Samuel Gesser has written numerous radio and television scripts, produced more than one hundred records by Canadian artists and groups, taught show business at what is now Concordia University and, as one of Montreal’s foremost impresarios, he has been bringing folk musicians, dance troupes, classical artists, rock legends and musicals to town for more than forty years. He continues to contribute to Canada’s arts and culture by producing plays and musicals on stage and screen.
Harry Belafonte, who has known Gesser for over 40 years, once described him as the best impresario in North America. “He showed me the responsibility of how to treat an artist,” Belafonte told The Gazette in 1997. “I’ve measured everyone I’ve worked with by him.”
Samuel Gesser was born in Montreal on January 7, 1930 to a family of Polish immigrants. Neither parent was involved in the arts, but Gesser said that he’d been drawn to entertainment as long as he can remember. It began in 1944, when he was 14, selling ice cream at the Canada Cinema in Montreal. He could work in the theatre, but because he was underage, he was not allowed inside to see what movie was playing. “I only saw bits and pieces of it through the door, and I had to figure out for myself what was going on the screen,” says Gesser. That was when he first discovered one’s creative process potential and “what makes something interesting.”
Gesser was in his teens when he got into the music business. It started in 1948, with a simple purchase of a Folkways record in Chicago. The label was known for discovering and recording authentic folk music singers and performers. He noticed that no one was selling the records in Canada so he went to New York to see Folkways’ owner Moses Asch and came away as the Folkways’ Canadian distributor.
With a request from the company to get more Canadian folklore on record, Gesser started his own label, Allied Records, in 1951, and released some of the songs he had collected, as well as oral material. He went out and recorded Jean Carignan, Alan Mills, Marius Barbeau and others.
In the early 1950’s, Gesser began to present artists and groups under his own name. His first show was a concert by Pete Seeger, whose folk songs of social concern became a target of radical McCarthyism in the 1950’s. Excited by his success with Seeger, Gesser started bringing international stars to Montreal; among those were Isaac Stern, Marian Anderson, Maureen Forester, Andres Segovia, and many more.
In 1956, Gesser helped start ‘Les Feux-Follets,’ a 65-member folk-dance troupe, and took it on a tour throughout Canada. In 1967, he was in charge of producing Canadian talent at Expo 67 and four years later again, at the World’s Fair in Osaka. Those were busy years for Sam, for besides being an impresario, was recording Canadian artists for Elektra, as well as for Folkways and writing radio scripts for CFCF and later for CBC.
When Place Des Arts opened in Montreal, Sam was one of the first independent local impresarios to present subscription series of classical concerts. He was also one of the first to revive the tradition of bringing road companies of Broadway plays, which once used to be seen at Her Majesty’s Theatre, into Place des Arts. In the 1970s, he staged Hair in both English and French in Montreal; took Ontario’s Stratford Festival on tour; produced Monica la Mitraille, a musical based on the life of Montreal’s “Machine Gun Molly.” In the 1980’s, Gesser backed the musical version of Mordechai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, which had its World Premiere at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton in 1984. He later founded Gesser Enterprises, thus he was responsible for some 3,500 performances of all kinds. Space does not permit a complete listing of the hundreds of jazz and folk singers, big bands, musicians and plays that he has been responsible for bringing to Montreal. But special mention must be made of a few unique performers, such as Nana Mouskouri, Victor Borge, Liberace, and Harry Belafonte.
The Smithsonian Institute said the following about Sam Gesser: “…for his contribution and understanding of the cultural heritage of mankind by generating numerous recordings of Canadian traditional music related materials.”
The nation expressed its gratitude to Samuel Gesser by inducting him, in 1993, as a Member of the Order of Canada, for promoting the performing arts.