Garth Drabinsky, Ryerson University in legal battle over his archives

Garth Drabinsky in the rehearsal studio at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre in January 2017.

TORONTO — Ryerson University is threatening to dispose of the entire personal archives of Garth Drabinsky, after the acrimonious collapse of a deal for the disgraced theatre impresario to donate his “vast collection of archival documents relating to his career as a creator, developer, and producer of live theatre, motion pictures and television programming in Canada and around the world,” a lawsuit claims.

When he negotiated the deal in 2010, Drabinsky was facing serious jail time and the near total loss of a fortune he made by producing smash hits like Phantom of the Opera. His intention was that the donation of his archives to Ryerson’s library would get him a major tax credit. Now, instead, he has just sued Ryerson for more than $300,000, and asked a judge for a clear order saying the downtown Toronto school cannot just chuck his stuff out on the street.

Ryerson, which has possession of the archives, is also charging him unfair storage fees, now that both sides are girding for litigation, Drabinsky claims in court documents.

Drabinsky, 67, is the founder of the Cineplex theatre chain, former owner of Toronto’s Pantages Theatre, and was head of theatre production company Livent when it went bust in 1998. He was convicted in 2009 of fraud and forgery for cooking the books at Livent, was sentenced to five years in prison and served 17 months before winning day parole.

In 2014, he was disbarred as a lawyer, and this month, the Ontario Securities Commission permanently banned him from serving as a director or officer of a public company. He has also lost his Order of Canada membership.

This year, in a sort of comeback, he produced the musical Sousatzka, about a piano prodigy, but reviews have been unenthusiastic and its run was not extended.

All of this adds up to a unique career in the entertainment business, and Drabinsky claims in his court filings that many of Ryerson’s educational programs “mesh” with the contents of his archives, including fine arts and performance, business management, language and intercultural relations, creative industries and digital media. He said the school has always seemed like the “logical place” for his archives.

His claim states that he has employed hundreds of Ryerson students and graduates over the years, and that he had a longstanding personal relationship with Sheldon Levy, who was the school’s president when negotiations began in 2010, while Drabinsky was free on bail pursuing an appeal. The current president, Mohamed Lachemi, replaced Levy last year, just as the deal was falling apart.

Drabinsky claims Ryerson knew all along that his donation was conditional on getting a special designation from the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board. He would stand to receive a significant tax credit if the CCPERB declared the archives “cultural property of outstanding significance.”

To receive this status, such cultural property has to be stored in a designated institution, such as Ryerson’s library, that can guarantee the collection’s proper storage and public access. Drabinsky claims to have spent more than $120,000 assembling and cataloguing the material to meet Ryerson’s specifications.

Garth Drabinsky made a fortune, before losing it, by producing smash hits like Phantom of the Opera.

A deal was finally signed in 2014, the year he was granted day parole, and the archives were moved to Ryerson. Drabinsky put up $12,000 for the school’s expenses, and agreed to pay more as needed.

Ryerson also agreed to cull material in order to comply with the CCPERB designation, and to try to achieve that designation by May 2016. Despite a formal agreement not to do anything that might threaten the special designation and tax deal, however, Drabinsky claims the school “proceeded to thwart and obstruct the processing of the donation and to make unsupported financial demands with implied and actual threats to abort the application if Mr. Drabinsky did not comply.”

For example, in 2015, Drabinsky claims Ryerson demanded an up-front payment of $17,500 for Ryerson to cull some of the archives, or else Drabinsky would risk a higher bill from professional appraisers. In 2016, he claims Ryerson asked for $40,000 and an extension of processing time, without which it would abandon the entire proposed donation.

After what is described as telephone tag, with no actual meetings, Ryerson asked last September to abandon the whole deal. Drabinsky declined, and asked for another meeting. That was agreed, but delayed, until last December, when Ryerson “insisted” the deal would expire at year’s end.

The CCPERB designation was never achieved. Since November 2014, that agency’s work has been done by the Administrative Tribunals Support Agency in the Department of Justice.

Julia Shin Doi, Ryerson’s general counsel, said the school is preparing a statement of defence, but has not yet filed it. Drabinsky’s suit was only filed in the last few days. Drabinsky’s lawyer, John Koch, declined to comment without Drabinsky’s consent, and Drabinsky himself declined an interview.

He is seeking $170,000 for breach of contract and breach of duty of good faith, $145,000 for special damages, and an order “to prevent the defendant from disposing of the archival material pending the trial of this action.”