Many years ago, a young Bill Ballard and his brother, Harold Ballard Jr., presented their father with a pair of piranhas in an aquarium for Christmas. It didn’t take long for one fish to devour the other, as is their nature. The elder Ballard, shrewd and unshockable, approved of the slaughter, seeing it as allegorical. “It’s the same,” he said, “as human beings in business.”
In 1990, Harold Ballard died, irascible and overripe at 86. His death set off a feeding frenzy that had already been begun over the iconic properties he controlled: the Toronto Maple Leafs and the building the team played in, Maple Leaf Gardens. Stock shares were blood in the water; lawsuits were fiercely launched.
One of the key players in the fight was his son Bill, a major concert promoter and something of a chip off the old block – what he didn’t learn at Osgoode Hall Law School, his father had taught him. He was a big fish in a big pond, his appetite was the stuff of legend and he knew all about “eat or be eaten.”
Bill Ballard died of cancer on March 13 at the age of 67. He was “Billy” to his friends, and he had many of those.
As it turns out, he didn’t win the brawl for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Mr. Ballard was a victor mostly, though – nervy, cunning, garrulous, generous, protective of friends, formidable as an adversary and sharp as a tack, by all accounts. Or, as The Globe and Mail’s Stephen Brunt once put it, “a silver-spoon kid with survival instincts.” He had been blessed with gusto, dollars and an affable spirit, and he squandered none of it.
Along with a sister and a brother, Mr. Ballard grew up in the towering shadow of his father’s loud, blustery life. He first gained attention in the late 1960s on the football gridiron of his alma mater, Waterloo Lutheran (now Wilfrid Laurier University). According to Globe columnist Dick Beddoes, the young Mr. Ballard played a “static but well-meaning game” as an undersized lineman.
In his graduating year, Mr. Ballard was a student union president who helped convince the school’s governors to build an athletic facility. Over the years, he continued to support his alma mater’s Golden Hawks, and in 2009 he entered Laurier’s Hall of Fame.
After his playing days were over, Mr. Ballard quipped, “You didn’t have to think too much to be the [football] centre. It trained me to work for my dad.”
But he did more than work for his father. In fact, for a short while, he stood in for him.
In 1972, Harold Ballard’s idiosyncratic bookkeeping and whimsical ideas on what money was his and what money belonged to Maple Leaf Gardens got him into severe trouble. He was convicted of fraud and sent to Millhaven Institution. And so, at the age of 25, armed with a law degree from Osgoode, son Bill stepped in and became director and vice-president of Maple Leaf Gardens.
There were differences of opinion on how good a businessman Harold Ballard was – “He couldn’t promote the Second Coming with the original cast,” cracked Toronto Star columnist Frank Orr – but his son’s reputation was solid in that respect.
“Look at what he did in that year he and Peter Larsen ran Maple Leaf Gardens,” says Michael Cohl, the legendary concert promoter, who with Mr. Ballard and David Wolinsky formed Concert Productions International in 1973. “He brought in televised boxing programs and he brought in basketball’s Buffalo Braves for a few games of the NBA season. You saw the seeds of a great promoter.”
(Indeed, Mr. Ballard was an enthusiastic chaser of properties to bring into Toronto. In addition to sharing the Braves with Buffalo, he had notions of a second CFL franchise and big-league baseball, too. He floated the idea of bringing in the NHL’s California Golden Seals into the Toronto area and much later was a failed bidder for the expansion NBA Raptors.)
When his cantankerous father returned from prison, Mr. Ballard was demoted, though he stayed on the board and kept his large chunk of common stock in the company. Fed up with being what he described as the “vice-president in charge of being the boss’s son,” he moved on to CPI , along with a $5-million loan from his father that helped found the company.
Bill Ballard’s relationship with his father was undeniably stormy, but there was a bond. “They loved each other deeply,” Mr. Cohl says. “Any time we were in trouble, and we were in trouble far more often than I’d like to remember, Harold was there for us.”
