Skip navigation

Saturday February 16, 2013

Calgary tycoon was larger than life

The real estate mogul didn't go Hollywood when he bought a studio; he was pure Hollywood already, right down to the pinky ring

Jack Singer started his business career in Calgary as an 11-year-old collecting rent on behalf of his immigrant parents, and became a starry-eyed - yet wealthy - autograph-seeker, who ended up owning a Hollywood movie studio and hobnobbing with entertainment industry elite.

Mr. Singer's larger-than-life personality and humble beginnings seem straight out of central casting.

His parents came to Canada from Poland at the turn of the 20th century, used their savings to help hundreds of Jews escape persecution before and during the Second World War, and in doing so, instilled in their son an entrepreneurial and philanthropic spirit. Mr. Singer would go on to become a real estate mogul who would help build Calgary - and beyond - and, after snapping up a flailing studio from Francis Ford Coppola, helped rebuild Hollywood.

Known for his brash style and quick wit, Mr. Singer never lost his pizzazz.

The last time he was in Tinseltown was in 2007 for his 90th birthday bash at the Beverly Hills Hotel, complete with burlesque dancers for entertainment. Maclean's magazine, which once called Mr. Singer Canada's Howard Hughes, asked him in 2011 whether any celebrities were in attendance.

"There were some stars there," he said, "but I didn't even meet them. I was busy getting drunk."

The headline on the story: L.A.'s Unlikeliest Angel.

Jack Singer died on Feb. 2 in hospital in Calgary of natural causes. He was 95.

He was born Dec. 17, 1917 in Calgary to Bella, a housekeeper at the Palliser Hotel, and Abraham, who tried his hand working the circus circuit - the third of four children.

His mother squirrelled away savings and quietly bought rooming houses in the city. Young Jack was collecting rent from her boarding room tenants - 75 cents a week - and helped keep the books.

According to his sons, Alan and Stephen, Jack's parents would use their money - and they were by no means well-off - to rescue hundreds of Polish Jews from the Holocaust.

"They were hard-working, building up from nothing," Alan said.

The Singers required each person they brought over to bring somebody else, ready to work. Perhaps 1,600 people now count themselves descended from Bella's "pyramid scheme," according to the Singer family.

Among them, Sid Cyngiser, who in 1949 was the last person Bella brought over, and upon arrival, lived in Calgary for a time with Mr. Singer, who became a business associate and remained a close friend for 60 years.

"She was my grandmother's sister and I was the only one in the family that survived," he said in Jack: The Biography of Jack Singer (2010).

And her son was always there when Mr. Cyngiser - or anyone, really - needed him.

Mr. Singer was also a capable athlete in his youth.

At Central Memorial High School in Calgary he was a pitcher on the baseball team and a quarterback in football. He had a promising amateur boxing career, enjoyed a string of wins, and at age 17, he won the Canadian lightweight amateur championship.

"My late good friend and mentor, Sammy Luftspring, often spoke of Singer's natural boxing abilities," said Spider Jones, three-time former Golden Gloves champ and member of the Canadian Boxing Hall of Fame.

Mr. Luftspring, a contemporary of Mr. Singer's, was a celebrated Jewish Canadian boxer in his own right, and a Canadian welterweight champion.

"I'm a student of boxing," Mr. Jones said, "and Singer was a really good amateur fighter; a tough kind of banger."

But Mr. Singer gave it up when two perforated eardrums did him in, but would later become a fight promoter and chum around with luminaries of the boxing world, including Joe Frazier and Don King.

While still a teenager in 1934, Mr. Singer turned to business, and found a partner in Avrum Belzberg. They formed United Management, a real estate business that continued for four decades, and at one point, held 200 pieces of property.

Along the way, he found time for love.

In 1944, Mr. Singer married Shirley Cohen - a union that came after an unlikely beginning.

Back to top