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Prolific Jewish Impresario Sheldon Kagan Pens his Biography

March 4, 2019


MONTREAL – I do not read a lot of books, but when one of Canada’s most prolific Jewish impresarios offered to send me a copy of his recently published biography, how could I say no? Not In A Shy Way: The Sheldon Kagan Story is such an excellent piece of work I devoured every page in one sitting.

There’s also an added bonus for any Montrealer who grew up hearing him spin tunes at a bar mitzvah, sweet sixteen or high-end concert: there’s a great deal of nostalgia.

Kagan’s name is synonymous with ‘party.’ For 50 years he was one of Montreal’s leading event producers and impresarios. He was known as a popular dance party DJ and the creator and driving force behind the annual Salon de la Mariée, one of the most well-known bridal shows in the province of Quebec.

Kagan dropped out of school at the age of 15 to launch his career. His first gig was at a high school dance and was paid $25 for his services. By the age of 21, he was bringing famed jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie to town, becoming the youngest person to produce a show at the Place des Arts. In his memoir he writes about the entertainers he has met and reminisces about the distinctive role he created for himself, recollecting with affection and gratitude about the family and friends who have supported him along the way.

Spanning five decades, Kagan’s story reflects on Montreal’s coming of age, from Expo 67 to Quebec referendums, as he looks back at growing up in the city’s iconic Jewish district and takes us strolling down Crescent Street. 

As an impresario, Kagan produced close to 100 shows at the Place des Arts and brought in such artists as Kenny Loggins, Ravi Shankar, Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Bill Withers, and Billy Preston. He also ran numerous shows a year without charge for charitable organizations. Now in retirement, Kagan volunteers for the Cummings Jewish Centre for Seniors. He has donated his huge record collection to Vanier College.

In his book we learn that his parents wanted him to be dentist, but Kagan had other ideas. He met his wife Linda while deejaying a Royal Bank holiday party. “She requested Sinatra’s ‘My Way,’” recounts Kagan. “I pretended I didn’t have it and told her I’d find it and play it for her another time. That way, she would have to give me her telephone number.”

Kagan boasted a personal collection of 20,000 albums and 45 rpms that he donated to Vanier. In addition, he had a library of 22,000 songs on CDs feeding himself, three mobile deejays, as well as his seven Top 40 bands and strolling, classical and jazz musicians. To adequately supply his team with the proper tools, he has in excess of $300,000 worth of sound and lighting equipment.

Sheldon Kagan International organized in excess of 1,100 parties a year. About 55 per cent were corporate functions. The rest consisted of weddings, private functions, and bar/bat mitzvahs. Upon request, he would often be found at the deejay table himself. “That’s my first love,” he says. “Sometimes I just want to go back to my roots.”

Kagan recalls one tense wedding where the groom was Jewish and the bride Arab. Neither side’s parents were pleased. One frowned upon the idea of an inter-religious service and the other threatened not to attend altogether. Kagan defused the situation by creating a medley of Jewish and Arab music on the spot.

Not In A Shy Way is available on Amazon and Kindle. It is also on sale at Cleo Library in the Pointe Claire Shopping Centre.  Kagan hopes to speak at some venues in the Jewish community soon.

“All is going very well with me,” Kagan told me.  “Linda and I are travelling a lot and I am currently working on five events for nonprofit organizations that I have chosen to support. Life is good!”

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Mike Cohen is B’nai Brith Canada’s Quebec news bureau chief, a veteran writer and municipal politician. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecohencsl.