Go on. Ask.
grips Winnipeg, 1975.
It's the question they
all ask...and the question we can't answer.
of the Paradise such a big hit--only in 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
Paul Williams for one magical day that June.
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
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.
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
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
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
found ourselves with shiny new arts facilities, including a concert
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
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