Canada's most famous theatrical impresario was in his element at Toronto's Bymark Restaurant.
Surrounded by a glittering cast of about 40 friends and family on Saturday night, Garth Drabinsky was toasted for his latest production, a film of the stage play Barrymore that premiered earlier that day at the Toronto International Film Festival. While guests dined on miso-roasted black cod, Christopher Plummer, the movie's 81-year-old star, stood to thank the producer for his theatrical mastery. Another cheerleader was former prime minister Brian Mulroney, who rose to congratulate his friend on his "significant contributions" to the entertainment industry.
Few of the guests appear to have realized they were attending Mr. Drabinsky's last show business act for some time. Two days later, the man who founded Cineplex Corp. and produced such Broadway blockbusters as Ragtime and Show Boat entered Toronto's Don Jail with his long-time business partner, Myron Gottlieb, to surrender their city clothes for the neon-orange jumpsuits of inmates.
On Tuesday, the Appeal Court of Ontario rejected the pair's appeal of a 2009 fraud conviction for their role in the collapse of the theatre company Livent Inc. The decision set in motion a five-year prison term for Mr. Drabinsky and a four-year term for Mr. Gottlieb.
"You would never have known in a million years that he was going to jail," said Pete Hammond, a Los Angeles-based film critic who attended the dinner believing that Mr. Drabinsky's "legal issues" had been settled. "He was in such a great mood, so excited."
To his friends, Mr. Drabinsky's bravado in the face of prison is precisely the kind of persevering spirit that has made him so popular in cultural circles. "I fell in love with Garth the moment that we met," said Erik Canuel, who directed Barrymore and worked with Mr. Drabinsky right up until the night before the premiere on last-minute edits.
While the show must always go on for Mr. Drabinsky, it is not always a show that he can afford.
At the same time that Mr. Drabinsky was presiding over the lavish dinner, unpaid bills were piling up at his latest production. He is the artistic director of the BlackCreek Summer Music Festival, which featured such performers as Placido Domingo, Diana Krall, Marvin Hamlisch and the London Symphony Orchestra at a dozen summer concerts at the Rexall Centre in north Toronto.
Most of the headline performers have been fully paid, sources said, because their contracts were backed by bank letters of credit purchased by BlackCreek. Orchestra musicians, choir singers, contract workers and some suppliers, however, did not have the benefit of such guarantees and claim they are owed hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The festival was founded by Toronto sports agent Kevin Albrecht. In an e-mailed statement, Mr. Albrecht said BlackCreek is "caught in a Catch-22" because its credit-card-processing service, Global Payments Canada, will not forward payments to the company until it processes all ticket refunds. (Some of the August shows were cancelled.)
Some performers said Mr. Drabinsky offered a different explanation. Jim Biros, executive director of the Toronto Musicians' Association, said he became so concerned about delayed payments of $65,000 owed to 68 musicians that he arranged a conference call with Mr. Drabinsky a few weeks ago.
Mr. Biros said Mr. Drabinsky explained that the festival was short of money and promised to pay the musicians from his own credit card. The promised payment never materialized.
Jessica Lloyd, an alto who was one of 80 singers hired for a choir to perform at a number of BlackCreek concerts, said she quit in late August after Mr. Drabinsky met with the group to tell them they would no longer be paid for rehearsals or receive kill fees for concerts that had been cancelled because of weak ticket sales.
"He told us to take it or leave it, so I quit," she said. "He is not honouring the contract with us."
Most of the singers remained for the final show in August and they claim they are owed a total of $40,000. The choir has organized a group on Facebook and are reviewing with a lawyer whether to launch a lawsuit against BlackCreek.
"We feel like we have been used," said Mike Sawarna, a tenor who gave up other performances to sing at BlackCreek.