Barry Avrich reflects on TIFF, and his friendship with the man who first shone a spotlight on Toronto’s film scene.

The Toronto International Film Festival has become globally renowned for its stellar programming, but it’s the perennial characters that always fascinate me. In 1986, I met the self-proclaimed king of them all.

It was a surprisingly warm day for September when I wandered into the University Theatre (now a Pottery Barn, Lord have mercy) for the world premiere of Blake Edwards’ That’s Life, starring Julie Andrews and Jack Lemmon. The only seat left was in the front row next to a tall, deeply tanned man wearing a cowboy hat adorned with 42 pins. He smelled strongly of Cuban cigars. He welcomed me to sit down next to him and introduced himself as Dusty Cohl. Dusty? What kind of name is that? Is he in the film? Is he one of the producers? Perhaps there’s a rodeo in town. Who cares, I thought. Right then and there, I decided I liked him.

Sometime after the showing of that film I discovered who Dusty Cohl really was, a film producer and the co-founder of TIFF.

Three years later, while working at an advertising agency in Toronto, the cowboy named Dusty serendipitously walked into my office. He had a special assignment for me: to track down a rare print from the film The Leopard. But in reality, that ask was code for the beginning of a friendship that would last unconditionally for over 20 years.

During the film festival, Dusty relentlessly entertained an endless parade of friends and stars with a roving party that was always drenched in Crown Royal, a cloud of Cuban cigar smoke lingering above. Dusty’s parties could take place anywhere, from a park bench to It spot Bistro 990. Really, wherever he showed up, there was a good time to be had.

My absolute favourite moment with Dusty was on one particular opening night at the Festival. The plan was simple: sneak out of the opening film in stealth mode during the tail credits and meet Dusty at Club Lucky for a post-film feast of grilled Italian sausage and, of course, cigars. The table was surrounded by a group of devoted Dusty fans including everyone from Roger Ebert to Bill Ballard, Ivan Fecan to Lou Clancy, and some visiting directors and stars. For me, these epic parties of Dusty’s always marked the beginning of the festival. 

Dusty Cohl passed away in 2008, but I will forever remember his mantra, especially during the festival season: there are no great films without great friends.

This is the true spirit of TIFF. At least, it was for one cowboy-hat-wearing, cigar-smoking character, and it is for me.

Barry Avrich is a filmmaker, ad executive, and author of Moguls, Monsters and Madmen.