for plays. This was late in 2004. I could do the theatre gig, and still squeeze in some stand-up on the road.As the theatre gig got more demanding, I let the comedy slip away. As a Production Manager, my jobs list grew. I would open each show, do a little comedy and push upcoming shows. I really enjoyed the job (which sometimes fogs your observance to what is going on around you). In 2010 the boss tried his hand at bringing in his first big talent, Tim Allen. He asked to borrow some money (for 6 weeks) from me to help with the performance fee deposit for Tim. Tim played 3 or 4 venues throughout southern Ontario, but sadly all of the venues lost money – Tim was no longer a draw. The boss asked to extend the loan because he was running for mayor. It was a close race, but he lost. It became clear to me then, that my money was in jeopardy. We met about it and he offered me a piece of the theatre in repayment. I knew the place was making some good money, so it sounded like a sound retirement fund.
What made you decide to do business with this person – did he appear to be legit and trustworthy (and why)?
His name is Clayton Varcoe – known to everyone as “Rocky.” He’d been good to me for the first 6 years (it was my first ever “day” job). I trusted him. It’s that simple. Anyone who has ever had to deal with con men know how good they are. With this 20/20 hindsight, I now realize that he has a lot of problems – I understand now his actions are that of a sociopath – he has no conscience and feels no guilt. He lies, cheats and steals. But at the time, though, I trusted in him.
When did you first realize this was not a good business decision?
I was never a good businessman. Excuses of “it wasn’t a good year” and “expenses are way up” were offered. I fell for it the first couple of years. I still trusted him, and considered him a friend – and a friend would never screw another friend, right?
You were partnering with comic magician and writer David Merry on this opportunity – what insights did he share with you as the negotiations “proceeded”?
Rocky said he wanted to step back from the business, and eventually turn it over to me, but that I would need a partner. I started approaching people I thought I could work with. I have always respected David (pictured below) and knew he was much more business savvy than was I. I spoke with him at a BBQ he invited me to at his home. It was there that I brought up the subject. He was excited about it, and I set up the meeting between him and Rocky. The three of us met with the final offer being made: David would have just under 1/3 of the business. Rocky’s father-in-law would have 10%, Rocky would maintain just under 30% and hold 15% of my share because I didn’t have enough money for a 30% share. Rocky explained how he ran the business, he allegedly kept 2 sets of books. Part of the agreement was that Rocky would keep one legit set of books and not shuffle money between different venues to “hide” profits. I don’t want to say anymore about David’s involvement, because I have been feeling a lot of guilt over this, even though David doesn’t blame me. I blame me.
When and how did you put the brakes on?
David brought in some very talented people to perform. He was to handle the comedy shows. He brought in a very popular person (whom the theatre could never afford, but David used his influence as a friend to get a great discount) The person was to play 3 theatres and the profits would be split 3 ways (David, Rocky and myself). At the end of the run, Rocky pocketed everything….over twenty grand! That was the beginning of the end. David was first to go (get thrown out) during a show David brought in featuring a huge American TV star. Later in court, Rocky lied about the cost of the show. I stuck around because, frankly, I was in debt and needed the money, but I was working with David as a mole. I tried to screw up a number of deals Rocky was working on, including a deal with the owner of the biggest comedy chain in Canada.
Once you learned you and David had been “scammed”, what steps did you take to recoup your $s?
David took him to court and won handily because every time Rocky opened his mouth, he lied. David’s lawyer was ready for it and was ready with the truth. Rocky was fined twice for contempt of court. I couldn’t afford a lawyer, and I know I will never get any of the money back, so I tried to shame him publicly through social media. I’ve also wrote a book with lots of first-person witness accounts of his alleged law-breaking activities – he has threatened me, my sister, mutual friends and David. I have been physically threatened and threatened with lawsuits – I wish he would sue me for defamation and slander because I have proof of everything I have shared.
How has Varcoe responded – what action, if any, did he take to remedy the situation?
Nothing…he doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong. He has sent denial emails using other people’s accounts, and posted on Facebook using his wife’s identity. But his business track records speaks for itself: the most renowned and respected playwrights’ agency in the world is currently preparing a lawsuit against him for non-payment of royalties.
