By Virginia Munroe
He arrives for the interview amidst a flurry of activity. He’s searching for Julie Wilson’s file. “You know who Julie Wilson is, of course,” he announces casually. “She’s the pre-eminent cabaret singer of our time.” The phone is ringing. There are people at his door. The fax is singing, the emails are relentless.
He is Gino Empry, legendary public relations man. House Press Agent for the Royal Alexandra Theatre for over twenty-five years. Entertainment Director for the august Royal York Hotel’s Imperial Room during its golden age. Tony Bennett’s representative. Public relations man to the O’Keefe – now Hummingbird Centre – and the C.N.E. He’s handled the Junos, the Famous People Players, Playboy’s Playmates (carefully), and over a thousand more. Empry’s client list reads like a Who’s Who of the entertainment industry.
It is said that God is in the details, and details abound in his delightful book, ‘I Belong to the Stars’. In it are twenty-two richly drawn and intimate portraits of clients and friends such as Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Rosemary Clooney and Glenda Jackson. Empry describes renting the perfect Toronto house for Peter O’Toole; celebrating Christmas in Rosemary Clooney’s Beverly Hills home; a police-escorted dash from the airport to the C.N.E. with Bill Cosby, who simply must pay a visit to his favourite Toronto tailor en route to the show. There are opening night triumphs with Ella, attending Broadway’s Tony Awards on the arm of Miss Peggy Lee. He trades quips and confidences with the likes of Duke Ellington and Jack Lemmon. He’s booking hotel rooms, securing publicity (and lots of it!), arranging catering and flowers and the more prurient indulgences of certain unnamed luminaries. Why, he even scores a little ‘smoke’ in Washington, D.C. for an alcoholic Peter O’Toole, who is too frightened to perform without it, since climbing on the wagon. And when Frank Sinatra and his private plane arrive perilously late to the airport, Empry pulls out all the stops to get his surprisingly gracious client fed and to the Exhibition grounds on time. It’s all in a day’s work for this Press Agent to the Stars.
“Jim Carrey?” I ask him. “Yes, yes, we’re good friends. I booked him into the Imperial Room on a couple of different occasions to do his impressions. I knew then that he would be big.” “Clint Eastwood?” “I did publicity for him here in Toronto. He exudes a raw sexuality, without even knowing it.” “Hugh Hefner?” “Of course, Playboy is one of my favourite clients.…”
“How long were you Tony Bennett’s representative?” “I was with Tony for twelve years, from 1976 to 1988, longer than anybody else. In the end, they wanted me to move to New York. I turned them down. Here in Toronto, I’m a big fish in a little pond. ”
One of the most interesting chapters in Empry’s book is the one on Ed Mirvish and the Royal Alexandra Theatre. It was Mirvish who gave Gino Empry his first big break. “Mirvish asked me to do public relations for him, but he actually wanted me to do group sales. I began picking the brains of the public relations people who travelled into town with the shows, and I started to do that all on my own. By the time Ed found out what I was doing, it was too late. I was House Press Agent at the Royal Alexandra Theatre for the next twenty-five years.” To this day, he and Mirvish remain close friends.
Empry still carries a fulltime client load, but where he once kept twelve staff people working around the clock, today he employs freelancers. “Do you ever see yourself retiring?” I ask him. He gives another of his characteristic shrugs. “No, not really. I’d like to concentrate on a few things that I enjoy and that I do well. Do a couple of big shows with a couple of big stars. I want to write another book, of course, and do some more travelling. I’ve been around the world eight times. I’m a trained actor; as a matter of fact I just recently did a role in a film. Maybe one day in the future I’ll slow down, take things easy, get some rest.”
But right now he’s off to answer the phone. Another fax is coming in. And somebody else is knocking at his door.