The Al Purdy Event (Part Two)

In the end, the fundraising event at Koerner Hall on February 6 was such a success that it’s worth celebrating the people who put it together. I’m reminded that a 19th century British Cabinet was once famously described as the Cabinet “of all the talents.” I think that the Al Purdy event organisers deserve the same description.

Let me say the names here: George Goodwin, our fearless (and tireless) Chair, a former McClelland & Stewart colleague now working for the Weston organization; his son Christopher Goodwin, a banker who knows a lot about fundraising and how to close a deal and how to represent a younger generation; Leslie Lester, the Executive Director & Managing Director of Soulpepper Theatre Company with many excellent contacts in the worlds of poetry and rock, and who knows how to go about putting on a good show; Don Oravec, who, before he was felled by ill health, as Executive Director of  The Writer’s Trust had learned all there was to know about fundraising for the literary world; Alexandra Manthorpe, a young lawyer, who could keep us all out of jail, and who stickhandled the purchase of the A-frame itself on just 10 days’ notice; Valerie Jacobs, the superhuman organiser who once ran my life at M&S, and who was now given the task of running the Silent Auction; Duncan Patterson, the young architect who had made detailed plans of exactly how the Purdy A-frame had to be repaired – and who had spent every summer of his life in Prince Edward County; Patrick White of the Globe and Mail, a son of Howard White, one of the founders of the movement to save the A-frame, along with Jean Baird (Jean and Howie were distant but very active members of our planning group); Marni Jackson, the author who can turn her hand to any writing task, including the creation of the script for this show that had such a marvellous flow that it was able to lull or startle the audience, as required, on the night. (Marni’s husband, Brian D. Johnson of Maclean’s fame, played a major role behind the scenes, acquiring amazing film footage and creating a tribute video to Al that appeared for the first time that night.)

Finally, this group of unpaid volunteers shrewdly hired Laura McLeod, a theatre professional, to make sure that the event happened, including such details as having tickets available at the box office, and having the cast show up on the night, knowing what was expected of them.

As those who were there know (and will happily tell you), we pulled it off. And it was indeed “all right on the night.”

But not before much nail-biting anguish. High drama, indeed. If you like a comfortable, predictable life, do not ever put on a one-night stand-alone show. Unless your show is an annual event, or part of a series, with a predictable – and contactable – audience, you are in for a testing time, a roller-coaster ride for your emotions.

To over-simplify:  if you can charge $200 for each ticket you will raise funds very fast, if you can sell them. By lowering the price of our tickets to $50.00 we were gambling that we could sell enough of them to cover our costs, plus . . . Although all of our artists, musicians and poets and actors alike, were generously donating their time, we found that renting a superb, central space like Koerner Hall (and heating it, not to mention having the stage lit, and having ushers etc., etc.) costs a lot of money, and we had to sell several hundred seats to break even. So for all of us, the two weeks up to the event were dominated by emails describing the Daily Ticket Sales, sent along by Laura McLeod.

They were terrifying. With roughly one week to go we had sold only about 200 tickets. We were going to lose lots of money on this fundraiser.

It was time for emergency action. Since people reacted well when they heard about the event (“That sounds great. When is it, again?”), the trick was to spread the word. Any way we could. Emails flew to surprised friends and professional contacts. Our committee worked their contacts in the media (“Hey, we’re in NOW!”). Eventually this led to fine things like an A-frame article in the Toronto Star (which neglected to mention the date and location of the fundraising event, requiring a sly Letter to the Editor, praising the piece and just happening to mention “Koerner Hall” and “Wednesday”).

Even better, CBC Radio came through, inviting me (an internal CBC document praised my ability to “yak”) to talk about the forthcoming show on Metro Morning on Tuesday. I stressed that I was just part of the organizing committee, but this message was embarrassingly elided at the end, so that it seemed that I was The Organising Principal.

The next morning I was on Ontario Today, urging people outside Toronto to come in for the show. I think some did come. Certainly as I mingled gratefully with the crowds I met lots of people who were Metro Morning listeners.

And we sold over 700 tickets! As for the show itself, watch for my next installment.

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