How does your situation with him stand now?
Although I haven’t given up (nor ever will) I’ve decided to play it down a little for now as my legal and financial resources are basically zero. Karma’s a bitch so I’m letting her have a go at him now!What do you hope this upcoming fundraiser achieves – fundraising for your survival, raising the public’s awareness of such scammers, a cautionary tale for all?
Well, I am in financial trouble right now and this will help out a lot. I suffered a concussion a couple of years ago and I still have some memory issues, so while I would like to get back on the stage, it is too early to tell. I am actually quite humbled by the benefit show, but I am very thankful to all the wonderful friends who are willing to help out. If nothing else, this will be the best comedy show Toronto has ever seen and who knows, maybe Tim Allen will show up…LOL! I am also hoping the media attention will shine a light on this s.o.b. so the authorities will finally investigate his fraudulent activities to protect others.
So many of the country’s top comedic talents have signed on to appear Mon. Nov. 9th at Toronto’s Revue Theatre including Comedy Aces founder Glen Foster, media personality Mike Bullard, the hysterically funny Mini Holmes, and many others including, of course, David Merry. All the details on tickets, time, venue, etc. are available at www.therockyhorror.com
The show’s producer and all-round funny guy himself, Matt Disero (pictured below) kindly shared this with me:
I would like to say that EVERY SINGLE ACT I asked to be on this show said yes in 10 seconds flat. I even asked a couple of people who I’m not fond of and who are not fond of me, they still said yes right away. Everyone is donating their time as a favour to me, to help out Glenn. That speaks volumes about Glenn and his stature in the community, and about Glenn as a person. The comedy world is full of back stabbing, lying awfulness most of the time, but I do love that when someone needs a bit of help everyone generally circles the wagons to help. This is my first time producing a show of any kind, hell I can barely produce my OWN shows, so I was very thrilled to get help from the likes of Raining Creative, one of Toronto’s top ad firms. I’m good friends with the president of that company and he’s a magic fan. Again, within seconds he said yes to doing all the promotional items and pre-press for the show… mostly because he’s a fan of Glenn’s work. They moved back a promotional job for U2 and Coldplay to get the posters done for me and give advice about Eventbrite Ticketing and making that work.
Glenn’s right, this will be the best comedy variety show Toronto has ever seen…. I should probably take myself off it and put in another act, but what the hell, someone has to lower the bar. LOL!I came up with the benefit show idea in part because there’s been one before for a couple of acts who were in dire health, so I knew that was something doable, and the same night I was thinking about it I was on the phone with Jeff Evason who also suggest we do something, it was Jeff who came up with the name for the show, I think. There was alcohol…… from there it was just a matter of renting the theatre, and getting things together. In the end, it’s an honour to be able to help out a guy who I’ve learned so much from. Just watching Glenn work at A Little Night Magic over the years taught me valuable lessons that I still apply today to my corporate and public performing work. Getting to perform on that show when I was so young (I started there when I was 17 ) was the best training I could imagine. I truly got to watch the best acts in the country who had mastered what I wanted to do for a living. I watched them night after night, whether I was working the show that evening or not. Far and away Glenn was the best of them. Strong magic, hilariously funny, ridiculously smooth and collected onstage, and razor sharp dealing with audience volunteers. I always admired his ability to seem so loose and off the cuff and still have well paced and constructed routines in the background. It’s a bar I still work to rise to even today when I’m creating a piece for my show. As you might imagine, after years of benefitting from watching one of the masters work, it’s hardly a chore to pay back a little and help him out when he needs it.
I have not approached Mr. Varcoe for comment – there are too many Rocky Varcoes out there in the world anyway, and I’ve met my fill of them. Sadly there are no organizations, unions or government departments that offer assistance to performers/artists needing help getting paid. Have you ever attempted to use Small Claims Court? They give you a judgement but don’t give you any assistance in actually extracting those funds owed. But Glenn qualifies for HUGE Claims Court but no such court exists in this country. We’re gonna look after our own now…but we could sure use YOUR help so please log onto the website and buy a ticket.
Thank you for supporting Canadian artists. Glenda