Saturday, May 17, 2008

News Story: TO Jam 3

Published in National Post. [Toronto magazine, May 17, 2008.]

<>Cheeseblaster Extreme?
It's not Grand Theft Auto and that's the point

Last weekend, in the secluded corner of Eastern Avenue and St. Lawrence, an eclectic mix of programmers, sound technicians and graphic artists attempted to break the world record for most participants at a video game jam.

Although it fell shy of its goal, TO Jam attracted more than 125 people, who took part in a unique challenge: to create a video game in three days. TO Jam began three years ago and attracts what organizer Rob Segal described as, "a mixture of industry people, students and people who are professionals but make video games on the side."

People filled the second-floor space of Innovation Toronto early Friday afternoon and by Sunday night had created 37 games, including Cheeseblaster Extreme 2500, Here Be Dragons and Lactose Intoler-ants! Although, it wasn't recommended, some participants, such as Shawn McGrath, pulled consecutive all-nighters to create their game.

"I had 17 energy drinks and three cups of coffee over the last two days and I'm surprisingly fine," he said.

For professionals like McGrath and Firetoad Software co-owner Nathan d'Obrenan, the event provided a welcome respite from their day jobs. According to d'Obrenan, the event also sends a welcome message to aspiring professionals.

"It challenges anyone that's thinking about making a video game in Toronto to make it now," d'Obrenan said.

Microsoft developer advisor and first-time participant Jean-Luc David was impressed by the proceedings. "The games are really amazing for the span of time that people spent on them," he said. "The variety out there and the creativity that people put into the games are impressive."

Volunteer Charlene Balldacchino was also enamoured. "Nerds are hot," she said. "It's the perfect balance of geekiness with innovation."

All TO Jam games will be available at A public arcade, where all the games will be available, will take place at the Blue Moon Pub on Queen Street East on June 2.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Graduate: Jerry Levitan

Published in North York Post: May 2008.

He met 'the Walrus'

Oscar-nominated grad does it all

Report Card
Student: Jerry Levitan
Graduated: William Lyon Mackenzie Collegiate, 1972
Best Subject: History
Worst Subject: Math
Current Job: Children's Entertainer/Lawyer

This year, when I Met the Walrus received an Oscar nomination, it reminded people of a simpler time when a 14-year-old could sneak into a rock star's hotel room to procure an intimate interview. For Jerry Levitan, who was that 14-year-old, the experience has been paying dividends since his high school days at William Lyon Mackenzie Collegiate.

"I was always seen as the guy who hung with John Lennon," the North York native says. "I wasn't a braggy kid, but it painted me as a person who's a little off the normal path early on. Girls started seeing me as more than 'funny Jerry.'"

Meeting Lennon didn't just change the two-year school president's social life, but his career path as well. The Lennon interview convinced him to emulate his hero, Pierre Trudeau, and enter politics. This meant leaving the stage behind for the constitutional courts.

"I'm the guy who started the Sunday shopping challenge in the early 80s to challenge constitutionally the Sunday laws (that prevented Sunday shopping)," Levitan says. "So that started my career, and I started getting involved in politics."

Despite being asked several times by the Liberal Party, Levitan was never able to find the right time to enter the race. Eventually he decided to let go of his dream of being a politicians, which left him to contemplate a big question.

"So, what am I? Just a lawyer?" Levitan remembers asking himself. "I never enjoyed being a lawyer, and that I would be defined that way for the rest of my life was an upsetting thing to me."

At the age of 34, Levitan decided to cut back on his law practice and take acting classes. In addition to doing commercial work, Levitan became "a rather busy B actor."

His resume includes starring as former Governor Jesse Ventura's alien boss in Abraxas, Guardian of the Universe, a pimp loan shark that cuts off people's fingers with garden shears in Little Devils: The Birth, and the head of the New Jersey FBI anti-terrorism unit that involved "running around with a gun."

While he would go on guest-star on The West Wing, Levitan had another re-evaluation of his life four years ago after his second divorce. He closed his praw practice, only taking on liquor law work for nightclubs like The Guvernment, and began writing songs, including one for his two-year-old daughter. One day, I Mother Earth manager Bob Luhtala heard the song and convinced Levitan to do a children's album.

"Literally that day, I left the studio and got an old 1920's top hat, an old bow tie, red rimmed glasses and I created 'Sir Jerry,'" Levitan says.

The Sir Jerry guise has been a big hit. It was while working on Sir Jerry's first music video that Levitan had the idea to make a short animated film about his interview with Lennon. He worked with animator Josh Raskin to produce I Met the Walrus.

