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The Acrobat
Matthew Miller , 03.15.04

Guy Laliberté got his start playing an accordion for tips on the streets of Montreal. Today his act is one of the most lucrative ventures in live entertainment.

No escaping him. People flock to his show at Disney World in Orlando. In Las Vegas, where he operates in three different casinos, his shows have become Sin City's biggest draw. His five touring productions travel the globe, performing in such locations as Spain and Japan. His outrageous acts and colorful characters are celebrated in newspapers and magazines, and have even appeared on a reality TV show. With luck there will soon be spas, restaurants and nightclubs--maybe even a casino--all leveraging his vaunted brand name.

The brand is Cirque du Soleil. Less familiar is the impresario behind this circus maximus: a flamboyant, fire-breathing billionaire named Guy Laliberté. In the last 20 years Laliberté has transformed Cirque du Soleil from a small troupe of stilt walkers into one of the world's most recognized entertainment operations. More than 7 million people paid $650 million to see Cirque's live performances last year, with all their stunning costumes, mind-defying acrobatics and funky music. Television licenses and corporate sponsorships bring in millions more. With little debt and a pretax margin probably near 25%, Cirque du Soleil, of which Laliberté owns 95%, is comfortably worth $1.2 billion.

Born 44 years ago into a large middle-income family in Quebec City, Quebec, Guy Laliberté took to the streets of Montreal as a busker in his early teens, earning tips by playing tunes on an accordion he'd found in his father's closet. After high school he hitchhiked across Europe, where he met jugglers and stilt walkers, and learned the art of fire-breathing.

He returned to Montreal and began organizing parties and street festivals out of a youth hostel. In 1984 he persuaded the Quebec government to give him $1 million to stage a street show for Canada's 450th anniversary celebration. It proved to be a tough row. "We had every problem a starting big top could have," Laliberté recollects. "The tent fell down the first day. We had problems getting people into the shows. It was only with the courage and arrogance of youth that we survived." Cirque became the star of the festival and even returned a modest $40,000 profit.

But money was tight. In 1987 Laliberté went for broke and got Cirque booked as the opening act for a Los Angeles arts festival. "I bet everything on that one night," he recalls, chain-smoking Gauloises Blondes. "If we failed, there was no cash for gas to come home."

Cirque was a hit and quickly became the talk of Hollywood. Laliberté says he struck a deal with Columbia Pictures to make a movie centered on Cirque du Soleil characters. Dawn Steel, Columbia's president at the time, threw a party to announce the deal, but Laliberté was nowhere to be seen. "They were seating all the stars, and I was basically put aside," he says. "They just wanted to lock up our story and our brand name and walk around like they owned Cirque du Soleil. I walked right out of the party, called my lawyer and told him to get me out of the deal."

Vowing to remain independent, Laliberté landed temporary engagements in Santa Monica and San Diego, and by the end of the year the company had a $4 million operating budget and netted $1.5 million in profit. Then he received a call from casino icon Steve Wynn, who offered Laliberté a theater at his new hotel, Treasure Island, and full creative control over the show. The new show, Mystère, turned out to be dark and moody, unlike anything playing in Vegas. Not convinced the show was ready for the public, Wynn threatened to delay the opening: "I told them, ‘if you open, the cab drivers in Las Vegas will crucify you.' "

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