My, my, what a busy year 2009 has been! I no sooner got my feet back under me than I was taking off in a couple of different directions. Let me ‘splain. No, there is no time. I sum up.
I started a project two years ago, a museum for Vernon-born trombonist Jack Teagarden, the undisputed King of the Blues Trombone and one of the best trombone players of all time, period. I was working with a man named Joe Showler, who has spent forty years amassing a collection of Jack Teagarden information that is singular and unique: 78 lps, press clippings, magazines, reel-to-reel tape, video interviews, discographies, you name it. Rare, scarce, private, and just plain jaw-dropping. Much of what Joe gathered went into a two-hour documentary he made. By diligently going through major newspapers and copying adverts, Joe figured out where Teagarden was for 80% of his professional career.
Yeah. It’s THAT kind of a collection.
( Sidebar #1 The Jack Teagarden Catch-up PrimerCollapse )
Well, Joe wanted to bring it to Vernon, settle down, and turn it into a museum. It was a good idea for us, because we could pay out on the collection over time, and have the benefit of Joe’s expertise as a curator of the museum. We needed a building and some start-up cash, but it wasn’t not-doable. Unfortunately, our talks broke down when we needed to focus on the theater to keep it running. That massaging effort lasted for most of last year, as well. It wasn’t until last Christmas that Cathy suggested I get back on the museum project.
I got back in touch with Joe. He was excited to hear from me. Yes, he was still interested, he said, but there was a hitch: he’d been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and was given six months to live. The news rocked me back on my heels, as you can well imagine. It also changed the shape of the deal significantly. Medical treatments for cancer being what they are, there was no way he could leave Canada and that free health care system. Also, with him unable to look past six months, economically, the deal to buy his collection would have to change. And change it did.
I scrambled to get a building earmarked for the theater, even as I started looking for a private institution that would donate two hundred thousand dollars. That’s what the project needs, give or take fifty thousand. On the one hand, for the kind of museum that I’m talking about, that would pull curious folks in from the highway, that’s a pittance. On the other hand, it’s a QUARTER OF A MILLION DOLLARS, JACK! There’s not a way to make that number sound small.
Well, I wasn’t going to let any of it phase me. In one months’ time, I secured a building; got the owner to agree to patch it up so that it would be habitable; and got a promise from the hotel/motel committee for $50 thousand bucks (provided, for example I can get another group to donate). So far, so good. However, Joe was nervous. He wanted us to go to Canada and examine the collection, first-hand. Also, we all knew that it would be better if we got a piece of paper, some kind of letter of intent, between us, to cement the deal.
My mother-in-law found some super-cheap tickets to Toronto, and so it became a family trip; me, Cathy, Pat and Diane, and youngest brother Mike. All of us with a stake in this enterprise, be it a seat on the board of directors of the museum, or putting up something of an in-kind donation, or both.
( Sidebar #2: Our Trip to Canada--a Family OdysseyCollapse )
We were all excited about seeing Joe Showler’s collection. We are all fans of Teagarden to various degrees. This was akin to being a Marvel Comics fan in the 1960s and getting to go over to Jack Kirby’s house. When we finally got there, we were greeted by Joe, out on the porch having a smoke. Now, I’ve only seen Joe on video tape before, so seeing him like this, thin and moving slow, was a shock. He was jaundiced and clearly not feeling well. But he lit up when he saw us, and we got to meet his friends, John (who operates the excellent JazzOracle website) and Bob (who helped with the making of the documentary and remembered Pat and Diane from their trips to Vernon). We all tucked in and made small talk, and when Joe felt up to it, we got to see the collection.
How can I describe it? Picture a bookcase, seven feet high, three feet wide, and then fill it with two inch black binders. In these black binders, place photographs of Jack Teagarden and the band until it’s full. Then put them in chronological order from 1905 to 1964, label each binder, and there’s five thousand photographs, right there. His book collection was an impressive thing, about 400 books, all out of print, all on Jazz and the early days of the movies. Films? Yeah, five hundred of them. Everything from a commercial print of “The Birth of the Blues” to private home movies of Jack and his family. Color slides. Lobby cards. Playbills. Scrapbooks. Ticket stubs. Ads. Trade notices. Magazines. If it was Teagarden or Teagarden-related, it was all here. Eventually, we went downstairs into the record room and they played some 78s for us. Warm, rich tones, great sound, and wow, some really rare cuts, too. As play dates go, it was one of the best. Joe was happy to talk Teagarden with us. He showed me a peek at his unpublished book, a 900+ page kitchen-sink of a thing that goes from birth to death in a straightforward style. Incredible.
