“We’re not here for a long time; we’re here for a good time.” That was Frank’s motto.
Frank Duckworth, Canadian PR legend, mentor, friend, and force of nature, passed away in January at age 87.
Frank, you could say, taught me the meaning of having a good time as well as the sense of adventure, which in his world was always synonymous. A PR guy in the Mad Men era, he got things done, and his clients got noticed based on the premise it was easier to say you’re sorry than to get permission. But enough with the clichés.
Duckworth grew up in Alberta and worked as a journalist for The Calgary Herald. An on-air CBC job in Toronto brought him East where he eventually ended up running CBC’s publicity department. It was here that he went rogue, leaving the broadcaster to set up his own public relations shop. It was a profession made for his wit, cunning, verve and mischief, and believe me this short tribute barely scrapes the surface of his accomplishments.
In his era, things did not go viral. The equivalent was coverage on a newspaper front page.
Duckworth’s pitch punchline was always, “I’ll get you on the front page.” Now, for most other PR folk this would have been just pitching blather, but in his case, he delivered that front page more often than not! For Bick’s Pickles, it was with a bathtub race he conceived that ran down Kingston’s main street. For Bill Marshall, it was promoting the first Toronto film festival, the “Festival of Festivals” (the original TIFF), with festival financing leveraged by using the credit cards of Marshall, Dusty Cohl and Duckworth.
For John Brower and Ken Walker’s rock classics, POP 69, the Toronto Rock n’ Roll Revival Festival and the Festival Express, Duckworth was the marketing guru who put them on the map. For Pop 69 at Varsity Stadium, at a time when crass marketing was a no-no to the '60s generation, he devised the ‘Rumpersticker’, creating a new ad medium using 65,000 backsides. “His promotional gimmick was a stroke of genius,” praised Marketing magazine.
He was instrumental in luring John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band to the Toronto Rock n’ Roll Revival. His sister-in-law Elora, at that time, was a personal assistant to Mick Jagger who gave him the inside scoop on where to reach Lennon. Brower and Duckworth made the call, and Lennon told him ‘you send the tickets for my band and me and we’ll show up and play’ - and they did!
On a roll with Brower and Walker’s festival business, the idea for a portable rock and roll festival that could cross the country on a train was hatched, and the Festival Express was born.
For a PR guy, that event kept him literally hopping, dealing with everything from suspicious city fathers who thought their daughters would be carried away if the train stopped in their town, to assorted rock n’ roll madness resulting from having some of its biggest stars (Joplin, The Band, The Dead, Traffic, Ten Years After, Ian & Sylvia et al.) cooped up on a train for a couple of weeks and let out night to play.
It was also the occasion of his first and only acid trip. Someone spiked his drink, and he ended with tour guide Jerry Garcia talking him down as they walked about on the train.
One final musical story. Duckworth was a concert promoter himself, albeit but briefly, back in 1963, in the middle of the folk boom. He decided to produce a Hootenanny at Maple Leaf Gardens. Yes, a real intimate fireside affair, and there lies the rub. But Duckworth, who usually wasn’t overly cautious, took out an insurance policy to cover his expenses if ticket revenues fell short. Yes, you read that correctly, and yes, the insurance company went for it.
The concert bombed, “the venue was too big, and many patrons had difficulty hearing the acts,” wrote The Telegram. But he was OK, he collected on the policy, and I don’t think there has been an insurance company since then who would make that deal with a concert promoter.
Though I’ve provided colour from some of his musical exploits, Frank Duckworth was one of a kind, a brilliant, creative, and crafty PR practitioner, and a most loyal friend. We’ll miss you, Frankie.
– Peter Donato is a marketing/pr practitioner and singer-songwriter. He runs a consulting firm, Special Assignment Inc., and is currently the Director of Communications for Soundstreams, a non-profit performing arts organization.