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Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté charting return

Updated May 14, 2020 - 6:41 am

Guy Laliberté is Cirque du Soleil’s founder. Now he’s pledging to be its savior.

The former street performer turned billionaire expressed as much in a letter published Wednesday morning in the Montreal Gazette. In a highly personal assessment of Cirque’s ongoing financial concerns, Laliberté outlined the company’s many options as if they were combatants in a wrestling ring.

He closed his manifesto with, “A few days before the registration deadline for the battle royal, I am deciding whether or not I’m going to jump into that wrestling ring …”

Laliberté says the “battle royal” involves several potential investors, led by Canadian telecommunications giant Québecor. He does not specify what is the “registration deadline,” but it seems to be fast approaching. Cirque is juggling its finances after ceasing all operations and laying off 4,700 cast and crew worldwide because of COVID-19.

A little more than 1,300 of those terminated populate Cirque’s six shows on the Strip.

Laliberté founded Cirque in 1984, leading the evolution of an entertainment empire that has flowered on the Strip since “Mystere” opened at Treasure Island in 1993. But the man who dreamed it all is no longer even a shareholder. Laliberté writes of those who currently want to buy controlling interest in the company, asking, “Will they be able to give priority to our Quebec flagship, as well as all the love and energy it will need to come back to life?”

It’s clear Laliberté, still energetic at 60, feels he has that love and energy: “Even though I’m no longer the company’s owner, I will always be its founder; I have devoted half of my life to Cirque, and its success will always be close to my heart.”

Laliberté had indeed served as Cirque’s heart and soul since its inception until 2015, when he sold his majority interest to an investment group led by San Francisco-based TPG Capital and China’s Fosun Capital Group. In February, Laliberté sold his remaining 10 percent interest to Canadian investment company Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ). Forbes has most recently listed his personal wealth at $1.2 billion.

Laliberté says those investors are “led by my friend (Cirque Chairman) Mitch Garber, for whom I have tremendous respect. My heart goes out to them.” He also refers to unspecified international investors in the entertainment industry.

“In Cirque, they see the possibility of expanding their content portfolio and/or securing priority access to Cirque performances once they can reopen their halls and theatres. But for the most part, they’re more or less in the same predicament as Cirque. Will they make our Quebec icon their priority and give all the love and energy needed to bring it back to life?”

He adds, “Standing right beside them are the sharks, who have no knowledge of the entertainment industry and dream of buying Cirque for a song.”

In an exclusive interview published Tuesday, Cirque CEO Daniel Lamarre said the company was reviewing offers from multiple entities, who (aside from Québecor) had signed confidentiality agreements. The company is considering bankruptcy protection as one of several options. Cirque has confirmed it is carrying a debt load of $900 million.

Cirque spokeswoman Ann Paladie issued a company statement in response to Laliberté’s comments:

“We will not comment publicly on Guy Laliberté’s comments or intentions. For the time being, our top priority remains the recapitalization of the company. The high interest in Cirque du Soleil is, however, a good indicator of the strength of our brand. We remain confident in the future of our business.”

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His PodKats! podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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