Why Winnipeg?
The 1975 Phantom Phenomenon

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Go on.  Ask.  Everyone does.

Phantom-mania grips Winnipeg, 1975.

It's the question they all ask...and the question we can't answer.

"Why was Phantom of the Paradise such a big hit--only in Winnipeg?

"Why Winnipeg?!"

The short answer is:  we don't know!  We didn't know at the time, and we don't really know now.

We tried though. Oh how we tried:

Download Adobe Flash Player to play this audio clip.

Clip 1:  Mike Navis and Gloria Dignazio - CBC Radio 1 Winnipeg
Clip 2:  the author on CBC Radio 1 - Freestyle
Clip 3: Joff Schmidt, CBC Radio 1 - DNTO

But something indeed happened in Winnipeg that didn't happen in any other city in North America*:  we fell in love with Brian De Palma's 1974 comedy-horror-musical-tragedy Phantom of the Paradise.  Interviewed at the time, a booking executive for Phantom's Canadian distributor stated:  "It is incredible how well the picture has done here, but it only happened in Winnipeg, nowhere else.  In Vancouver, the film lasted only one week; it went a week in Calgary, only a week in Edmonton and then people stopped coming. But in Winnipeg they just never stopped!"

How a movie could become a hit in complete isolation from the rest of civilization is a phenomenon unique in modern entertainment, yet we Winnipeggers gave this movie its only "legs"...and kept them standing for four and a half months over the winter and spring of 1975.  We also snapped up the official soundtrack album in record numbers, buying over 20,000 copies (and contributing in large part to its official gold status in Canada), and made a "Beatle" out of songwriter and Phantom star Paul Williams for one magical day that June.

April 26, 1975 adWhy Phantom caught on only in Winnipeg is a mystery for the ages, but as far as we know there was no poisoning of the Shoal Lake water supply with hallucinogenic drugs, nor any other factor to which its singular success here can be attributed.  However, if our eyes can be trusted, the median age of those who attended our Phantompalooza events in 2005 and 2006 was around 40, suggesting that most of Phantom's Winnipeg audience was around 10 back in 1975...MUCH younger than the young adult audience 20th-Century Fox had targeted with their misguided marketing efforts.  In other words, this was a very specific demographic:  old enough to get away from their parents and into a movie with a Mature rating, but not old enough to be jaded by the film's faux glam rock when the real thing could be had with almost any concert ticket.  In other words, its mix of music and mayhem made it a relatively safe alternative to attending the KISS and Alice Cooper shows that were still the exclusive domain of older siblings.

Get Together, August 8, 1972.  Photo courtesy of Winnipeg Tribune Photo Collection.  Click to enlarge.
Get-Together 1972
click to enlarge

But the seeds were here all along for something like this to happen. The forties and fifties saw a renaissance in our arts scene, culminating in international renown for our ballet and symphony. In the sixties, our response to the British invasion framed rock and roll not as a source of fear, but rather, immense pride over the ground-breaking success of Winnipeg artists like The Guess Who and Neil Young.  And thanks to a perfect storm of federal (1967), provincial (1970) and municipal (1974) centenaries, funding flowed like manna from all three levels of government; when the dust settled, we found ourselves with shiny new arts facilities, including a concert hall, museum, art gallery, theatre centre and planetarium. This sudden concentration of artistic endeavours, combined with our relative isolation both within the province and on the continent, meant that it was much easier to realize a cultural tipping point in Winnipeg, a vast city-state not that concerned with looking over our shoulder at Toronto, or Vancouver, or Minneapolis when we had our own vibrant and eccentric scene to enjoy.

There are clearly three components to Winnipeg's Phantom-mania:  1) the movie itself, 2) the Paul Williams concert of June 1975, and 3) the movie's post-concert resurrection, which made it seem as if it played on local screens for well over a year.  Based on interviews, personal recollections, and exhaustive forensic research into the archives of local media, this article explores all three aspects of Winnipeg's love affair with Phantom of the Paradise...a source of eye-blinking confusion or general mirth to outsiders, but near-familial pride to those of us within city limits who still call ourselves 'phans' over three decades later.

So grab a popcorn, and drape your coat over the seat in front of you so you can see better.  Take off your toque. Get comfy. The show's about to begin.

Next:  December 26, 1974

 

* there is unsubstantiated evidence of its popularity in Paris, France.
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