Back around 1994 I was an Operations/Merchandise Manager for Bombs & Chernobyl, as my present manager likes to call them, or Barnes & Noble as most of you know the Kudzu of book chains. We were all given the task of creating various “events,” “clubs,” “meetings,” etc. that would draw more customers into the store on a consistent basis. My idea, based upon my own past and my enduring interests, was to create a film discussion group. I remember that first meeting, the anxious sensation of butterflies in my stomach as the hour approached and I waited to see which fish would respond to the bait.
This was the moment I first met Dan Bates. I saw an older man headed in my direction, his Gabby Hayes beard and bare feet lending him an air of eccentricity. When he introduced himself I immediately recognized his voice. Dan was a deejay for our local city-owned classical music station WRR-FM. WRR is a legendary radio station, the first in Texas (established 1921) located on the grounds of the equally legendary State Fair of Texas, nestled in the shadow of the, okay, also legendary, Cotton Bowl. I had listened to WRR from the time I was a kid, my favorite feature being their “Library of Laughs,” a marvelous 15 minute block of comedy albums played during the last quarter of every hour. It was here that I first heard Bill Cosby, Jose Jiminez, Jonathan Winters, the Bickersons, Amos n’ Andy, Nichols and May, and you name it.
Dan had not worked at the station in those days, Big Band singer Kenny Baker being the deejay I remember most vividly. But Dan was part of that tradition. Impressive. As was Dan’s knowledge of films and film music. As I was to learn, the beard and bare feet (I NEVER saw Dan wear shoes) weren’t affectations. Dan was a true eccentric. And in everyday life he sounded almost exactly as he did on the radio. Also impressive. Dan had a deep, rich voice with which he would carefully enunciate every word emerging from his whiskery countenance.
At the time I met Dan he owned the overnight hours on WRR. With such a great love of film music it was only natural that he would sometimes slip in a soundtrack cue. This despite the warnings of his overlords that he should keep that sort of behavior to a minimum. But how could he help himself? After all, Dan had also been a journalist, visiting film sets and writing about film for publications like Cinefantastique. Dan liked to point to a review he’d written that had been included in a book titled “The Critics Were Wrong.” His review illustrated the title’s point. See, he had a sense of humor about himself.
Anyway, here we were at Barnes & Noble. I forget now whether we met every week or every month. It seemed like we met a lot. And we liked it. Sometimes Dan, myself, and others who became regulars — Tracy, Mike and Ian who were the stalwarts — would find a comfy spot in the store or settle in around a table inside the Starbuck’s tucked away in the corner. There we would discuss whatever film topic came to mind. Dan and I would regale the younger visitors with our nostalgic tales of early filmgoing experiences and historical cinema facts.
One of our more memorable meetings involved a night of film music. Each member was asked to bring some of their favorite soundtracks. One of our regulars for a time was David Fuller, a LP/CD producer (Huk!, Kronos, The Big Country, among several others), who, as you might expect, was a walking encyclopedia of knowledge regarding scores and composers, having met and corresponded with a number of them. David’s idol was Max Steiner while Dan’s was Dimitri Tiomkin. As I have learned over time, while I tend to enjoy and admire most of the so-called Golden Age and Silver Age film composers, this is not a trait shared with a large number of other film music collectors. And so it was with these two, David not caring a great deal for Tiomkin with Dan returning the favor for Steiner. And me in the middle refereeing. Feelings were bruised that evening.
Not long after this I departed the realm of the-book-as-mere-units-of-product, escaping to a more book literate/friendly used book store environment, and set up The Fort Worth Filmgroup on the campus of The College of St. Thomas More. This was a tiny liberal arts college that had sprung up after what the faculty fondly remembered as “the parking lot meeting” in which several professor/teacher/professionals decided to grow a college that taught the classic education of 100 years ago. Against all odds, what began as a handful of adults meeting at a table in an old house has blossomed some twenty or so years later into a modest school with a few apartments for students and an elementary curriculum in addition to the collegiate offerings.
The Fort Worth Filmgroup would serve as one of the college’s extracurricular activities for the students and help the institute in its efforts to achieve accreditation with the State of Texas. Oddly, though, over the seven years I was there, offering a selection of films that often weren’t officially available, few to none students ever attended. In fact, the college, while aware that I was screening films, actually forgot all about the program. With a key to the college’s library (an old house), we (me and the stalwarts mentioned above) would slip into the front room, the former living room of someone’s long ago abode, and set up a video projector of an evening to watch an eclectic array of movies on videotape and laser disc.
It took only a few meetings to gauge Dan’s lack of interest. He would attend the beginning of the film, then beg off with an “I’ve already seen this one,” or “I don’t get over this way much and I want to stop in at Border’s before they close.” Besides, if he wanted to watch movies, he could do it with his friends (one of whom sounded like a Dallas version of Korla Pandit) back at his home in Lancaster.
I could tell that with the talking preceding and following the movie, Dan’s central interest in the meetings — talking, specifically, him talking — had been obliterated. Our new format had made it difficult for him to relate his experiences on the set of Robocop or provide anecdotes about The Giant Claw’s Jeff Morrow. Rather quickly he ceased attending, a shame really as I instituted a second monthly meeting that concentrated solely on lectures and presentations regarding various aspects of film. I’m sure he’d have made a great guest speaker.
But I understood. Dan was already about 60+ years old and had made it clear that he really didn’t want to spend the rest of his life on anything that he didn’t love. He just didn’t have the time. He’d narrowed everything in life down to what meant the most to him. As a consequence he held strong opinions on various subjects and might have appeared cantankerous to some, if not a downright curmudgeon. Yet, he always allowed you your say and opinion.
I can’t say that Dan and I were close friends, but we were friends for a time. Probably the best time we had was when we created a program pilot for WRR. The one hour show would have featured Dan and I as a sort of Siskel and Ebert duo on film music. Recording that pilot was a great deal of fun (I still have it and will give it a listen in honor of Dan) but the powers-that-were turned us down. A show we’d have done for nothing — and provided our own music! (Sadly, as of this writing, there is no mention of Dan’s passing on the WRR website.)
I’ve missed Dan over the years and I miss him now. So long, Dan, as you explore your new ethereal landscape, I can hear Tiomkin’s music from Shangri-La drawing you near.