Concert Productions International would become a hugely profitable enterprise and a game-changing innovator in full-service touring in North America. The foothold was Maple Leaf Gardens, which was Toronto’s lone venue for large winter events. CPI had an exclusive arrangement with the arena, which left most rival promoters out in the cold.
One of them was Bernie Finkelstein, who with partner Bernie Fiedler was a major booker in Toronto in the early 1970s. He had worked early on with Neil Young and Joni Mitchell in smaller venues, but by the time CPI came into being he saw the writing on the wall. Mr. Finkelstein’s True North record label and artist management company was taking off, and so he withdrew from the concert promotion game.
“He was a lovely person, and I enjoyed his company,” says Mr. Finkelstein, a recipient of Mr. Ballard’s largesse. At the time, Mr. Finkelstein lived in apartment building directly behind Maple Leaf Gardens, as did musicians Murray McLauchlan and Gordon Lightfoot. Often he was the guest of Mr. Ballard at the arena’s private Hot Stove Lounge, where Mr. Ballard awed all with his epic bouts of dining.
“He had an amazing ability to put away bowls and bowls of food,” Mr. Finkelstein recounts. “He would eat enough fried calamari for four people, and then order something else.”
Indeed, the one story about Mr. Ballard’s excitable metabolism that has been recycled more than the others over the years involves a visit to New York, where a stunned maître d’ witnessed the man’s gustatory feats. “Is that an act?” he asked.
On the personal side, Mr. Ballard was known as a lover of good friends and high times. He would entertain at his Thunder Beach cottage on Georgian Bay, where annually he would lead a trail of boats to Killarney, Ont. “His own boat was called Midnight Mischief, and it was aptly named,” says John McDermott, the successful Scottish-Canadian tenor.
Mr. McDermott was a pet project of Mr. Ballard’s. The singer was nearing 40 years old and working at The Toronto Sun when he embarked on a performing career.
“He fought for the underdog,” Mr. McDermott says. “There’s not a remote chance I would have a career if not for Bill Ballard.”
It’s true that few men other than Mr. Ballard could have placed a relative novice such as Mr. McDermott on a national tour with the world’s premier Celtic group, the Chieftains. It’s probably also true that few managers would have gone to the lengths that Mr. Ballard did to serve a client.
On the night of the singer’s first major concert at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, the plan was to put the spotlight on Mr. McDermott’s father in the audience during the show. But unbeknownst to the crooner, the elder McDermott had slipped and fallen right before the show and was taken to the hospital for stitches. Not wanting to unnerve Mr. McDermott with the sight of an empty seat where his dad was supposed to be, Mr. Ballard spent the first half of the concert trying in vain to find a lookalike to pass for the senior McDermott. Luckily, the singer’s slightly wounded father made to his seat in time for his spotlight moment.
In regard to spotlights, Mr. Ballard didn’t seek them himself. “He was a bit of a silent runner,” Mr. Cohl says. “He was in the shadow of his father and maybe I got more attention, but he was awfully sharp. Some people took him for a boob, but they didn’t realize how bright he was. I mean, he didn’t get his law degree from a Cheerios box.”Silent runner or not, an incident in 1989 put Mr. Ballard in the public arena, where the light was not always flattering. His disregard for his father’s companion, the convicted fraud artist Yolanda MacMillan, made headlines when he was found guilty of assaulting her during an incident at Maple Leaf Gardens and fined $500. Mr. Ballard disputed the accusation, telling her at one point that if he ever did assault her, “there won’t be enough left to put in a hot dog.”
After losing the battle to gain control of Maple Leaf Gardens, Mr. Ballard got out of the concert promotion business. More recently, as president of Orion Capital, he ventured into mining interests. He will be remembered by many because of his father, and for his partnership in CPI’s revolutionary development of the live music industry and associations with legendary acts such as the Who, Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones. Mr. McDermott, for one, remembers him differently.
“When you get into the business at age 38, like I did, you’re either crazy or you’ve got a great champion on your side. And I had Billy on my side.”
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