In the fall of 1970, having just moved to Canada from Boston, I was drinking beer in the crowded male-only backroom of the Parkside Tavern – one of the best and cruisiest gay bars of its day. An entourage led by a handsome man dressed in high boots and a long flared coat (similar to that worn by Alexander Wood on the statue at Church and Alexander streets) walked in.
“It’s Mario,” everyone around me whispered.
Mario Prizek was indeed an imposing figure. The well-known CBC producer and director died on Feb 5. He was 89.
Prizek was a man of taste and style who had a fashion sense that stood out in a sometimes-bland Toronto. The Globe and Mail once ran a photo essay on “The Prizek Look” that featured photos of Prizek in clothes he’d designed.
Prizek was as openly gay as one could be in the ‘50s and ‘60s, during the time of don’t ask, don’t tell at the CBC, where he rose to fame as the producer/director of many shows, including Eye Opener and Bamboula. Prizek produced and directed more than 60 dramatic productions at the CBC and Granada TV in the UK.
“Mario was brave and courageous,” says former CBC executive Richard Nielsen. “He had stylish, artistic sensibility, which he always carried in his persona, and he gave heart and comfort to those working at the CBC who were afraid to even hint at a gay orientation.”
Prizek was with the CBC from 1951 to 1985 and is probably best known for producing, directing and collaborating on many shows with pianist Glenn Gould, including the series Music in Our Times.
“Mario was functioning at a time when gays were only one part of a large group of people underrepresented in the media,” says Daniel Bazuin, former co-owner of This Aint the Rosedale Library bookshop and a long-time friend of Prizek. “Mario was a pioneer in many human rights struggles: racial, political, social and sexual.”
Bazuin says Prizek also helped break racial barriers when he produced The Eleanor Show, starring black singer Eleanor Collins, in 1955 in Vancouver.
Through the years, Prizek’s shows tackled difficult subjects, from nuclear proliferation to homosexuality. He also enjoyed avant-garde drama and highbrow shows about opera, ballet and the symphony.
Prizek was one of the earliest residents of the City Park complex on Alexander St, after he moved to Toronto from Vancouver in 1955.
He continued to live in City Park on and off for almost 50 years, leaving only in early 2008, when he moved to a Toronto nursing home.
A memorial celebration of Prizek’s life will be announced in the coming weeks.