WE FEW, WE HAPPY FEW, WE BAND OF BROTHERS.....
Phoned the Happy Hermit, Gary Dunford, who lives in the piney north, about Billy Ballard's death. We talked about the magic restorative times when Gary was T.O.'s funniest writer and would drop around to say he was having lunch "with the rebels."
And off we would go through the slush to meet the guys who knew just about everything that was going on in sports, politics and entertainment and would gossip enough to make a libel lawyer like Julian Porter blush. And we would return to the Sun much later and wonder just how we could get this delightful and malicious stuff into print.
(Ballard would take grim pleasure that the Star, which he sued for libel at least once, made it seem in the obit headline that his big accomplishment was "ex-Leafs boss," which was almost true when his dad was in jail, not as a key adviser to the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and David Bowie.)
My introduction came at Etobicoke's Memorial Pool when I was watching my son take swimming lessons and wondered who was the stocky loudmouth lifeguard screaming at him. I was informed he was Harold's son from just down the street, and since the father had bellowed his way into the Leafs so that he was known throughout the land, I figured I would be watching this Ballard for a long time too, even though it turned out that he was as quiet as his father was loud.
The "rebels" at lunch could include Dusty Kohl and his cowboy hat taking a run at everyone, Bill Marshall, the wordsmith who elected David Crombie and created the film festival, perhaps even the mayor if he wanted to escape City Hall, and a surprise guest or two who would also be very rich and very successful and very in.
The location was key. These guys knew the best food, even if it came from a kitchen behind a variety store counter. And Ballard would grill the waiter as to the parentage of the Coco Cola (I didn't write Coke because these days people might get the wrong impression.) He would sample it, and then have at least eight if they met his standard. He would ask about the fat on the meat, and the waiter would assure him, but Ballard wanted the fattest cuts, and for several dinners at least.
If I didn't have at least two dinners while Ballard, Cohl and Marshall explained everything that the Sun and I and every other media outlet had done wrong since we last met, Ballard would complain that I had let him down.
There are restaurants throughout the world, from century-old palaces to insider delis, who still think Ballard was some sort of professional eating champ, not a well-connected guy from Toronto who survived a turbulent relationship with an egocentric father to become a generous entrepreneur, president of companies traded on the stock exchange, and sports promoter who even took the first run at bringing the NBA here.
Somewhere along the way, Ballard adopted the Sun's staff troubadour, John McDermott, and became his manager, although there was a falling out once.
When McDermott had a concert at Roy Thomson Hall, and Mary and I joined all the "rebels" gathered in the better seats, we knew we would see them later at the Kit Kat on King even though it was the size of a broom closet, because you just knew it was expected that you would be there because this was an understood alliance where you were expected to honour the unspoken rules determined by Ballard and Kohl and Marshall.
If I was away for a few weeks, I would follow what they had been doing by veiled references in columns by Dunford, or George Anthony, one of the great entertainment writers. You had to keep up, you see, because if you made the mistake of not having seen the latest great movie, you had to listen to one of them tell you what the director or the star had said when they came to their suite at the Cannes Festival. After they stayed with Mick on his island.
They brought a Jimmy Breslin touch to what appeared a stolid town. There weren't enough lunches. Now Billy - he was never William to his friends - joins Dusty and Marshall is a slumbering volcano.
They were fun because they knew how to enjoy life while being a success.
If only more did.