Ivan Ackery - The Promoter (Part III)

1958 was memorable for Ivan. The year brought a very special event to Vancouver and to the Orpheum. As part of the British Columbia Centennial Celebration, the city held the first Vancouver International Festival, and we enjoyed a rare feast of music. Andre Previn; the Fraser McPherson jazz nonet; Lance Harrison and his Dixieland band; Doug Parker and his 15-piece jazz group; Eleanor Collins; the Oscar Peterson Trio; Totem City Jazz Band; the Dave Quarin quintet; the Ray Norris quintet; the Chris Gage trio; the Jack Fulton quintet; the Jim Kilburn quintet; the Wilf Wylie trio and Dave Pepper’s 14-piece old-time jazz band.

Dame Joan Sutherland  
Dame Joan Sutherland
[Photo: www.scena.org]

Joan Sutherland, the great Australian coloratura soprano, made her North American debut during the Festival on the stage of the Orpheum. (Trivia: Ms. Sutherland shares her birthday, November 7, with the Orpheum. In fact, it opened on the day she turned one year old.)

“For me,” Ivan wrote, “the biggest event was the attendance of Princess Margaret at a Vancouver Symphony concert in the Orpheum, with the great Bruno Walter as guest conductor . . . She came in a beautiful long white gown, a diamond tiara on her dark hair, every inch a royal Princess, escorted by RCMP officers, smart in their scarlet tunics. They formed an honor guard, and made you feel proud to be a Canadian . . .

  Princess Margaret
  Princess Margaret

“As we entered the auditorium, the sell-out audience of 3,000 rose to their feet and an absolute hush settled over the theatre. The Princess was seated in the centre of the front row of the loges, flanked on the right by Lieutenant-Governor Frank Ross and on the left by Festival president W.C. Mainwaring. She listened with rapt attention to Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, to Maureen Forrester in solo performance, to the male voices of the Vancouver Bach Choir and the Vancouver Festival Orchestra.

“The red-coated Mounties were at every exit, with plain clothes officers all over the place, looking so nonchalant that they stood out a mile. I was anxious over the temperature in the theatre, which our new air-conditioner was keeping at a perfect 74 degrees [Fahrenheit], rendering all my fretfulness unnecessary . . .”

Later, suddenly, Ivan’s sunny life darkened.

In 1969 Famous Players, now controlled by Gulf & Western Industries, a U.S. corporation, introduced a policy of compulsory retirement at 65. Ivan had turned 65 five years earlier, on October 30, 1964.

Overnight, he was out. After 48 years in the business, and an unparalleled record in getting crowds into theatres, he was gone.

“For me,” he reflected eleven years later, “it came as a sorry and sudden end to the career I’d devoted my life to and expected to carry on in until old age and ill health rendered me incapable . . . There’s no justice and little sense in putting a healthy, experienced individual to pasture just because he’s had a birthday . . . Still, the company had been wonderfully good to me, and I was always proud to be associated with it and with the fine men I worked with over the years, who gave me so much encouragement . . . Over the years Famous Players grew to be Canada’s largest operator of motion picture theatres and one of the largest in the world. I’m as proud of them now as I always was of being associated with them.”

His last day was December 28, 1969, two months past his 70th birthday.

“On my very last evening as manager of the Orpheum,” Ivan recalled, “when the final audience had left, I sat down to have a drink with my replacement, Ted Bielby. Later, I walked onto the stage in the empty theatre and looked up into the balcony and said out loud, “Goodbye, old friend. I’ve sure loved working with you all these years.”

From the dark at the top of the balcony came a reply like the voice of a ghost. “We all loved you too, Mr. Ackery.” It was the night watchman.

Ivan kept his hand in now and again, helping, for example, in freelance promotion work for the 1975 Russian Roulette, written by Vancouver newsman Tom Ardies and starring George Segal as RCMP Corporal Timothy Shaver. (It was based on Ardies’ novel, Kosygin is Coming. The movie featured a thrilling chase across the famed green roof of the Hotel Vancouver.) But the daily excitement of hyping new pictures was gone.

Mike Harcourt  
Mike Harcourt
[Photo: www.aicanada.ca]

On October 30, 1985 one of the proudest days in Ivan’s life occurred. The event (at the Orpheum, of course!) was Ivan’s 86th birthday celebration. The show was emceed by Red Robinson, and Mayor Mike Harcourt was there to declare October 30, 1985 Ivan Ackery Day. At the end of the ceremony, Ivan was brought to tears by a standing ovation from the audience. “I want to thank most of all the public. The public of Vancouver has been so great to me.”

  Denny Boyd
Denny Boyd
[Photo: www.abcbookworld.com]

Denny Boyd wrote a poignant column October 31, 1989, the day after Ivan died. “He was a lonely man the past few years after his retirement. He had never married and had no family. He walked around the neighborhood in his checked pants, looking for someone he could talk to about the old days when he was the show business king of Granville Street. The man who once partied with Gary Cooper now made an adventure of buying a single pork chop at Safeway . . .

“Back in 1963 he told an interviewer his secret fear was retirement. It was a well-grounded fear. He gave 35 years of his life to promoting the Orpheum and when he was retired he had nothing to fall back on, no loved ones, no hobbies, only the past.

“One day, on a bench on the seawalk, as we soaked our bones in sun warmth, I tried to tell him exactly what I have said in this column, that he saved a generation of us from sadness and hopelessness, what an exhilaration it was to swing off the streetcar and see the flashing lights on the massive marquee and know that they were beckoning each one of us individually. He gave us beauty and adventure and wonder, and took only our dimes.

“I don’t know if what I said stayed with him. I hope it did, because I owed him something. My whole generation did.”

Ivan died October 30, 1989, a day before his 90th birthday, at St. Paul’s Hospital. A memorial service was held for him November 2nd at Hollyburn Funeral Home in West Vancouver.

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