Impresario Sam Gesser was remembered as a sweet and generous man who made it big in the often egotistical, competitive world of show business, at a memorial tribute organized by his numerous friends and colleagues.
Gesser, who died in April at age 78, brought a staggering number of diverse artists and acts to Montreal over his 50-year career, from singers such as Nana Mouskouri and Harry Belafonte, to classical geniuses such as Isaac Stern and Glenn Gould.
He also brought in acts such as Monte Python’s Flying Circus and Les Ballets Trockadero, as well as performers that were especially popular with the Jewish community, among them Theodore Bikel and Israel’s Inbal Dance Theatre.
There were many laughs – as Gesser would have wanted – and a few tears during the nostalgic tribute, which was held in the Cinquième Salle of Place des Arts where Gesser had an office for many years. The host was television writer and producer Wayne Grigsby.
Mouskouri, in a video from her home in Athens, Greece, recalled her 45-year association with Gesser, whom she credited with being largely responsible for what she achieved.
She remembered that in the ’60s she had been advised not to perform a Quebec song because it was too political. “Sam told me, ‘Listen only to your heart and instincts,’ and I did. So began a great relationship with Canada and, of course, Sam…
“He showed me the treasures of Canada,” she said, introducing her to both anglophone and francophone singers.
Before Gesser became an impresario, he was the Canadian producer and distributor for Folkways Records, founded by the legendary Moses Asch of New York. Gesser recorded the classics of the Canadian folk repertoire, English and French, but also works that it’s likely nobody else would gamble on such as Songs and Ballads of Scottish Wars, and poets like A.M. Klein, the emerging Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen reading their works. He produced about 100 albums from the early ’50s to ’60s.
Cohen sent a letter acknowledging that “Sam helped me and many others in his quiet way,” and lauded his simplicity, loyalty and integrity.
To help sell his recordings, Gesser began presenting Folkways artists in concert and his first show in 1953 featured Pete Seeger. It was the McCarthy era, and Seeger, a former Communist Party member, had been blacklisted. The now 89-year-old icon of folk sent a message thanking Gesser for probably saving his career at a time when few would touch him.
Gesser was the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants. His father was a house painter. Despite his humble upbringing, Gesser loved the arts from an early age. By 15, he was the cultural chair at the YMHA and for the B’nai Brith youth organization. He took a job in a local playhouse in order to see the shows he couldn’t afford, vowing to present shows there himself someday – and he did, said Grigsby.
Childhood friends Bob and David Asch (no relation to Moses) recalled how Gesser took a chance on many unknown but talented people, especially Canadians, who later went on to major careers, such as Gordon Lightfoot and violinist Jean Carignan. “He was humble and shy – not your typical impresario,” David Asch said.
Gesser maintained high standards and some performers he would not work with again, such as Janis Joplin because of her drinking, and Sammy Davis Jr., because he turned up 20 minutes late for a show.
Gesser handed Joplin over to the then young rock ’n’ roll impresario Donald Tarlton, known as Donald K. Donald. Far from competitors, Tarlton said Gesser was a mentor and friend. “He gave me all my chances in life.
“He was a gentle, kind soul, but had great strength and principles. It was all about the art for him… He will always be Mr. Show Business to me.”
Atesh Sonneborn, assistant director for folklife and cultural heritage at the Smithsonian Institution, came in from Washington, D.C., for the event. The Smithsonian houses the massive Folkways archives.
Gesser, he said, was “one of the last great impresarios… From the Kingston Trio to the Cleveland Symphony, Sam always presented something he would like to see.”
When Gesser got into the business, there were about 600 impresarios in North America, he said. When he wound down his career a decade ago, he was one of the last in Canada.
Another speaker was Martin Gélinas, with whom Gesser shared an office for 20 years. They co-produced a bilingual version of Broadway’s Hair and toured his father’s – theatre legend Gratien Gélinas – play La passion de Narcisse Mondoux in English in Canada and the United States.
In his latter years, Gesser went back to writing, mounting his own play Fineman’s Dictionary, starring Fyvush Finkel, at Place des Arts.
Gesser was “a bit of a ham” himself and wanted to be in the movies, journalist and friend Bill Brownstein, confided. Gesser wangled a bit part in the 1999 A Walk on the Moon, mostly because it starred the gorgeous Diane Lane and was being shot in Montreal. Gesser played a cranky old man – a role that did not come naturally.
Sheldon Posen, curator of folklore at the Canadian Museum of Civilization and a folksinger and banjo player, sang two songs: Seeger’s 1958 To My Old Brown Earth and Passing Through by Dick Blakeslee, which was recorded by Seeger, selections Gesser had specifically asked for.
In a videotaped interview conducted last fall, when he was already ill with the cancer that would claim his life, Gesser said that he led “a charmed life. I feel very lucky.”
Gesser’s ties with the Jewish community were strong and he left his personal archives to the Jewish Public Library.
He is survived by wife Ruth, his children Margo and Ira, and his sisters Bertha Shulman and Sandy Bernstein and sister-in-law Dora Gesser.