Salah Bachir – If You Don’t make it to Paris
The colourful president of Cineplex Media, Salah Bachir, peels back the layers on the beautiful little things in a life full of star-studded galas, activism and art.
Of all the countless black-tie events and elegant high-society galas Salah Bachir has attended over his life it was his 60th birthday that he deems his favourite. “Best party ever,” he says, fondness flowing through his voice.
He’s seated at the kitchen table of his Toronto condo, high above the crashing wake of Lake Ontario. An eclectic assortment of paintings and photos and sculptures and other works of art seem to lay claim to every inch of his home’s walls and horizontal surfaces. He wears a silky, loose-fitting red robe draped over a black-on-black ensemble that, when combined with his snowy beard, makes him look like some exotic Santa.
It’s hard not to raise an eyebrow at his “best party ever” remark. “Gala Salah,” as he’s known, is the man who orchestrates some of Toronto’s most extravagant, most talked-about fundraisers — think events of the season such as the AGO’s Picasso Gala in 2012 and the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards Gala in 2014. Anybody who’s anybody knows that if you want to draw the deep-pocketed VIPs and earn headlines in the society pages, Salah Bachir is the one to do it.
But as the president of Cineplex Media details the celebration of his 60th autumn, a portrait of the man behind all the glitz and glam unfolds. Two-dozen friends and family on a four-day trip to Paris. Quiet and intimate. Michelin-Star meals at some of Bachir’s favourites — Le Cinq, Taillevent, the Georges atop the Pompidou, a 24-course dinner at L’Arpège. A week with his husband, artist Jacob Yerex, in his native Lebanon. “We did absolutely nothing for the first time,” he says. “Closed the gate, sat in the garden and drank wine. It was great.”
Those in the orbit of Bachir know that he’s a man at the centre of all the action, a man who has the ear of the high-powered and the influential, a man who can make anything happen — which is all true. But it’s only half the story. “My grandmother had a saying in Arabic,” he says after I prod him for some celebrity name-dropping. “There is no such thing as a very important person.” Adding: “I think we’re all the same, at the end of it. I really do.”
This is one of the big lessons of Salah Bachir. Yes, he chairs four to five of the city’s biggest galas every year, and sure, he’s a natural raconteur who’s got stories of some serious Hollywood heavyweights. But there’s more to the book of Bachir than the cover. There’s the flamboyant Salah Bachir, who designs his own jewelry, wears a tiara with glee and donned a red sash for his wedding this past fall. There’s the shrewd and accomplished businessman Salah Bachir, the one who was hand-picked by former Famous Players chairman John Bailey to publish Famous magazine and lead its advertising division, Famous Players Media, which now, as Cineplex Media, accumulates 95 per cent of advertising in Canadian movie theatres. Salah Bachir the family man, the one who moved his mother next door after his father passed, who found a unit in the same building for his sister who’s battling supranuclear palsy, a degenerative disease similar to ALS. There’s Salah Bachir the sports nut, obsessed with the NFL and the Xs and Os of gridiron strategy, and a diehard Montreal Canadiens fan who decorates his office with everything related to the Bleu Blanc Rouge. “For me, Jean Béliveau is the greatest hockey player,” he says. “The only time I was probably tongue-tied, he was sitting next to me on a flight from Vancouver to Toronto and I was just like, Ohhh, ahhh. And I’ve met everybody you can think of.” And there’s Salah Bachir the art collector, the one who boasts over 3,000 pieces, including more than 60 Warhols and numerous works by Canadian greats, including Betty Goodwin and Stephen Andrews.
“It all talks to each other,” he says of his collection as we drift through the halls of his eclectic personal space. It’s like stepping into an overzealous art gallery. You’re almost afraid to move, lest you knock over something irreplaceable. When asked how long he’s been collecting, he casually lobs, “Started last night.”
Which is another Salah Bachir, the one who loves a good laugh, often at his own expense. “My joke line is: I’m just a peasant girl from Lebanon,” he says after I bring up how a number of Canadian art galleries, including the AGO, have rooms and wings named after him in honour of his contributions to the arts. Yes, Bachir can be immensely serious — about human rights issues, politics, fundraising, art, his beloved Habs. But he’s also a lighthearted soul. “I think it’s important to have fun with everything you’re doing,” he says. “Life’s too short.”
And Bachir should know. Kidney issues have seen him undergoing dialysis treatments at St. Joseph’s Health Centre for the past three years. In 2013, he drew media attention for his “non-gala” gala, where he raised $210,000 to have new TV sets installed so St. Joe’s patients undergoing chemotherapy and dialysis in the renal centre could find entertainment during the hours upon hours of treatment they require. “It’s not really that creative of an idea. I couldn’t do a gala and I wanted to get TVs,” he says. “So we said, ‘Don’t buy a dress, don’t get a sitter, don’t pay for parking, don’t have a bad meal. Just send me the money.’ And a lot of friends responded.” It was something he did in one day, with one thumb, tapping away on his phone.
“He is a force of nature in a fundraising sense,” says Maria Dyck, president of the St. Joseph’s Health Centre Foundation. Bachir has become an integral part of the hospital’s fundraising efforts, a key player in raising the $1 million for the new dialysis centre at the health centre, and he’s closing in on a second million dollars for the renal centre. Dyck adds of his drive: “He connects himself to the causes that he cares about passionately and doesn’t stop until he has achieved what needs to be done.”
The desire to give back is rooted in Bachir’s upbringing. When he lived in Lebanon, before he moved to Canada at 10 years old, he remembers his mother and grandmother welcoming in neighbours in need, sometimes even strangers, and cooking a meal for them. “I recall an instant where somebody had come to the house, begging, and my grandmother baked them fresh pita bread,” he says. “And they would give them money if they didn’t have any.”
It’s a spirit of generosity that’s carried throughout his life: helping to raise $6 million for the new wing of The 519; being a founding member of the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research; working with the Starlight Children’s Foundation to help improve the lives of sick children and their families; sitting on the board of the AGO, and more. Much more.
He’s won a number of lifetime achievement awards for his philanthropic efforts, including one presented by former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty at the 2009 Toronto Pride Gala. He was also named Outstanding Volunteer by the Greater Toronto Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals at their 2015 Philanthropy Awards. It won’t be a surprise when he, one day, receives an Order of Canada.
In a life so full of, well, life, you can understand that with six decades of fundraising, sitting on boards, leading companies and the rest that there’s not much left to achieve. “Other than world domination? No, not really,” he jests about his future goals. There are no plans on slowing down, he feels he could work another 10 years, but these days, with his health always an issue, it is about what it’s always been about: family. “I would love to be around long enough to see my little nieces and nephews,” he says, pausing, sentimental, “their lives and how they grow up.”
But what about his la dolce vita, the sweet life? “I’m a diabetic. Am I allowed a sweet life?” he quips. But he turns earnest: If you’re unhappy with something, try to change it. You might not always have the means, but there are ways to make a positive difference. What’s important is being happy in who you are, who you’re with. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a three-star restaurant or a spectacular resort,” he says. “Sometimes it’s just a one-on-one with somebody, like a friend, or a small dinner party or get-together.” And, he adds with a soft grin, “If you don’t make it to Paris, it’s not a big deal.”