Artist Profile: Plants and Animals

Published in UR. (May-June issue)

Artist Profile: Plants and Animals

It might seem like Montreal's Plants and Animals - the city's latest buzz band - just sprung up overnight, but that's far from the case. Frontman Warren C. Spicer and drummer Matthew Woodley have been playing together since they were 12, running around Halifax and playing in bands with unfortunate names.

"I had a band called Phart for awhile," says Spicer over lunch at Toronto's CBC building. "That band sucked really bad."

"Well it didn't really make it out of my basement," adds Woodley.

Spicer and Woodley's days in Phart and Friendly Neighbourhood Trio ("our free jazz band") is long behind them - now, along with bassist/guitarist Nic Basque, they're in one of Canada's most promising indie acts. However, their newfound success, which includes countless positive reviews and even talk of netting a Polaris Prize, was something the trio didn't plan.

"We played instrumental music for a couple of years until we started recording Parc Avenue," explains Woodley. "That too started out as instrumental and gradually evolved into more rock song structures with singing."

Plants and Animals' sound has been described as post-classic rock, with a little Radiohead thrown in. Its experimental sheen is found amongst the layers and layers of horns, violins, a makeshift choire, and even a seven-year old, which made his way onto the album because, as Woodley explains, "we just aren't that innocent anymore and we needed some innocence."

But compared to other world-travelling Quebec acts such as the Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade or last year's Polaris Prize winner and label mate Patrick Watson, these guys are Montreal scene newbies. Still, they're not fresh enough that they don't remember the days before their city was an indie rock hotbed.

"Montreal was a disco town for forever really," explains Spicer. "It still is but it's more of a rock town now which is pretty amazing because when we moved there in 1996, it was all after hours clubs that none of us could relate to."

Profile: Cabral "Cabbie" Richards

Published in Grand. (May-June issue)

Making light of sport
Cabbie Richards was a high school jock; now he's on TV, taking on big-leaguers

It's the 2008 NHL All-Star game, and Detroit Red Wings goalie Chris Osgoode is locked in the strangest interview of the evening. The television reporter isn't asking Osgoode about his team's record but whether he would hit NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman in a hockey game. It's not a question hockey players get everyday, but Osgoode is game. He tells the reporter in a deadpan tone that he "would crosscheck (Bettman) across the back and slash him in the ankles."

These types of questions are typical for Cabral Richards, the 30-year-old, Cambridge-raised sports personality whome the Toronto Star called "the face of The Score." He currently has three shows on the all-sports TV station, including Cabbie On The Street, Cabbie Unlimited, and Cabbie All-Stars. When he's not asking NBA All-Star Kobe Bryant if he can crash at his place, Cabbie is convincing reigning NHL MVP Sidney Crosby to strike his best hockey trophy pose.

"At the end of the day, I think that people really just want to see fun stuff," Richards says. "When you get home, all you want to do is unwind and turn the TV on. Some people are watching for educational purposes and some are watching to shut their brains off. When people watch my stuff, they definitely turn their brains off." Laughing, he adds, "Their brain goes on a hiatus, it goes in a coma."

While he has had a number of memorable moments, Cabbie has also had his share of mishaps, such as the moment in an interview with Steve Nash that a piece of gum Cabbie was chewing dropped into the lap of the two-time NBA MVP.

He also had an inauspicious first interview with Mario Lemieux. "He walked away because I was being so animated," Cabbie says.

It's something that Richards is used to. His outgoing personality and his penchant for making body contact with his interview subjects can be a bit off-putting to some at first. After a few interviews, though, he insists that athletes, including Lemieux, are unable to resist his appeal.

"The way I like to describe it is this - the athlete always feels comfortable," Cabbie Unlimited producer David Krikst says. "They're not put on the spot where they are the subject of the joke. Cabbie is great at self-deprecating humour and the questions are always geared that way. It makes the athletes more comfortable and they get the chance to have the upper hand."

It's all part of Cabbie's goal "to have fun and show these athletes as real people."

In some cases, athletes have crossed over from interview subjects to fans. "I think that (Boston Red Sox player) David Ortiz is the perfect example of somebody that finds Cabbie extremely entertaining," Krikst says. "He watches a DVD of Cabbie at home with his family. He thinks it's hilarious and he's always laughing when Cab's around."

Born June 19, 1977 in Toronto, Richards had an early interest in acting. Nicknamed Cabbie at an early age by his mom, his life took a dramatic turn at age 12 when his parents bought their first home in Cambridge.

