Remembering Harvey Chusid, 1946-93

Posted by on Apr 28, 2021 in Brian's Blog, Music, Olympic Arts Festival, Theatre | Comments Off on Remembering Harvey Chusid, 1946-93

Harvey Chusid died twenty-five years ago today. He succumbed to AIDS at age forty-seven. I mentioned the cause of death in the obituary column I wrote for the Calgary Herald back then. Harvey would have wanted it that way. He had publicly acknowledged he was HIV positive, which was brave of him at a time when many in our society still regarded people with AIDS as pariahs.

But it’s not because he was open about his medical condition that I want to remember Harvey today. I want to remember him – the chief publicist for the Calgary 1988 Olympic Arts Festival – because he was one of the few PR specialists I ever met who understood that journalists are more interested in news than in hype.

Journalists of my generation tended not to trust publicists very much. We viewed them as living in a rarefied world where there was never any bad news. They always answered the phone whenever they thought they could hype their products, but wouldn’t return calls when they feared we might be asking them about budget deficits.

Harvey was different. Although he marketed his shows with flair and excess, he knew his job wasn’t just about selling. He knew that journalists wanted the bad news too. He had written for newspapers in his native Winnipeg while attending the University of Manitoba, and he knew what it was like to be on our side. After he moved to Toronto he wrote about opera and theatre for various newspapers and magazines. In those pieces he proved he could hold his own with the best arts writers in this country.

Although his job in Calgary was to keep music and dance in the public eye when the Games were the biggest news in town, Harvey never did so at the expense of credibility. When I and my fellow arts reporters had a choice of Olympic shows to cover and needed advice on potential duds, Harvey would tell us which performances to avoid. This might not have won him any brownie points from his ticket-promoting festival bosses, but it earned him the lasting gratitude of those of us covering what was essentially a sideshow to the figure skating and the alpine skiing.

He had come to Calgary after working as a publicist with the the Canadian Opera Company and he went to extraordinary lengths to promote the arts program of the ’88 Olympics. When I told him a year before the Olympics that I was planning to attend a Berlin convention for theatre critics from around the world, he asked for the address of my hotel. I arrived in Berlin and found four boxes of Olympic Arts Festival brochures in the lobby awaiting me for distribution to my international colleagues. Harvey even managed to get the festival mentioned in the communist-controlled East German press.

A gregarious host with a seemingly unlimited stock of pâtés and Greek wine in his Calgary apartment, he had an infectious laugh and a wicked sense of humour. I remember him showing up at one black-tie gala wearing a tacky, light-flashing bow tie that – he delighted in telling shocked guests – he had purchased that afternoon at an “erotic boutique.” On another occasion, he joked that he would have stayed with the Canadian Opera Company rather than move to Calgary “if they had allowed me to sing the lead role in Norma.”

But he had his serious side too. His knowledge of opera was unmatched. After the Olympics he returned to Toronto and was chosen by Ruby Mercer, a former Metropolitan Opera star, to replace her as editor of Opera Canada magazine. In that job he displayed a familiarity with the international world of opera possessed by few of his fellow Canadians. He roamed the world, usually on his own nickel, in pursuit of great voices. In his three-storey Toronto apartment he stored the kind of vinyl record collection that libraries make bids on. He bequeathed the collection to the University of Toronto.

He quit the Opera Canada job in 1992 when his illness made it impossible for him to continue. His death, on April 28, 1993, left the Canadian operatic scene bereft of one of its most passionate voices. Ruby Mercer wrote the obit for Opera Canada. That seemed only fitting.

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