We left, thinking that what we had seen was pretty much Joe’s life over four decades. How impressive a thing for someone to collect to the point that there’s hardly anything left? Considering how many collectors I know, I felt a real kinship and affection for Joe. I got what he was doing.
The next day, we came back and talked business. John was onhand, as was his sister, Barb, and we discussed the arrangement of transferring the collection, the payment terms, and so forth. It was a painless meeting, since we all wanted the same thing. Joe was really not feeling well, and aside from his enthusiasm, wasn’t able to contribute much. The doctor had been by and was going to send him in for another treatment the next day. Despite that, Teagarden talk kept us there past a reasonable time, and another friend was onhand, Steve, and we played more 78s and talked old movies for about an hour while Joe collected himself. My father-in-law, Pat, has known Showler for quite some time, and they spent some time together just talking about stuff. Everyone else was content to entertain us, or let us tell them about our plans for the museum. We left, all of us, on a high note. This would happen. It was a lot of money to raise in a short amount of time, but it had to be this way.
We flew out on Tuesday and dropped into Texas right in front of the tornado stormfront that pushed across that evening. Instead of driving back to Vernon, we spent the night in Richardson with in-laws. The next morning, we started back. The sun was shining, and we’d done what we needed to do in Canada. All was right with the world.
We were about two hours outside of Vernon when Steve Ray, our partner in the movie theater and also on the board of directors for the museum, called. He’d been the only one not able to make it, and I assumed he wanted an update. “Hey,” he said, “where are you?”
“Two hours out. Why?”
“I’ve got some bad news.”
“Oh,” I said. Steve’s father in law had been in and out of the hospital recently. I braced myself.
“I just heard from Kurt Nauck that Joe Showler passed away Tuesday night.”
It was a punch in the nose. The kind of hit where your eyes start to water. I didn’t have anything to say. Steve knew he’d punched me, and he apologized for it. There was nothing either of us could do. I hung up and told the car the bad news. We all drove quietly for a while. Honestly, as bad as he had looked, I really thought he’d be around for a few more months. Long enough to take a trip down and see what our progress on the building was. Hell, I don’t know what I thought, but I didn’t expect that.
John called me that night. After we commiserated for a minute, I apologized for not getting something going sooner. He told me he thought that Joe specifically hung on long enough for us to get our meeting done. Then, when he felt that he had his life’s work taken care of, he could let go.
Ironically, I had been talking to Weldon Adams about the project the night before. One of the great gifts that I got from my friendship with Weldon was a stronger moral center. Weldon is a very morally and ethically strong person, and I’ve tried to be more like him for that. When I first took on this project (yeah, like I know how to run a museum), I didn’t do it because I wanted to make money. I didn’t do it because I wanted to be a museum curator. I did it because it just seemed like the right thing to do. Joe wanted the collection to have a permanent home in Vernon. Frankly, that much Jack Teagarden stuff didn’t belong anywhere else.
Now I feel as though I’ve made a deathbed promise. Joe was willing to trust us with his life’s work. Now all I’ve got to do is get it here.
Those of you who are still interested in knowing some specifics, I need to raise $160,000—half of the collection’s worth, up front, in order to take possession of it, by June 30th. The balance is due over the next six years. Packing and shipping of the archive is estimated at $15,000. So, I’m looking for $175,000 from private foundations in the area who support the arts, museums, and education and preservation of Texas history. Is it daunting? Yep. But I have to try. We’ve applied for 501c3 status, and we’ll get it with no problems, but that won’t be conferred until probably 5-6 months from now. In the meantime, I’ll keep looking. If any of you out there have suggestions, I’d love to hear them. Thanks for reading. Sorry about the length, but this just can’t be summed up in the “what are you doing now” box on FaceBook.
Mark Finn is the creative director for the Violet Crown Radio Players and an award-winning Robert E. Howard scholar. His latest book, Blood & Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard, is available at bookstores everywhere. To get the latest info, rants, and missives from Finn, visit http://groups.yahoo.com/group/finnswake.
Finn’s Blog is here: http://www.livejournal.com/users/finnswake/
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( Sidebar #2 Our Trip to CanadaCollapse )