Why Winnipeg?
The 1975 Phantom Phenomenon

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by Doug Carlson

Paul Williams:  Beatle

Paul Williams circa 1975A casual glance at the headlines the morning of Saturday, May 3, 1975 promised a fairly prosaic day ahead for most Winnipeggers.

Fisheries Minister Romeo LeBlanc was floating the concept of a living wage to stabilize the fishing industry (whenever fish stories occupy prime real estate on the front page, it's usually a reliable indicator of relative calm in our nation).

Denim flares were on sale for $4.99 during Thrifty's "Cheek-to-Cheek" Sale-a-Thon.

And, oh yes, 'Swan' was coming to Winnipeg.

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It was true. It was the merest of tidbits, virtually buried on page 30, but there it was:

Winnipeg Free Press May 3, 1975

Winnipeg Free Press May 3, 1975

Something was in the air.  All across the city, "girl power" was manifesting itself as a consumer force to be dealt with.  A winter spent faithfully cooped up in a movie theatre making a sex symbol out of Paul Williams was finally paying dividends.

Winnipeg Free Press May 10, 1975

Winnipeg Free Press May 10, 1975

For someone who aspired to be an actor, Paul Williams found himself at the time a very successful recording artist, with a string of hit singles penned for the likes of Three Dog Night and The Carpenters.  His most successful acting gig seemed to be playing himself, on The Odd Couple, the Tonight Show, and holding his own with the industry heavyweights on a variety of game shows like Match Game and The Hollywood Squares. Quick-witted, self-deprecating, and with a unique vocal delivery, Paul seemed to have one foot in both the hip and hep camps.  He was also a canny businessman, and album sales reports would have certainly pointed him north to take advantage of Phantom's frostback fanbase with a small Canadian tour.

But nothing would have prepared him for his reception in Winnipeg. There were no print ads run for the concert. There was no need. The marketing muscle of CFRW radio and its concert promotions partner The Bay (an iconic downtown department store) ramped up, and teenyboppers across the city began having earnest discussions with their mothers about Chargex cards.  All 2200 tickets for the 7 pm show sold out almost instantly, and a second, 9:30 pm show was quickly added.  That too sold out.

Back for a week.  May 16, 1975
Back for a week.  May 16, 1975

A collateral effect from the sudden buzz was a resurrection of sorts for the movie, since the day before concert tickets went on sale, the Phantom was back on local screens.  Well, make that "Paul Williams and the Phantom are back!"  For one week.  At a drive-in.  Since few of the teeny-bopper crowd would have possessed a driver's licence, perhaps a drive-in was not the venue for a full-fledged comeback.

But there was one thing lacking in all of this coverage...one thing that prevented the concert, and Paul himself, from having that last stamp of legitimacy:  mention in Gene Telpner's column.  Gene Telpner was the Winnipeg Tribune's legendary entertainment maven.  He knew everyone, or at least let us believe that he did.  He tended to run with an, ahem, older crowd. Mel Torme, Rosemary Clooney, the latest incarnation of the Ink Spots playing at The Paddock - he seemed to be on a first-name basis with them all.  When Liberace sneezed, we read about it in Gene's column.  But it was getting closer to the concert and still nothing.  Was this a deliberate snub?  Or was Paul Williams simply caught in a demographic twilight zone, stranded halfway between the pages of Rolling Stone and Women's Wear Daily?

Finally, on May 24, Gene came through, in spades.  While he didn't land an interview with Paul himself, and some of his figures were a bit dodgy, he did an extraordinary job of summarizing the phenomenon by interviewing A&M reps, concert promoter Jerry Shore, and the film's national distributor, Ron Brooker, who revealed plans to make Phantom a first-run film again in Winnipeg to coincide with the concert.  Paul was officially legit.  Not only did your parents know who he was, there was now the possibility of having a meaningful discussion about him with your grandparents as well.

Heading into June 1975, Williams mania ramped up a notch.  With less than a week before the show, on June 11th, The Bay proclaimed "PAUL WILLIAMS WEEK" with a half-page newspaper ad.

Gene Telpner's feature article, Winnipeg Tribune, May 24, 1975
Mean Gene delivers.
Tribune, May 24, 1975

Paul Williams week ad. Click to enlarge
Paul Williams Week
click to enlarge

K. Hardy's concert ticket stub. Click to enlarge
Concert ticket stub
click to enlarge

The week of June 16, 1975, was a busy one, concert-wise, featuring something for everyone.  Homegrown country star Stompin' Tom Connors brought his unique brand of patriotism to the Concert Hall on Monday night (presumably the stage was swept of clear of sawdust in time for Paul's show the following night.)  On Thursday, hosehead power trio Rush would light up the Arena.  Sandwiched in between these Can-con icons was an event that made sense only in Winnipeg:  full-blown Williams-mania, complete with tossed autograph books, stage invasions, and nearly 5000 girls (and about twelve boys) gone hysterical for an unexpected matinee idol.  During the show, Paul was presented with an official Gold record for Canadian sales of 50,000 copies of the Phantom of the Paradise soundtrack.  Throughout his stay, he required the accompaniment of a bodyguard.  At one point, he was forced to run a gauntlet of sorts, chased by a mob of girls from the doors of the Holiday Inn to the sanctuary of his limousine (film footage of this incident is said to exist).

In a 2004 interview, Williams laughed at the memory of his reception here. "This is the kind of information that assures me the Big Amigo has a sense of humour. It was amazing coming to your town and feeling like a Beatle for a day -- very empowering for a 34-year-old ego. I was one of those kids in high school who couldn't get a date if his life depended on it. I'm totally flattered."

While reviews of the concert the next day were fairly positive (neither daily newspaper sent an entertainment writer; Gene was in Europe and the Freep just didn't have one), they all seemed to struggle with the concept of Williams-mania:

Click here for Pat Zanger's concert review

Click here for Andy Mellen's concert review Click here for Donald Benham's concert review
Pat Zanger
Free Press
click to view
Andy Mellen
Free Press
click to view
'Don' Benham
click to view

In the afterglow, everyone seemed to want to get on the bandwagon.  A stereo shop ran a self-congratulatory ad for rescuing the concert's sound system at the last minute.  More significantly, Ron Brooker seemed to realize his plans for a Phantom of the Paradise relaunch three days after the concert, as the film began a new engagement at the Park Theatre on Friday, June 20, 1975.

Oakwood Audio ad. Click to enlarge
Oakwood Audio ad
click to enlarge

Park Theatre ad, June 19, 1974. Click to enlarge.
June 19, 1975 movie ad
click to enlarge

All systems were go.  The Phantom was back.

Or was he?

Next:  Dream it Never Ends

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