"I remember thinking, 'Where is Cambridge? It's like an hour away and it's not even on the map.'"

He thrived in Hespeler, "riding my bike up and down Winston Boulevard and Cooper Street." He was a jock at Galt Collegiate Institute and made the all-star football team in his OAC year.

He was also on the track team, "but I did the fat-guy sports, so I did all of the field like discus and shotput. One year I tried the swim team, which did not go well."

As he was tearing up the field, Cabbie maintained his interest in acting. He appeared in a number of school productions, including A Midsummer's Night Dream and The Day They Shot John Lennon. He also played the man-eating plant Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors.

He also got a glimpse of his future career. "I used to cut the athletic banquet videos and the football video and they actually really sucked," he says in typical, self-deprecating fashion. "That was kind of my introduction to some kind of television production."

After graduatingin 1996, he returned to Toronto and entered Ryerson University's film and TV program. He also continued to act, appearing in commercials for Tim Hortons, Panasonic, Dell and Chrysler. In his second year at Ryerson, he landed an internship with the fledgling all-sports station, The Score, writing scripts for TV show hosts.

"A couple of guys urged me tto get a camera and be a man on the street. I wasn't sure if I wanted to do it, but they convinced me that I had the personality for it. So I met my cameraman, Bryan Roy, and we did a little segment."

Roy, whom Cabbie calls "my man B," admits that he didn't envision such a long partnership. "At first, I wasn't sure I could work with him because he was this loud personality and I'm more of a quiet guy. But he's a great guy to hang out with, and he treats people with respect. He's very hands-on and controls his product, but he does his best to make the people he works with feel that their contributions are not only helpful but necessary."

Although their first video is a bit of an embarrassment to Cabbie - "I've never showed anybody that hasn't worked here" - it intrigued his bosses at The Score. The second video made it to air in 2001 and is now considered the first official Cabbie On The Street segment. "It was about me singing the national anthem," says Richards. "At the end of the piece, I sang the anthem and I made a little baby cry."

What started as an experiment became one of The Score's most popular features. It helped that Cabbie has an intense work ethic, and in those early days stayed up Saturday nights "with a can of Coke, just editing."

During that time, he met Krikst ("my man D") who piqued his interest with an idea.

"I thought that he should do a segment called Cabbie On The Street Hockey where he would go in the middle of the street between red lights and play street hockey," Krikst explains. "So we went to places like in front of Maple Leaf Gardens and challenged people to street hockey."

After taking a couple of years away from The Score to co-host Sportsnet's basketball program, NBA XL, and J-Zone baseball program, Cabbie returned to The Score in 2005. A year later, he was given Cabbie Unlimited - a show mixing old segments with new material which has wrapped up its second season and is currently in reruns.

Cabbie Unlimited saw him travel to Israel, and interview notables like Sidney Crosby, NBA forward Lebron James and Blue Jays batter Vernon Wells. As Cabbie describes, "it's a lighthearted, sometimes comical show that focuses on bringing out the personalities of athletes in a sort of humorous way with an animated, dumb-ass host."

He may discount what he brings to the show, but co-workerrs see it otherwise.

"In my opinion, he's one of the greatest improv actors and comedians that I've ever seen," Krikst says. "I know that he's asking questions to athletes, but he can work off his subject unlike anybody I've ever seen. He can break down barriers and make people feel at ease. It comes across great in person, and I hope on camera."

With the success of Cabbie Unlimited, Richards and his team were approached last summer with yet another show idea. The new show, Cabbie All-Stars, shows him interviewing athletes before a live audience in a talk show format. The first episode was taped at a sports bar in Calgary where Richards interviewed Calgary Flames Jerome Iginla and Dion Phaneuf.

Five more All-Stars episodes are planned. The second was to be taped this spring, and a third is scheduled for fall. Cabbie Unlimited will return next year, so, with his recent gig writing a sports column for the Toronto Sun, Cabbie can expect increasing recognition.

Off the air, he's had the same girlfriend for a couple of years and lives in a house in downtown Toronto. He's a subject of a fan group in Facebook and people yell out to him at "the club, the grocery store, getting my hair cut, and at HMV." While Cabbie insists that only happens sporadically, Krikst says it's more frequent than Cabbie lets on.

"I know that we go out anywhere in Canada and people know Cabbie," Krikst says. "He won't admit it because he's that kind of a humble person, but he's well-known in the sports world."