Degrassi: High & Low

By Roger Montgomery
I was on my way out the door with a rare pocket full of cash to purchase the airfare tickets to New Orleans for a much needed vacation when the phone call came. My agent did her best to contain her elation, but it was the mother lode. The role of math teacher Jorge Garcia was mine. The series was Degrassi Junior High.

To my amazement, the show was a non-union production, rare for an Emmy winning hit series exported world-wide to seventy countries. As a result, hours on the set were long, dressing facilities were cramped to non-existent, and wardrobe and makeup were not provided. It was bare-bones production.

One couldnt help but notice that all things Degrassi were tightly controlled. Contracts representing the actors were restrictive and ironclad. My contract stipulated that all residual rights are waived, that PWT(Playing With Time Productions ) had all world rights in perpetuity. This is the same type of contract signed by actors of popular TV shows in the sixties, who watched their own reruns in the seventies and eighties while dining on an open can of cat food from a one room apartment.

However, my contract was nowhere near as restrictive as the legalese binding the other cast members, where their “exclusivity” clause had them inexorably bound to the show with no opportunity to take part in the burgeoning film and television industry in Toronto at the time. Often during casual breaks on set the “kids” would pump me for information about furthering their careers within the business. I was surprised to learn that none of the most inquisitive had managers or agents. Upon hearing this I referred several of them to reputable agents in the industry and some were accepted. PWT had learned the cast were seeking agent representation and held an emergency meeting at which time two tactical moves would be decided. To stop the bleeding, PWT created their own agency to sign the actors. The other, to rid themselves of the source of the problem – Roger Montgomery. And so it was decided that Montgomery would not be invited back for the following season.

But there were more serious casualties as a result of that meeting. The actors were cut off from the outside world of entertainment as is evidenced by their floundering show business careers. Only teachers pet faves Pat Mastroianni and Stacie Mistysyn survived the isolation, and barely. The other s were victims of the system.

On the up side, there is no disputing the shows international appeal. The series had a broad spectrum of well-developed characters and covered poignant, socially relevant topics of the day, easily relatable to young people in what proved to be a universal language. In fact, so clear and concise were the shows that nothing was lost in the translation to other languages.

The Degrassi series were more popular in foreign countries than it was here at home. I have only been recognized as Mr. Garcia twice here in Canada, once on a streetcar in Toronto by a class on a field trip and the other, by a homeless man, sprawled and drunk, lying in the shade of a tree in a downtown Toronto park. In fact, three years ago when I encountered the shows executive producer Linda Schuyler at an industry social function, she introduced herself to me as if it was our first meeting.

Currently, life is good for Ms. Schuyler. She possesses the Order Of Canada, for distinguished service to mass media, having brought credibility and respect to Canadian programming with her multi-award winning television series Degrassi Junior High. Schuyler is President and Executive Producer of Epitome Pictures Inc. and Playing with Time Inc., a founding member of the Association of Media Literacy and is co-founder and active Board member of the Playing With Time Foundation. She is the past Chair of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Film and Television Production Association and is a member of the Centennial College Advisory Board for Radio and Television. As well, Schuyler has a seat on the National Board of Canadian Women in Communications and is a member of the Women’s Entrepreneur’s of Canada. Her companies have the rights to seventeen Degrassi web domains.

Enter Mark Polger.
A couple of years ago, a Degrassi “Superfan” named Mark Polger contacted me by email, inviting me to his fan based Degrassi convention in Toronto. Although cast turnout at the event was sparse, there were many loyal fans eager to hear stories from the glory days at the school. I queried the 24 year old University of Waterloo grad student about the conspicuous absence of PWT staff, crew and prominent star actors. Polger explained that invitations extended to the production company were rejected. Further, a warning was issued from Schuyler to cancel the event. He prevailed, and now two years later it appears that the proud extension of the PWT success story, Epitome Pictures, has decided to carry it one step further.

Seventeen Degrassi domains doesnt seem to be enough. Schuyler and her company are currently perched to take away Polgers three non-profit, fan based web domains by filing a statement of claim against him. This act of idiocy can only mean a total disruption of the generous fan base established by Polger. This is evidenced by the scathing comments pointed at Epitome at www.degrassi.ca. The Kitchener student is now scrambling to get legal help to save his established web domains, while Schuyler and her company plot their next move toward plucking them from his grasp. Rhetoric hardly befitting of a recipient of the Order of Canada, is it?

The Degrassi Junior High series gave me the unique experience of working with some of the finest, most natural young talent anywhere in this business. Who knows what kind of actors they may have become had they been allowed to blossom. In a business littered with Linda Schuylers, we will never know.

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